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Do the critics of planning have a point?

06 February 2017 Author: Hamish Barrell

Bressey Report

Illustration from Sir Charles Bressey's report The Highway Development Survey, 1937 for Greater London.

I recently read Sam Bowman’s (Executive Director at the Adam Smith Institute) comment in The Planner that ‘Planning is the policy instrument that is chiefly responsible for the housing crisis’ with some incredulity. As a planner I’ve heard such views repeated much too often. The remedies of course are always familiar: abolish the post-war Town and Country Planning Act and build on more of the greenbelt, thereby boosting land supply.

I have done some soul-searching over recent times as an attempt to ascertain whether I’ve been wrong all these years about planning and what it provides. This involved exploring other international and historical examples. My findings are reflected in the book – ‘Build Over There’ by Arena Books.

Build Over There

For a start, having a planning system that supposedly ‘holds back development’ isn’t one step away from socialism (or even communism), as some critics sometimes suggest. In fact communist countries, as far as I could determine, didn’t have or need one. On the contrary, planning systems are closely aligned with democratic governance.

What we should have learnt from the housing bubble and subsequent sub-prime credit crunch is that there is more to housing affordability than a lack of sufficiently allocated land. Housing speculation was also at the root of the US 1929 Great Depression as well but that’s another story…

In a different story, The announcements from the Autumn statement about how the UK Government sees investment in infrastructure as fundamental to national productivity and growth should be seen as good news. But this brings me to the disconnect between the desire to cut planning “red-tape” and ensure that development comes with adequate infrastructure. Despite pouring over the alternatives to planning systems, I still struggle to see how they might effectively bring development forward with adequate infrastructure if private and public interests are not in some way co-ordinated. The Treasury may take an enlightened view that infrastructure “unlocks growth”, but for developers providing infrastructure it is of course still a cost against the viability of projects.

The fact that infrastructure and housing need to come together in a co-ordinated manner is perhaps one of the most powerful reasons for retaining a plan-led system. This is going to be even more important for cities that can grow radially or in more than one direction. There needs to be agreement as to where development and accompanying infrastructure should go. This is the story we as the profession need to be making for strategic planning.

The fact that infrastructure and housing need to come together in a co-ordinated manner is perhaps one of the most powerful reasons for retaining a plan-led system

However, different tools than only regulation may be needed to help us meet our objectives. Hoping that extending an allocation boundary line on a planning map is going to make landowners race to sell their country estates and house developers bring on the thousands of new homes we need, all in England’s South East, is grossly simplistic. In fact, just before the Town and Country Planning Act we had the system Sam Bowman might have been thinking about. In the half of the country covered by draft planning schemes in 1937 there was, according to some claims, sufficient land zoned for housing to accommodate an astonishing 291 million people (this is cited in the Barlow Report from 1940, paragraph 241, seemingly based on evidence from the Garden Cities Association and the planner Sir Raymond Unwin).

This is not to suggest we shouldn’t contemplate improving any aspect of our system. For instance, in the UK we have discrepancy systems which give decision-makers over planning applications lots of flexibility. But often, the decisions that emerge don’t seem necessarily consistent. Further, at a time of stretched local authority resources, discretionary systems can be more expensive to run than more prescriptive approaches.

Naturally, a more prescriptive system isn’t going to fix the UK’s housing problem. On this matter I don’t think we need to fundamentally abandon our current principles that we are employing. The real solutions may lie in the incentives we as a society set for holding onto and developing land for housing. Having read the literature, I’ve come away thinking that we need to consider a land tax so that undeveloped land is used more efficiently.

And if we do want things to change sooner rather than later on the ground then we need to look at how we might have more, not less, public sector intervention.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

Hamish Barrell

Hamish Barrell

Hamish Barrell is an experienced town planer and a contributing author to the International Manual of Planning Practice 2015. Having worked near London for the last nine years, he also has previous work experience in the United States and New Zealand, in both private and public capacities.