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Why it costs us to leave development to chance

24 November 2015 Author: David Pendlebury

This week's Comprehensive Spending Review is likely to be tough for local government. The Department for Communities and Local Government is said to have agreed to cuts of about 30% over the next four years (though this is separate to funding for local government, the details for which will follow).

The RTPI's view, which we've argued repeatedly, is that there is a significant danger that further cuts to local authority planning departments risk the ability of the UK to develop enough good quality places to solve major challenges like the housing crisis. Cuts to planning are then a false economy, since investing in planning is critical to delivering the better quality built environments we need.

The case for proactive planning

It's not just about the money though, but also the approach to planning that we take. For the best results, we need to embrace proactive and positive forms of planning.

When planning professionals and institutions are empowered not only with the resources but also the cultural and political support they need to undertake proactive planning, there is scope for vast improvements in terms of boosting the quantity and quality of development, which can have important consequences for subsequent economic outcomes.

This is supported by a new report published this week from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Geography and Planning, commissioned by the RTPI, which analyses why our Western European neighbours seem to be much more successful at delivering more from development at higher levels of place quality. (The research was funded through the Institute's SPIRe scheme for RTPI accredited planning schools).

As the research suggests, adopting planning practices as seen on the continent would open up possible solutions to the UK’s major built environment challenges, including the housing crisis, as well as delivering the kind of places that can provide the economic foundations to achieve key Government priorities like boosting productivity and ensuring that economic growth is sustainable.

The Liverpool report looks at three main case studies in Lille, Hamburg and Nijmegen, where proactive and positive planning is at the forefront of development. Tools such as masterplanning, upfront investment in sustainable transport infrastructure, design standards, and land assembly models, are all employed to lead development outcomes to the achievement of specific goals.

In these cases, planning is used to guide and shape development. Crucially, this isn’t an interference with market forces to the detriment of the private sector, it is in fact an active policy to encourage better market outcomes. For example, land assembly and infrastructure investment boost demand and hence viability whilst enabling development at higher densities. Where planning institutions boost certainty and profitability for the development sector in this way, further positive trade-offs in the form of higher design quality and competitive tendering of sites are justifiable additional positive outcomes.

Progressing the planning debate

Unfortunately, in the UK today we rarely see planning undertaken in this kind of proactive way. Indeed, if we take the housing crisis as an example, the lack of this kind of positive planning may go someway to explaining the root causes of the problem and our inability to find a solution.

According to recent research, between 2010 and 2014 France, Germany and the Netherlands all managed to build more homes per head of population than the UK. Over twice as many homes were built in France and almost 50% more homes were built in the Netherlands. Moreover, analyses on the type of developments that have emerged in these countries, such as those outlined in ‘Better cities Better lives’ by Sir Peter Hall and Nicholas Falk, go to great lengths to demonstrate the superior quality of typical developments in these countries compared to those in the UK.

We need to stop leaving the development of the built environment to chance and start planning places that will improve economic and social outcomes for individuals.

We need to move the debate in the UK on how to increase quantity and quality of development, and away from a debate about how next to further liberalise the planning system. Discussions on the housing crisis about whether or not to allow building on the green belt exemplify the paucity of much current debate.

There is too little discussion about what kind of developments we actually want to build, and why, in terms of the benefits they can deliver. It is therefore paramount that we stop leaving the development of the built environment to chance and start planning places that will improve economic and social outcomes for individuals.

In reality, it is only more planning, not less that can achieve these goals as a consequence of planning’s ability to coordinate development and account for the provision of a wide range of social and economic necessities. But it has to be the right kind of planning - more of the kind of empowered, proactive planning that leads to optimum development outcomes.

The creation of places that deliver new houses, at high density and with great design, that ensure development is sustainable and supported by communities, requires planning. The delivery of places that enable individuals to connect to economic opportunities whilst being self-sustaining economies in their own right rather than dormitory or commuter towns, requires planning. The provision of places that encourage healthy and productive lifestyles through the provision of green spaces, cohesive places and attractive public realms, all requires planning.

The risk is that further cuts means moving further away from these goals due to a lack of investment in this kind of planning. Indeed, a report last month by the RTPI and Arup showed how existing cuts have already eroded planning’s ability to deliver quality and quantity in development. As a result, we need to continue to portray the case for adequate resourcing not as special pleading but instead as a fundamental investment in people and places that benefits the economy as well as society.

David Pendlebury

David Pendlebury

Economic Research Officer, RTPI