To ‘build, build, build’, we must ditch our Soviet-style planning system
Evoking the spirit of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Prime Minister yesterday laid out his plans to build, build, build and get us out of our Covid-induced economic slump – but there remains one big obstacle: the planning system.
Most town planners will privately admit that Britain’s system, a relic of the Forties, is designed to prevent development, not permit it. It has alarming similarities with the planning systems in the failed economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, where production was tightly controlled by the discretionary rationing of production permits, and shortages of essential goods were commonplace.
While the Government confirmed that aspects of the discretionary system that tie the hands of businesses would soon end – for example, with the freedom to switch a commercial property’s usage – reforms of the worst elements of the residential planning system are also needed to fix our broken housing market. The current system’s bureaucratic case-by-case processes lack any sense of national strategic vision, they ration land for development and they give huge amounts of influence to people who, for whatever reason, want to prevent new building happening at all.
These people have proven successful and, as a result, homeowners in parts of southern England have seen their housing equity grow exponentially in recent years, while young people moving to our prosperous cities for work struggle to afford decent housing.
This digs deep social, economic, generational and geographic divides that one day very soon no amount of bridge building – both metaphorical and literal – will be able to cross.
The Government is not blind to the current system’s problems, and senior figures within Downing Street are reportedly intent on solving them with a further announcement on planning reform this month. But doing this will require more than just piecemeal reform; we need truly radical change before the Prime Minister can, to use his own phrase, “build, build, build”.
In the true spirit of Global Britain we should look overseas for the type of radical thinking that the UK needs. In Japan, for example, their flexible, zone-based planning system categorises areas according to the types of buildings that are allowed to be built in them – homes, offices, shops, factories et cetera. Then if a proposed development meets the pre-approved criteria it is automatically given permission to go ahead.
In practice this means that people seeking to halt development, who form such a powerful lobby within the planning process here in the UK, are practically non-existent in Japan. And while there would still be an opportunity for public consultation under a flexible zone-based model, it would all be done in the initial drafting of the local development plan, rather than effectively giving the public a veto over every single proposal as we do now.
I recognise that many people will be concerned about reducing the public’s involvement in approving individual developments, but at present this practice is quite simply too bureaucratic and inflexible to allow for the building of the homes that we need, where we need them. It must be better organised than it is now if we want to get them built.
Questions of architecture and density – the two most common concerns people typically have about development – could still be voiced under a new system. But this local say would be had at the very beginning of the development process when the local plan is written. So if a community had a special character or unique local design, these features would still be protected.
Zone-based systems are certainly not perfect. Those used in many US cities are overly complicated and inflexible, which is why places such as San Francisco and New York have housing crises that are every bit as bad as London’s. However, we could avoid this in the UK by making our zonal system much simpler and more flexible than they do in many parts of the US.
Ripping up our planning rules and starting again will also inevitably create tensions within the broad coalition that delivered the Government its majority six months ago, particularly in the Conservative
Party’s traditional heartlands. But without action now our social and economic divides will grow wider, and no party without a plan to fix them can be confident about its own long-term future.
With an 80-strong majority in the Commons and years before the next election, for the first time in a long while the Government has the political capital to push through some transformational planning reforms that will help ensure that everyone has access to a stable and affordable home, wherever they live in the UK.
‘Zone-based systems are not perfect. Those used in many US cities are overly complicated and inflexible’
Tinkering around the edges will not be enough. Only truly bold thinking will solve the crisis in which we find ourselves, and if the Government hesitates now it will throw away a once-in-a-generation chance to level up the country and make Britain a fairer, more prosperous place to live. It needs to get on with it.
Prada’s flagship store in Tokyo. Japan’s flexible planning system offers a model for the UK