This is a post about the land-use planning system in England. This is not a subject that makes it high up the list of topics that ‘critical urbanists’ tend to consider sexy, or even perhaps remotely interesting. Still, I make no apologies for that. You see planning is in a pretty parlous state in England. Successive governments have identified governmental control of the use and development of land as a regulatory burden and a significant barrier to economic growth. At times the construction of planning as a key economic problem has reached heights of absurdity that a fine comic writer would be proud of.
I remember watching the BBCs ‘Newsnight’ not long after the 2010 election when Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Harriet Harman’s favourite ginger rodent was on. Asked how the Coalition was going to sort out the broken British economy following the worst economic crisis in living memory Alexander cited planning reform as one of the two or three key ways in which the Government was going to unlock growth. That’s right. Planning Reform. It was as if he had stumbled across Michael Heseltine’s infamous speech from the early ‘80s and taken literally his reference to planners having ‘jobs locked in filing cabinets’. All they had to do was find the keys the idiot planners had lost.
Some time after that the government announced the first relaxation of permitted development rights. This somewhat arcane change to what homeowners are allowed to build without the need for planning permission was widely trailed in the media as another key plank of the government’s recovery package. As if the hassle of securing planning permission was the only thing preventing people from unleashing the wave of conservatories that was needed to bring back sustained prosperity. Bugger endogenous growth theory. We just need everyone in Hampshire to build a bigger sunroom.
Since then there has been initiative after initiative. According to Steve Quartermain, the lucky man who until recently went by the title ‘Chief Planner’ at the Department for Communities and Local Government, there wasn’t a single pre-budget statement in which George Osborne didn’t announce further deregulatory planning changes during the last parliament. It’s a trend that seems to be continuing.
This is hardly surprising. The ‘Treasury view’ of planning has long been informed by the basic Hayekian assumption that any attempt to plan economy or society is just another step along the road to serfdom. The fact that the right to develop land remains nationalized in England must seem like a painful anachronism from this perspective.
Depressingly the only thing that seems to be holding back the neoliberal attack are the thousands of Conservative voters sitting in their already amply proportioned sunrooms in Hampshire, tutting over the Daily Telegraph and relying on the planning system to preserve their green and pleasant views.
As Malcolm Tait and I argue in a forthcoming paper on the Coalition governments’ approach to planning reform, the Conservative political tradition has an uneasy and somewhat contradictory relationship to the idea of planning control. Different forms of conservative thought suggest very different attitudes towards planning, from the one nation ‘conservationism’ of the National Trust and CPRE through to neoliberal advocates of the raw efficiency of the market. These attitudes also draw on very different ‘spatial imaginaries’, the former generating deeply felt attachments to primarily rural landscapes, the latter viewing place as little more than a ‘competitive asset’. We argue in the paper that the balance of forces between these traditions defined the coalition government’s politically troubled oscillation between discourses of ‘growth’ and ‘localism’.
Since we shaped that argument, however, the steady onslaught of deregulatory pressure has built further. I now wonder whether we need to consider a slightly different interpretation, one with even bleaker political implications.
Speaking in 2010, Nick Boles, who was soon to become planning minister, suggested a seemingly more Schumpeterian view of planning. A view premised on the value of ‘creative destruction’:
Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people’s communities should develop, or do you believe it can’t work? I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.
What if we read the steady feed of deregulatory measures that have been passed since as a fairly successful programme for chaos; a strategic attempt to manage and overcome the tensions between different Conservative traditions whilst steadily pushing back against the idea of planning control?
Hugh Ellis from the Town and Country Planning Association is one of the few voices to highlight the significant negative effects that key, detailed changes to the policy regime are having. This includes, in no particular order:
- The strengthening of a presumption in favour of (sustainable) development, coupled with the need for local authorities to have an up-to-date five year supply of land for new housing has made it much harder for local authorities to defend against unwanted speculative development.
- The heightened emphasis on the financial ‘viability’ of development that has led to the loss of significant public benefits including large amounts of affordable housing that is typically negotiated from developer profit.
- The changed definition of affordable housing that means developers only have to produce housing at 80% of market rates
- The loss of space and sustainable building standards
- Further changes to permitted development rights which mean that authorities now have no control over the conversion of existing offices, warehouses etc. into new housing. This is leading to the ongoing loss of large amounts of office space in high demand areas, particularly London; converted into homes without any means of checking whether the construction or space standards are adequate, or whether there is adequate provision of schools or open space.
It can be hard to get excited about these details of planning law and policy. But taken together these changes are substantial and represent the further hollowing out of planners’ capacity to regulate in the public interest.
Some of the changes, like the loss of control over new housebuilding, are bothering the retirees in their sunrooms and so may generate further political trouble for the Conservative party. Others, however, like the new permitted development rules, are not likely to affect them very much at all. As Ellis argues, however, these changes risk creating the slums of tomorrow; poor quality places that will have significant impacts on people’s lives, particularly those who have no other choice.
Planning control was created as a response to the effects of ‘chaos’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prompting the society to react against the all too visible hand of the market. The legacy and reputation of planning is now so tarnished that we seem to have forgotten those lessons. Perhaps it will take the slums of tomorrow to remind people. In the meantime advocates of planning as a politically progressive force are left with few allies – when an uprising of the property owning classes in Hampshire* is your best hope for the future you know you’re in trouble.
*with all due apologies to the good people of Hampshire.
Andy Inch (University of Sheffield)
PLEASE NOTE: This post was originally received in January 2015 and therefore was written before the May 2015 general election. Andy has kindly made a few tweaks in recent weeks to update the post.