Overhaul the planning system to boost building of better homes

Sometimes the best plans aren’t enough. Ben Birchall/PA

As a planning academic you might think that I get heavily involved in the planning system – commenting on draft development plans, or objecting to proposed developments – but actually I tend to steer clear of this. Recently, however, I formally objected to a development proposal for the first time – a proposal for new flats built by Barratt in the north of Edinburgh, where I live.

The design was extremely poor. This was just another Barratt development that could be anywhere in the UK, plonked down in the middle of Edinburgh. What is more, this would have been the latest in a fairly continuous line of disappointing new housing running across the city north-west to north-east.

This problem isn’t unique to Edinburgh. Take the “non-pavements” of Milton Keynes or the very poor quality developments highlighted recently by urbanist Rob Cowan – UK mass-market housing clearly has a design problem.

It is widely acknowledged that new homes built in the UK are smaller than those in the rest of Europe, have poorer insulation standards and less provision for sustainable energy (such as photo-voltaic panels or district heating). They are also more expensive.

Further, urban design – the relationship of new housing to what already exists around it – is extremely poor and formulaic. The product of this is non-places, with little identity apart from being built by mass-market developers.

Second order

The question is, what can the planning system do to improve this situation? One proposal put forward by urban studies professor David Adams and the late Steve Tiesdell is to focus on what they term “second-order design”.

First-order design is the architecture and urban design of developments themselves. Second-order design involves taking a step back and organising the various landowners, financiers, developers, planning authorities and local communities involved in the process in a way that will encourage high-quality development.

One of their key arguments is the recognition that planners are already fully involved in the housing and development “market”. Markets of all sorts are regulated in various ways, and suppliers respond to this regulation and remain profitable. Developers and their relationship with planners is another system of regulation. Seen in this way, positive planning can shape markets to deliver new housing supply and good urban design.

This is a very positive message, particularly since the first major government review into housing supply led to planners being widely castigated for stopping new development. Most famously, they were described as one of David Cameron’s “Enemies of Enterprise”.

Speeding things up

These attacks on the planning system have been around since the modern system was created by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Land-use planning is a devolved issue, so the different nations and regions have divergent policies, but everyone wants to see more houses, as soon as possible.

In Scotland, the government’s reform agenda seeks to give private developers more certainty in their decisions. The focus of the system is ensuring development plans (the key document which decides what gets built and where) are up-to-date and appropriate. Further, planning authorities have a duty to engage communities and other stakeholders in drafting plans. Despite this, an increasing need to deliver the Scottish government’s “purpose” of sustainable economic growth pervades planning and development decisions.

In England, the planning system has been dramatically reformed by the coalition’s Localism Act. Before coming to power, the Conservatives argued in a Green Paper that restrictions on new development were a product of local opposition to top-down housing targets. This local opposition was also driven by the poor quality of development then delivered.

The way to encourage new development was to empower communities, through neighbourhood planning, to deliver the housing they wanted and needed, and demand higher quality. Recognising that nimby (not-in-my-back-yard) attitudes exist, communities would also be given a range of local financial benefits.

The New Homes Bonus, for instance, means central government matches the income local authorities get from council tax on new homes. And, in what was known as the “Boles Bung” (after the former planning minister Nick Boles), parish councils with neighbourhood plans can receive a substantial share of the Community Infrastructure Levy (or “Roof Tax”) on new development.

Planning for the nimbys

However, with little investment in community development, neighbourhood planning proposals are most likely to come from affluent, semi-rural communities that wish to see no, or very little, development. As my colleague Annette Hastings and I noted in our research on middle-class activism, “localism” may lead to some groups gaining a bigger share of public services and benefits than they would have otherwise. In this case, localism simply empowers the nimbys.

Analysis of the British Social Attitudes survey also supports this – communities are only likely to support new developments if they can bring more jobs. This is very difficult, if not impossible, for mass housing developments to deliver. Houses should follow jobs, not the other way round.

Planning for housing is becoming a political numbers game once again – a situation we haven’t seen since the 1960s. The combination of political pressure for “more houses” together with a planning system that allows nimbys the loudest voice, means poor-quality developments will increase across the areas of the UK where people don’t have the motivation or power to stop them.

Good second-order design – a system structured to encourage partnership working and high-quality buildings – might be one way out of this mess. But cuts to planning departments because of falling income from application fees, as well as broader austerity and pressures on developers to deliver profitable developments will make this increasingly difficult.

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