The end of town planning as we know it

Duncan Bowie sees the latest Tory proposals for planning and housing development as a huge backwards step

The stated objective of the white paper, Planning for the Future, published by Robert Jenrick (of Westferry development fame), is to introduce the most fundamental reform of the planning system since the Second World War – in effect to replace the 1947 Act-based regime, which is not just considered by the current government to be unfit for the 21st century, but to be responsible for the under-supply of housing and for constraining economic and business growth. No evidence is provided for these assertions. The timescale for determining Local Plans by local councils (of all political persuasions) is given as demonstrating the case for “system failure”, with no recognition of economic and governance factors, such as lack of planning staff, continually changing government guidance, inaccurate government household and population projections, and economic volatility – such as the 2008 Global Financial crisis, Brexit, and now Covid-19.

So far as the Government has a clear idea of what it wants out of planning, the white paper seeks to deliver two distinct objectives: to increase housing output and economic growth through deregulatory measures, and to achieve more “beautiful” developments. Leaving aside the issue of whether measurable design quality is equivalent to “beauty”, there is no recognition that there may be some incompatibility between the two objectives. It is significant that the proposals have emerged from a series of think tank reports – notably the work of Jack Airey at Policy Exchange, who is now the PM’s specialist adviser on planning. The government has been assisted by an advisory group, none of whom is either a qualified planner or represents a planning authority. The group comprises two developers (one of whom, Miles Gibson, was previously a civil servant working on planning policy); a planning lawyer who mainly represents large developers; an economist; an economic historian who has supported the Liberal Democrats; and the Director of Create Streets, Nicholas Boys Smith, who was co-chair of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and has links to the Conservative Party. It is understood that Dominic Cummings had some role in working up the policy proposals, and no doubt in drafting the appalling rhetoric in the Prime Minister’s preface to the document.

The proposals in the paper have not emerged from discussion with planners, planning authorities or professional bodies representative of planners, such as the RTPI and the TCPA. Key planning professionals I have contacted were not approached. While some academic reports are referred to in the document, some of the conclusions apparently drawn from these reports are questionable, and it is clear from some of the content of the document that the authors have given little thought to potential implications of the proposals or to transitional arrangements – there is a general tendency to focus on deconstructing the existing regime rather than the details of the proposed replacement and how it would be introduced through statutory legislation and guidance.

The white paper proposes to repeal existing planning legislation and to replace the current planning framework with a simplified local plan system and a severe curtailment of the process for determining applications for individual developments by a planning authority. There are no proposals for strategic planning at an inter-authority level, and the current requirements in relation to the duty to cooperate with neighbouring authorities will be abolished. The fundamental basis of the post-1947 system – that local authorities should control land use – appears to be abandoned and replaced with a simplified zoning approach. The Local Plan should comprise three zones: a growth zone, a renewal zone and a protected zone. The white paper suggests that the first two categories could be merged. Development proposals within growth and renewal zones would normally receive automatic ‘in principle’ development consent without any assessment by local authority members or planning officers and without public consultation. National government policy, together with a national design code, would be the main basis for determining which developments could proceed. There would be no ability for a local authority to negotiate with a developer to improve a proposed scheme.

The urban design-based approach set out in the second section of the white paper is a parallel approach to the statutory planning approach set out in the first section. This design approach derives from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission co-chaired by the late philosopher, Roger Scruton (who was sacked by Teresa May before being reinstated by Boris Johnson), and it is unclear how the approach can be incorporated within a statutory planning framework. It is important that quality and sustainability are incorporated in a planning system, but these factors must be based on objective criteria not subjective factors. Moreover, neither ‘quality’ nor ’sustainability’ are equivalent to ‘beauty’, for which there is no objective and measurable criteria. The concept of ‘sustainability’ used in this section relates to environmental sustainability, with little or no regard to social or economic sustainability.

Given the vacuity of the concepts used, it is difficult to draft a coherent response to many of the proposals in this section of the white paper. Some commentators have already swallowed the persuasive rhetoric – who after all defends ugliness? There is no recognition that some of the design requirements set, so far as they are specific, may have an impact on access to development in terms of affordability. Georgian mansions in Belgravia may be an ideal design, but few can afford to live in them. Aesthetics is replacing the historic notion of planning as a mechanism for achieving social, economic and environmental sustainability and for reducing social and spatial segregation and inequality.

Over the last decade or so, the Labour Party has failed to grapple with the planning system and recognise both the positive and negative consequences of planning. There has not been a socialist planning society for some decades and the Labour Housing Group has been slow to understand the relationship between planning and housing. The last shadow planning minister, Roberta Blackman Woods, convened a Labour Planning Commission, to which I contributed; but the commission’s recommendations, which were hardly radical, were never adopted by the Labour Party and Roberta had to publish the commission report privately after she had stood down as MP for Durham. As far as I am aware, there have been no further discussions on planning within the party, although the new Shadow Minister, Thangam Debbonaire, has made statements opposing recent government deregulatory measures. A more substantive critique of government policy by some of my academic colleagues has just been published by the TCPA.

Planning is an important tool for achieving a socialist society. We should give it much more attention.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.