Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a Better Future

If you want to buy a book on planning, you will have more luck in a second hand bookshop than your local Waterstone’s. Enthusiasm for planning better places and (through them) a better society has declined with the ideological shift away from a belief in the state to trust in markets. The legacy of some pretty awful planning decisions has also not helped, leaving us with an unloved planning system and no serious public debate about what we want from it.

So Rebuilding Britain by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) is a very welcome book. It is short, well written and relatively cheap. I have not yet seen it on the best seller lists – perhaps people are waiting for Christmas – but it deserves a wide readership.

The book seeks to recover the utopian roots of planning, ‘a civic art expressed in music and poetry as well as design and architecture…. more than just a way to help you object to your neighbour’s conservatory…. focused not just on where we should live, but on how we should live’. A modest agenda, then.

Ellis and Henderson do not hide their despair at the extent to which the whole concept of planning has fallen out of favour. ‘Our current orthodox assumption,’ they say, ‘is that the sum total of individual choices in a free market… is the best humanity is capable of achieving.’ But ‘those who argue for the flexibility of the market are not really arguing against planning, they are arguing that it is their plan that should shape the future’. (I would like to dedicate the last quotation to the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute.)

The English planning system, they say, has become ‘little more than a weak kind of land management service’. In the absence of a national land use strategy or regional tier, the job of planning for the nation is devolved to 330 local authorities. This has consequences, of course, for our ability to cope with climate change, and there is a sobering chapter on that challenge. It also limits our ability, even if we had the political will, to even out growth across the country. Inequality, the book points out, is not just a matter of class or income, it is also expressed in places.

Although the book’s analysis is challenging to CPRE in some respects, there is much we would agree on. This should not be surprising. CPRE and the TCPA came from similar intellectual root and CPRE’s long-time Chairman, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, was not only an advocate for the Green Belt (the legacy CPRE emphasises); he believed that Green Belts necessitated the development of new towns (the legacy the TCPA emphasises).

The TCPA, having gone through a period when it sometimes sounded like just another lobby for the development industry, is now rediscovering its radical roots. The book’s chapter on ‘paying for utopia’, for instance, makes a strong case that if prospective developments increase the value of land, ‘these values do not belong to the landowner because they result from the grant of rights (the right to develop) which are owned by the state… ‘The increased values that accrue to landowners by the grant of consent to develop land or the prospect of publicly funded infrastructure is unearned increment. The value has been created by the community and should accrue to the community. It quite simply does not morally or logically belong to the landowner.’

When Milton Keynes was first developed, land costs accounted for just 1% of the total cost of a new home; today, without the post-war confidence that the state owns development rights, the cost can be as high as 40%. That is not because land is scarcer than it was in the 1960s; it is because the state is less confident.

It is encouraging that politician of all parties are beginning to think about how to capture land values for the good of society. They should also think about ‘viability’. Developers often argue that they cannot develop difficult sites or build affordable homes because they are not viable. But as the book points out, viability is not the product of some iron economic law. Rather, ‘key factors of the production of houses, like land, and key assumptions, like profit margins, are subject to choice which… are subject to political change’. The state should be more confident in working with, and sometimes challenging industry.

I will write another blog shortly about one of the book’s recommendations for reviving the planning system (or, as its authors might prefer, the art of planning).

2 Responses to “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a Better Future”

  1. 1 A. Crampin November 3, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Definitely one for the Xmas list then! But what is the inside story of the change of heart at the TCPA?

  1. 1 HOUSING BLOG WEEK. Shaun Spiers: Let’s Build, But Build Beautifully | The Intergenerational Foundation Trackback on March 16, 2015 at 6:51 pm

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