Suburban utilitarianism

Britain's legacy

Keep Britain TidyKeep Britain Tidy

There are two words that are rarely heard in government circles These are: happiness and beauty. The two go together. If one lives in beautiful surroundings one tends to have a greater chance of happiness. Why is it that in one of the richest countries in the world many of us live in run down, litter-strewn environments where ugly concrete buildings prevail? The argument is that there is not the money, that employee costs are too great, so that skilled workers cost too much, that money must be spent on schoolsandhospitals and that there is no money left for fripperies such as aesthetics. The Victorians built for glory and many of our towns would look even worse if they hadn't built fine municipal buildings. We still retain Areas Of Natural Beauty, mostly in country areas. Here we see sensitive building, clean streets even lovely red telephone boxes. Some city centres have been renovated and attractive buildings retained, with areas to sit and enjoy the sights. However, most of us live outside the city centres in the suburbs and these are becoming grim, grubby and grey, attractive housing is being 'modernised' and charming features such as our red telephone boxes being retained only in tourist areas.

Tolworth Tower, SurreyTolworth Tower, Surrey

Our gardens have been designated 'brownfield sites' by John Prescott and we are slowly seeing gardens disappear. Front gardens go for parking as multi-occupancy and car ownership increases, back gardens for yet more houses. Birds, mammals and insects are displaced and CO2 sent up from the displaced soil. This is ,no doubt, not counted as part of our emissions total. Roundabouts can be things of beauty. Touring in France every roundabout appears to be a work of horticultural art, there are competitions for these. Where I live the roundabout is planted with seasonal flowers. They may be in full flower, but, come the date to change them they are rooted up, discarded and a new lot planted. And that's a good one! Around the roundabout are recycling bins because we must save the environment. They are dirty, often overflowing and covered in fly posters. The nearby benches are broken and rotting, perhaps to deter the elderly men who used to happily sit there with a can or three. The street furniture is rusting and unpainted, saplings and weeds grow through central reservations and litter is, infrequently, mowed up on the remaining grass verges that haven't been ruined by car parking . It isn't that the area hasn't got a lot going for it, nor lots of houseproud homeowners. The problem is that the local council doesn't even seem to consider aesthetics.

Edward Hopper, GasEdward Hopper, Gas

There is no shortage of unemployed youth to tackle these problems. They are legion despite millions of labyrinthine-sourced grants to agencies to train them to pursue worthwhile careers. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been poured into the area but it is hard to see the benefit, apart from lots of CCTV cameras. There is a beautiful painting by Edward Hopper called 'Gas'. This is an old-fashioned petrol station. Such utilitarian buildings could be made beautiful but no-one seems to care. Shops are cloned in all our high streets. Lovely buildings ruined by the same plastic facades. Couldn't it be possible to reduce taxes for small businesses? Would it be so difficult? Large trees are being replaced by ornamental trees that are easier to deal with, to the detriment of native birds.

Richard Rogers writes that we are ruining our built environment through short term public economies and private gain. This is our heritage. The government goes on about saving the planet for our children yet cannot think about leaving them a beautiful environment in which to live. When people live somewhere nice and it is maintained they tend to 'do their bit', and have the incentive to keep it pleasant. Where there is litter and graffiti people may feel that it doesn't really matter if a little more is added. People who maintain their houses are to be charged extra under the new council tax ratings. Where is the incentive to improve one's house? The sad thing is that it Better?Better?should be so easy; some paint, a bit of thought, some greenery and flowers. It's not rocket science. But our governments all seem to be utilitarian, more money should go to healthandeducation; they forget that a beautiful and clean environment does add to the general happiness. That happy people are healthier people and, if the walk to the shops or the pub were a pleasant experience, if the buses were clean and quiet, if parks were places that were safe and not drug exchanges, if some 'infills' were designated for benches and swings we might be a happier, healthier and more civilised nation. We could also train people to design the roundabouts and play areas and pay good wages to sweep the streets and paint street furniture. Why not? I'd vote for a government that did this.