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 eight-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 civilised, 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 but 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, civilised, not somewhere that resembles The Warriors. Only conservative urbanism can do that – so where’s the British Giuliani?