The Privileging of Growth in Planning Policy By Sarah Longlands (University of Glasgow)

‘I think its very hard on people who aren’t’ already part of the party if you like, and who aren’t’ going to get a slice of the pie and there’s an increasing number of people who aren’t part of that, even in Cambridge’

(Interview 1103, Cambridge)


The dominance of market led approaches in planning is a concern that has been shared for some time amongst academics and practitioners. Molotch (1976) famously coined the term ‘growth machine’ in the 1970s to describe what he saw as the dominance of growth interests, particularly land, in US cities. In the 1980s, Brindley et al. (1989) were describing what they saw as a ‘crisis in planning’ created as a result of what they identified as “another underlying weakness of the planning system, its dependence on economic growth” (Brindley et al., 1989,5).   Most recently, Rydin (2014) has again expressed her frustration at the dependence of planning upon economic growth.

The privileging of growth in planning policy, whilst by no means new, has been further amplified as a following the 2008 economic crisis and the coming to power of the Coalition Government in 2010. The Coalition Government’s 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, argued that the purpose of planning was about helping to achieve ‘sustainable development’ (DCLG, 2012) defined as ‘positive growth’ and reinstated, a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’. Despite the couching of planning reform within the softer, post-political language of sustainable development (Swyngedouw, 2007) the emphasis upon the ‘economic’ progress is unmistakable, particularly when read alongside the HM Treasury ‘Plan for Growth’. This 2011 publication argued that as part of the UK’s plans to attract business, planning needed to be ‘radically’ reformed with the expectation that local authorities should ‘prioritise growth and jobs’ (HM Treasury and BIS, 2011, 23).

My PhD, examining the privileging of economic growth in planning policy, developed from my own experience working for both the public and private sector in the North of England. No matter the context, the pursuit of growth was a dominant objective in regeneration and planning policy. Despite the fact that growth was often difficult and unequal, there was an absence of critical debate about the concept of economic growth and particularly the mechanisms through which policy makers hoped that ‘growth’ would solve place-based challenges.   The pursuit of economic growth was simply the axiomatic good that policy makers sought. Using case studies of Middlesborough and Cambridge, my work asks whether this has any particular influence on how local planning policy is developed and implemented in different contexts.

My findings to date have comprised three main themes. Firstly, the disaggregated nature of the ‘growth’ as a concept. Whilst conventional economic wisdom would have us believe that economic growth is devoid of normative attribution, what becomes quickly apparent when discussing the concept with the planning community in different parts of the country, is the constructed and value laden nature of the growth concept. People’s views on what economic growth means and what ends it will serve, vary significantly. There is a spectrum of views which ranges from a basic association with jobs and business development through to the pursuit of human progress and social enlightenment. What was particularly striking was the different weighting of these priorities according to economic fortunes, for example, the understanding of economic growth as ‘more personal wealth’ was particularly prevalent in Middlesbrough, whereas, the physical development of housing and communities was dominant in Cambridge.

What has also become apparent is the increasingly difficult position of local government planners given the Coalition’s continued enthusiasm for austerity. Planning, particularly in areas which have experienced the wholescale removal of place based regeneration initiatives, has had to reconstruct its purpose to become a means of generating income for local authorities in order to support local services. This has included support for new homes on greenfield sites to both secure New Homes Bonus as well as the potential council tax revenue of future citizens. Planning has investigate how it can use the value of development to support local infrastructure and regeneration because in the current climate of public sector austerity, ‘the state can only do so much’(public sector planner).

Whether you’re a planner in Middlesbrough, Cornwall or Cambridge, the ‘plan for growth’ is the same. The effect of this seems to be encouraging planning to reconsider and ‘rethink’ the challenges that it needs to address (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2013). Max Lock, a planner, and Ruth Glass, a sociologist, working together in the 1940s were vocal about the role of planning as a means to support human development, particularly inequality and poverty. Max Lock argued that the purpose of planning was to plan for and prioritise the needs of the people who live in an area, what he called ‘the raw materials of a plan….the planners’ clients’ (Lock 1948).  But in 2014, the challenges being identified in local plans tend to be focused on growth-orientated development with the main aim of generating economic benefits. Not only does the evidence suggest that this may be exacerbating issues such as inequality but planning is increasingly valuing people according to their ability to generate economic growth, to be ‘self-sufficient’ as one interviewee put it.   In time, there is a vague hope that the benefits may ‘trickle down’ but the channels through which this may happen are poorly defined. So the impact of planning on the lives of people becomes increasingly oblique and dependent upon the actions of developers rather than the state.

Sarah Longlands, University of Glasgow (@sarahlonglands)


ALLMENDINGER, P. & HAUGHTON, G. 2013. The Evolution and Trajectories of English Spatial Governance: Neoliberal Episodes in Planning. Planning, Practice and Research, 28, 6-26.

BRINDLEY, I., RYDIN, Y. & STOKER, G. 1989. Remaking Planning. The Politics of Urban Change in the Thatcher Years, London, Unwin Stanley.

DCLG 2012. National Planning Policy Framework. In: GOVERNMENT, D. O. C. A. L. (ed.). London HMSO.

HM TREASURY & BIS 2011. The Plan for Growth. In: HM TREASURY & SKILLS, B. I. A. (eds.). London: HMSO.

LOCK, M. (1948) Preface, in Glass, R. The Social Background of a Plan. A study of Middlesbrough. Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited.

MOLOTCH, H. 1976. The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 309-332.

SWYNGEDOUW, E. 2007. Impossible sustainability and the post political condition In: GIBBS, D. & KRUEGER, R. (eds.) The sustainable development paradox. New York: Guildford Press.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s