Can Britain Boom and Bloom at Once?

“I feel somehow / That it isn’t going to last,” Philip Larkin wrote in “Going, Going,” his lament for the English countryside — that development would soon cover everything green and pleasant on his isle:

Larkin wrote these words in 1972. On the basis of a trip through England and Scotland in summer 2023 I can report that his fears were premature. British conservatism, of which Larkin was an eccentric representative, has always had a stronger conservationist streak than its American cousin. And the greener sort of Toryism can take pride in the landscape of its island home: the greenbelts encircling the major cities, the compact and ancient-looking towns, the country lanes still made for carriages, even if you’re allowed to squeeze a minivan through.

Unfortunately this preservation has a stink of embalmment about it. At a time when Europe as a whole looks stagnant relative to the United States, Britain has joined Italy as the continent’s sickest patient: its living standards falling well behind its neighbors, its economy stuck in a 15-year torpor, and its public services, including the vaunted National Health Service, in a condition of generally acknowledged decay.

The Conservative Party, in power for most of this period, is often blamed for backing post-financial crisis austerity and lurching into Brexit. But the deeper problem is the Tories’ imprisonment by a dispositional rather than ideological conservatism — the fact that their base is older, propertied and seemingly content to preserve Larkin’s beloved landscape by making it impossible to build or develop anywhere.

Again, this is a general problem for rich and aging countries, but Britain has taken it to an extreme; not since the 1870s, according to one estimate, have home prices been so extraordinarily high compared to wages. This punishes the younger generation in the short term and deepens longer-term stagnation delaying marriages and kids. It also interacts in toxic ways with cultural debates, because governments seeking growth have chosen to increase immigration even as their development plans falter — which does increase gross domestic product somewhat, but also makes the immigrants themselves look like agents of rising house prices, adding to the miasma of mistrust.

For a long view of the British housing deficit, I recommend “Why Britain Doesn’t Build,” an essay by Samuel Watling in the online journal Works in Progress, which describes the urbanist vision of post-World War II Britain’s central planning commission: a system of densely-populated “New Towns,” connected by rail to the London hub, with plenty of protected countryside in between.

But the planners underestimated opposition to dense building even in the “New Town” areas, while areas deemed “green belt” became impossible to reclassify, so there was always less density and more protected land that the initial vision assumed. Then as Britain grew wealthier and more people became homeowners, the opposition to new building deepened, and the central authority was left with notional power but no mandate — unable to either decentralize and deregulate or to simply force new building through.

During our summer trip the Tories were once more banging their heads against this wall, with the cabinet secretary Michael Gove proposing a new urban development, with up to 250,000 homes, around the university town of Cambridge — and earning a swift rebuke from a local Tory M.P., who called Gove’s vision “nonsense plans.”

In a way it feels uncharitable for an American to critique this attitude, given how much my family enjoyed our rural peregrinations. But that, too, is part of the problem: There is money in selling the museum experience to the American cousins, but it leaves Britain bifurcated into a financial economy and a tourist economy, with general prosperity out of reach.

Let me end on a more optimistic note, however. Maybe this just reflects the route we took, but where we did see new developments in the United Kingdom, they were often significantly lovelier than the American equivalent. In Gove, a partisan of “beautiful and popular” development, and in King Charles III, a builder of experimental townships with traditional forms, the U.K. has some leaders who appreciate a legitimate reason that people fear new building — the dreariness that characterizes so much contemporary architecture, whether cheap suburban sprawl or “starchitect”-designed monstrosities.

Britain has been spared some of this ugliness by its zeal for preservation. Ideally, then, the kingdom would be converted back to growth and youthful hope while remaining a custodian of beauty — so that dynamism need not mean the end of the guildhalls and carved choirs, but many more buildings worthy of such poetry.

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