Parris’ “Conservative Futurism” developed a little….

Matthew Parris is spot-on in his “Futurist Conservatism” piece (“Dig deep, sow seeds and watch Britain grow: The UK needs HS3 as well as HS2. We need two new cities and more technical colleges. We need long-term vision.”, The Times, 9 November 2013) Libertarians will roll their eyes, as will Luddite Conservatives: the idea of optimistic, forward-planning conservativism is an oxymoron. So be it. Conservatives like planting trees in their broad acres, why not new towns in yours or mine too?

There are two parts two Parris’s vision, and both seem valid. One is that the country needs big-scale infrastructure projects. Surely this is right? Drains, roads, coastal defences (and their removal), railways and airports, optical fibre networks, power supply and the rest all need bold vision, bossy planners and heavy bankrolling. None of these is readily delivered by the free market. But Parris also seems content that we need the social engineering bit of visionary thinking, too, and is right. That is, to take one example: today’s educationalists have to decide what sort of minds they want to see in the adults of the future. That means messing with the heads of other people’s children. (With luck, there’ll be a popular movement for old-fashioned ideals of quality combined with a properly modern understanding about technical, professional and creative abilities.)

Parris doesn’t at all shrink from the policy “space” where physical and social planning meet: he proposes a couple of large new cities (let Cambridge become one; let Derby/Nottingham become another. (I am not all that familiar with the history of the New Town movement in the UK, but I think it has mostly been socialist, and that’s a pity.)

The value of big new, well-connected urban spaces seems obvious. If the UK is to remain a world class country, it will continue to have a world-class capital and London will continue to attract the global elite. In the face of those pressures, many places in Britain will need to become boutique centres of excellence, whilst at the same time accommodating the middle-income people priced-out of London (or tempted to trade sidewise to the provinces). Piecemeal development is fine so far as it goes, which isn’t far enough. Besides, producing masses of new suburbs may well risk more ugly inconvenience than bigger urban developments.

There are lots of lovely challenges in the Parris Conservative Futurism.

Intellectual. Much of the right will hate it, as statist. Well, yes, that’s a real difficulty. The only way of keeping both the futurism and the conservatism is to be clear that conservatives, in developing their vision, will also delight in finding the optimum relationship between government and market, and they will always believe that the state should do the least it can, consistent with getting the job done.

Political. At every level, from the local to the national, juggling the fallout of NIMBYism (and of rent-seeking of every kind) of the democratic process will be a gorgeous nightmare.

Creative. We have a wonderful opportunity to engage every generation in creating the vision which will lie behind the physical infrastructure: from Andrew Marr and Jon Snow with their sketch pads through to techie kids with 3D printing, the look of town and country can now be imagined and re-imagined to let less creative types get a feel for the possibilities.

Conservationist. We have wonderful opportunities now to create infrastructure which not only works well and looks great but works well for wildlife. Indeed, as I remarked in this context several years ago (it is one of my best jokes): there is hardly anything wrong with the countryside that can’t be put right with the judicious use of a JCB. (See next point.)

Construction. We now have the technologies to make beautiful, new structures in town and country. Roads needn’t tyrannise local streets; wildlife and urban areas need not be separate. Perhaps more interestingy, we don’t have to live with the landscape we inherited.  This is especially relevant when one is concerned to jive town and country in new proximities.

Technical. If Britain doesn’t produce nuclear engineers, construction workers, drainage specialists, and all the rest, the New Britain will be built by immigrants. One way or another, if want to build it, the talent will arrive, and we’d be spectacularly dim not to equip our young to meet the challenge.

Architectural. There has always been a delicious problem about affordable housing and workplaces. As we create large-scale, wildlife-friendly, good-looking, livable urban spaces, we will need a revival of the spirit of the 1960s (it was never quite extinguished) in which people like Colin St John Wilson and the Smithsons (and even the fictional Mr Swann of the V & A’s “Tomorrow” show) dreamed about how the working person might have a decent physical habitat. All that ought to be much easier than it was, now we are much richer.

I hope to return to these themes.


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Publication date

10 November 2013