To ‘build, build, build’, we must ditch our Soviet-style plan­ning sys­tem

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - AN­DREW CARTER An­drew Carter is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Cen­tre for Cities

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

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