The Case for Conservative Urbanism

After four and a half years writing for Coffee House I am off. Thanks to all those who have read and commented, both positively and critically (I do take some of it in). The old blogposts can all be found here and my last piece is here. It’s about traffic flow in suburban London so will no doubt go viral.


Our road was closed last July so that pipes could be installed underground, a mundane bureaucratic procedure that for my children led to the most memorable summer of their lives. For weeks they played in the street with friends while our front door was left open, strangers instinctively smiling at kids being able to run around with the freedom of the city. It felt so much like the 1950s that I thought about sending my 8-year-old down to the shops to buy me some Woodbines. We even organised a street party but – predictably – the great British rain god rose up in anger and stopped it.

Just five minutes away our high street more resembles 1980s New York. The local area Facebook group some time ago became a daily litany of woe chronicling the muggings and bag-snatchings committed by north London’s tireless moped gangs. Customers in coffee shops threatened with knives or hammers for their laptops; mothers mugged in suburban streets after dropping off children at school; a man stabbed in the chest by a gang of teenagers in broad daylight for no reason. I’ve seen a fellow parent jump at the sound of a moped engine, the soundtrack to the 2010s crime wave.

This is the problem as experienced by the middle-aged and middle-class, but for the young it’s far deadlier. A fortnight ago the capital saw its sixteenth and seventeenth fatal stabbings of 2018 after two young men were murdered in just one evening in Camden.

Knife attacks are up in London by 38 per cent in just 12 months, but whoever is to blame – and Theresa May easily carries as much responsibility as Sadiq Khan – Labour will wipe the floor with the Conservatives at the council elections this year and Khan will almost certainly be re-elected in two years. Tory prospects in London are grim after Brexit, but periods of exile are normally times of philosophical reflection, and so it’s a good moment to ponder what Conservativism in cities means.

To me as a Tory Urbanophile it comes down to a few key ideas – that cities need to be civilized, affordable, beautiful and walkable. The great hero of conservative urbanism is Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor of New York showed that cutting down on even minor incivility allowed urban spaces to flourish, former no-go zones turned into family parks. Violent crime plummeted, the middle class returned from exile, and the Republicans held on to a very Democrat city for 13 years.

Crime also deters walkability, but vehicles are an even bigger menace, and the main impediment to child freedom. Walkable, non-car centred cities are happier, healthier and more civilised, the secret to Copenhagen’s success, for instance.

And yet in the 20th century conservatives both in the UK and especially in the States became enthralled to the car, playing up to a stereotype of the Right as being about selfish individualism. This doesn’t even make sense, philosophically.

Congested urban roads are a scarce resource and yet car drivers in clogged up cities have their use subsidised by the rest of us, so that all the negative externalities – traffic, pollution – are pushed onto society in general. Road pricing across London would ensure that only people who most want and need to use cars do so, and also allow us to see which roads could be turned over to pedestrians or cyclists.

People are also more likely to walk when their surroundings are beautiful, which brings me to the last two points – beauty and affordability. We have a conundrum right now that Conservative homeowners depend on house price inflation to pay for future care but expensive housing pushes people to the Left, partly because it prevents them from making conservative life choices like marriage and children. Corbynmania is the product of Generation Rent.

We desperately need to build, yet much nimbyism is simply a healthy distaste for what gets approved. The non-partisan group Create Streets have done extensive research showing that local opposition to housing sharply declines when people are presented with traditional architecture; most residents who object to something that looks like an NKVD interrogation centre being built next door really don’t mind Victorian or neo-Georgian terraced housing.

Yet the planning system – much of it dating to Clement Attlee’s government – makes it hard to build the housing people like, so further making London uglier, less affordable and more Left-wing. (We could also sacrifice London’s Green Belt in return for safeguarding it outside of the 32 boroughs – where Conservative MPs depend on votes.)Our capital is going to struggle to compete with other world cities after Brexit and much of global success will come down to attracting a small number of highly talented, skilled and mobile professionals, many of whom have families. Low taxes are not enough – they want somewhere their children can run around safely, in a city that’s affordable, walkable, beautiful, breathable and, most of all, civilized, not somewhere that resembles The Warriors. Only conservative urbanism can do that – so where’s the British Giuliani?

Comments so far

  1. Brian RL Catt CEng, CPHys says

    We need some more new cities with 21st Century Infrastructure. Stop overloading the Victorian investment for a fast buck. It is already showing the evidence of decay with age. Let progress happen away from the crooks and liars and their so called public servants in Central London, the dead hand of a privileged elite on our economy as they maximise their control of and take from everything that happens. I would prefer the proven thieves and violent criminals never re enter urban society, or be seen again come to that, and ways are found to ensure that happens. What did Giuliani do about these sociopathic scum?

    2. To make any real progress we have to end our pseudo democracy by an elected veneer of largely unknowing party whipped hacks of dubious intellectual and specialist ability to fulfill their portfolios, “advised” by the real government. This system of rule is by interchangeable party hacks in a two party FPTP system, whose candidates openly put their party ideology and their own interests and beliefs before the people who elected them when voting.

    As clearly described by the House information line, BTW. They don’t work for their electors, and need take no notice of them or see them. They certainly don’t do anything to change the planning nonsense their officials have decided and trot out as policy with some wholly implausible and fact denying cover stories as advice. The whole thing is mismanaged by dubious or barely competent rule reciting backside covering officials while elected representatives are neither of the calibre to challenge it or change it, nor empowered to by law, which would never do. Politicians asking dangerous questions and making decisions?

    The Tory version of these parties of selfish liars for their party, on the make working with their old school chums at Eaton and our great Universities, both of them, are worse than the others, IMO. Those upwardly mobile are well rewarded by the honours arranged for them by their civil servants after office, and the sinecures with the grateful lobbyists who they enriched with the laws they promoted. This is just so well known and nameable as to be embarrassing in a supposedly honest democracy.. Why they don’t want to change it?

    How do we get honest elected representation who are clever enough, and willing to, end the corrupt power of the government elite in Whitehall, who most ministers are intellectual puppets of, whether they think they are or not. CLUE: One lot are still there, unaccountably delivering and “managing” the laws they wrote through secondary legislation to continue to maximise the profit of the interest groups from the laws after the liars are gone.

    I don’t think making this more decent, honest or truthful is something Tories would wish to do, as it is against their personal interests, and those of the rich their policies benefit, and who also fund them. The exploitation of the mass of PAYE working people for the gain of the self employed elites by partial law is at the heart of everything Tories do.

    Defending the indefensible outside the GLC where their supporters and benefactors, and the civil servants who draft the laws, tend to live, is more sensible. But if you value honesty, decency and a fair chance for the average PAYE salary man and true social mobility , then that simply sentences the ordinary people to a longer sentence of Tory misery. The evil and deceit of the “worthy” county councillors reciting the rhetoric few of them even understand to justify their token vote in the pseudo democratic pantomime of local democracy, an easy oxymoron, for whatever half baked exoenditure officers “recommend”, pervades our county councils and town halls across Surrey. They don’t work for us. We need another answer that is decent, honest, truthful AND representative of the mass of people, whoever voted for them. I could never vote Labour either as it is currently construed innits mad idologies, that have little to do with what working peope want, much more to do with what Labour Party wants.. Either way our system remains rule by privileged backoffice insiders that makes no convincing pretence of being in the best interests of the mass of the population.

    We need politicians who work for the mass of people rather than themselves, and have NO ideology, simply the ability to acquire deep expertise regarding their portfolios fast, and the power to hire and fire incompetent or unwilling civil servants in the same way the private sector would. e,g, The Home Office efforts at managing our safety and the rights of Britsih people is appalling, as if we had cotinued bailing out British Leyland for ever. An arrogant incompetence of civil servants. How many Permanent Secretaries and senior incompetents have been fired from the Civil Service as a result of their utter and very obvious and deliberate criminal incompetence, or that of those they chose to hire and instruct? How many promoted into another department as a result? Something rotten underpins the Westminster system, and its our civil service.

    While I am restructuring for the people, not the elites, perhaps making all fee paying schools and religious schools illegal at once, and enforce state school education for all would help social justice and mobilty? Especially if OFSTED was put on the dole queue as a job lot and an organisation that helped struggling schools instead of criticising them replaced its largely pointless and mindless box ticking opinionated bureaucrats, failed teachers, etc., , who add no value to improvement while increasing costs and lowering real teachers morale and teaching time, IME.

    So the reality is there are no political parties who represent or are even interested in working for the mass of people. As for the wannabe politicians, Billy Connolly correctly summarised it “The sort of people who want to be elected, are the sort of people you shouldn’t vote for”. As the French philosopher suggested (forgot the name), we should hang one every now and again to keep the others more honest. They’d none of them be missed. It is very difficult to vote with your principles when you have none, truth is relative and even facts are “changed” to suit a cause, not used in truth.

    But that’s just what I think. We have a totally corrupt ruling class system, which screws the majority of people over with impunity by its own laws, and arranges its economy (prices and taxes) to extort every last £ of income from most working people in taxes and the cost of living, so they always live from hand to mouth as wage slaves controlled by the capitalist rulers and employers, who can easily push them into ruin, and minimises any chance of creating their own surplus wealth as required to better compete with and hold the rulers to account, or support their children in this. Broken Britain. No hope for the young. . Wrecked by its selfish elites, no hope of change. Little hope of real social progress under such a selfish and regressive regime under this system.

What do you think?