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There is widespread agreement that the planning system in this country is flawed. It is riddled with complexities and contradictions. While severely constraining the housing supply, it requires much of what is built to be ugly. There is less agreement on what should be done about it. Some, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, have called for the repeal of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. There is a powerful case for that. It was much easier to build new homes before that Act was passed and they tended to be more attractive than what we have seen since. But others conclude that the planning rules need to be changed rather than lifted. The social enterprise Create Streets, in a recent report, argues that is the best approach if new housing is to be popular – “From Nimby to Yimby.”

The report compares the planning system in the UK to other countries and concludes we have a “far more cumbersome, slower and less-streamlined process, where debate takes place for each individual decision, rather than at a strategic level.” In Paris, for instance, there are some strict rules which are applied to quality control. Visitors will notice how there are very few tall buildings – that is because the height of buildings is regulated by the width of the street where it is located. But there is far less uncertainty over development than in the UK:

“When a building project, or proposal for change of use, conforms to the regulatory part of the Local Urban Plan, it is approved. The building permit (permis de construire) is granted by the planning department of the Mayor’s office. Neighbours then have only two months to contest the legality of the building permit, but they may do so only on the basis of nonconformity to the Local Urban Plan rules.”

It is not only the French who have adopted that approach:

“A growing number of American cities are using form-based codes to permit landowners to develop high density towns and cities, with complete confidence of what will, and will not, be permitted. There are now over 400 form-based codes in US and Canadian cities. In 2010, Miami became the first major US city to replace their historic zoning code with a form-based code. Cincinnati and El Paso have done likewise. The US Department of Defence has also recently switched to using them.”

An official in Nashville in Tennessee says:

“Nashville has adopted form-based codes for over 30 districts, corridors and neighbourhoods. The direct result has been an increase in property values and a much greater desire to develop, in areas with form-based codes, due to the certainty that the code provides the developer and the community.”

The report says:

“The British planning system is very odd, in both comparative and historic terms. Socialist in its scope, but very English, and common-law in its application, it is both more ambitious and less predictable than nearly all comparable systems. This leads to more uncertainty, higher planning risk and much higher barriers to entry. All other European and North American systems, of which we are aware, have more rules-based approaches. These can give landowners more certainty about what will be acceptable.”

A laissez faire planning policy as championed by Rees-Mogg would not find favour with the French. (“The trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur,” George W Bush supposedly once declared.) Nor in Tennessee. Yet the outcome Rees-Mogg wishes to be achieved could be secured by either approach. That is to achieve a significant number of beautiful new homes being built. The advantage of following the Create Streets route is that it is politically acceptable.

19 comments for: Nashville shows us how to solve the housing crisis

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