A land use strategy for England?

My last blog was about Rebuilding Britain, by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson. The book is pretty despairing about the state of planning. There have been three major reforms of the planning system in the last 15 years, but little attempt to consider from first principles what we want to achieve.

‘Failure to agree on a planning system that achieves our desired goals’ was one of three failures of his time in government identified by Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary, in a speech in May 2012.

‘Every time there is a recession, or even of a reduction in growth below trend,’ he said, ‘there is a call for more “structural reforms”. Top of the list is always the planning system. It is blamed for holding back growth and development. The problem is, in fact, a classic example of not being clear about the outcome that is desired. If it is to boost GDP, then the answer is simple: concrete over the South East. But of course that’s not what we want…’

More recently, Leonora Rozee, former deputy chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate has suggested ‘a wholesale review from top to bottom of why we need a planning system and what it needs to comprise, with the result set out in a single Act supported by such regulations, policy and guidance as are necessary to enable all to understand it’. The alternative, she suggests, is ‘death by a thousand statutes, regulations, policies and guides’.

Quangos and Royal Commissions to inform policy-making are out of fashion. We have major inquiries when things go wrong – Leveson, Chilcot, inquiries into child abuse – but have dismantled much of the apparatus we once had for analysing policy. Organisations which once provided government with impartial analysis and advice on complex issues have been abolished. Rebuilding Britain notes (in one of several ‘they manage things so much better abroad’ passages) that as the UK government was scrapping the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Swedes were establishing the Commission on the Future of Sweden.

The role once played by Royal Commissions has been devolved to government departments, notably the Treasury, and think-tanks (and their funders). As far as planning goes, the result has hardly been a great success. It has resulted in neither better decisions nor happier punters.

So perhaps the next government should commit to a wide-ranging and inclusive public inquiry into what we want from planning, including consideration of whether England now needs its own land use strategy. Such a fundamental inquiry need not aim at consensus. Planning is necessarily political. It is not only about mediating different views and interests; it also sets a direction. Rebuilding Britain, for instance, gives a strong priority to increasing equality (so old-fashioned!) and addressing climate change. Others will come up with different priorities.

But the benefit of a comprehensive public inquiry would be to set the terms of the question clearly and openly. It might also remind us that the planning system is not merely a necessary evil – a drag on business, an irritation to home-owners – but a means of making England a better place to live.

4 Responses to “A land use strategy for England?”

  1. 1 A. Crampin November 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    “Rebuilding Britain, for instance, gives a strong priority to increasing equality (so old-fashioned!) and addressing climate change. Others will come up with different priorities.” But CPRE will stand firmly with Rebuilding Britain?

    • 2 sspiers November 5, 2014 at 4:58 pm

      Alice, on climate change, yes, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. ‘Rebuilding Britain’ points out, for instance, that we are continuing to build houses almost regardless of the likelihood of floods, drought or coastal retreat.

      I am personally supportive of greater equality, but I suspect there are different views across CPRE and that most people would be more comfortable talking about ‘social justice’ or ‘fairness’ than ‘equality’. There is no corporate view, and if CPRE has ever debated its approach to equality, it hasn’t done so for many years. As I said, the word sounds a bit old-fashioned, which is depressing or encouraging depending on your ideology!

  2. 3 Stephen Leary (@Seftonchase) November 9, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Shaun, I’m all in favour of having a Royal Commission to review English Planning Policy. In particular i would like it to examine a principle that seems to lie behind planning and that is the philosophical bias in the system in favour of economic growth and development and that this is inevitably a ‘good thing’.

    This is particularly evident in areas of Mineral Planning, especially for the extraction of Energy Minerals, but also applies to other areas. How many housing sites still lie dormant, waiting to be completed, after the recession which started in 2008? In both areas the problem is that the current system of planning encourages speculative activity.

    Planning for the use of Coal as an Energy Mineral is a case in point.We have an official Energy Policy which is phasing out the use of coal as an energy resource because of its effects on pollution , human health and climate change, unless it is to be used in a power station fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage.None of these exist in the UK at present.

    Instead we have a Planning System which does not reflect this fact at all. Coal is still deemed to be a mineral of national importance, hence there are still numerous actual and potential opencast coal applications (c 15 in England alone) in the Planning System in addition to the sites currently being worked.

    However, when it comes to determining these applications, it seems that the very reasons why coal is being phased out of the energy mix – the broader effects from using this coal on pollution, human health and climate change are not at present ‘put in the balance’ when determining the applications. All that matters are the ‘site specific’ issues involved in developing each site.

    These particular points were raised at the recent Bradley Public Inquiry, an Appeal by UK Coal over a refusal of planning permission for a 500,000+ site in Co Durham’s Derwent Valley in my submission on behalf to the Loose Anti Opencast Network. If, when the Planning Inspector announces her decision in the New Year these broader issues have either been given little weight or no weight at all, it further strengthen the need for a Royal Commission to review the English Planning System.

    Steve Leary for the Loose Anti Opencast Network

  3. 4 Larry November 9, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Perhaps the CPRE could lead the way by coming up with a realistic framework that does satisfy everyone, and that includes non-CPRE members in desperate need of housing.

    Sadly all that comes out of the CPRE, National Trust, et al is a stream of exaggerations, knee-jerk clichés and propaganda. Above we see house building cast as an unnecessary economy booster and involving “concrete”… Change the record please!

    Other countries (many with higher densities) don’t have such ludicrous land restrictions yet remain attractive and build sufficient good-quality housing. Not see a link? Let land trickle out at high cost and you’ll get ugly high-density estates in the wrong places, it’s not rocket science to see cause and effect.

    On the need question, over half of population growth is due to increased life expectancy. Men are living 8 years longer than just 30 years ago, women 6 years longer. FACT. It’s this NIMBY generation that’s also staying put in half-empty homes (originally built on greenfield of course, bare-faced hypocrisy).

    Yeah I said it, NIMBYs saying we don’t need homes are actually the biggest cause of the shortage! Just imagine if their parents had taken the same selfish attitude in the 50s and 60s?

    There needs to be an acceptance that the population trend is real and projected to continue for another 20 years. Brownfield-only land is not sufficient or a credible long-term solution. Greenfield building is already at a record low and yet Simon Jenkins is still spouting drivel about the country being ruined by NPPF.

    Meeting this need will require, shock horror, 1% of England’s land. Perhaps if the self-proclaimed protectors of our land took the blinkers off and started looking at how/where land can be opened up they’d actually have some say the process, rather than just hurling abuse from the sidelines.

    God forbid we might come out with a sensible pro-active plan like releasing 50m wide strips of land alongside existing roads for low density, high quality building commissioned by individuals. You know, how we built in the “good old days”.

    An unrealistic, confrontational, gung-ho “NEVER! NEVER! NEVER!” stance on land guarantees nobody will be happy and increases the chance of far worse political decisions being made in future.

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