Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets.
I was a member of the taskforce feeding into the Government’s Planning for the Future consultation paper. It is bolder and more radical than much of the work of Create Streets or the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which have sought to be more incremental. That undoubtedly brings risks. Will the market ‘turn off’ as landowners and developers await the new normal? But the White Paper is getting three big things right.
Firstly, it accepts that the popular beauty and liveability of the new settlements we create matters. It matters for the public acceptance of their creation – and for the lives that our children and children’s children will lead in them. There’s a growing corpus of evidence that many of the components that make places beautiful (such as walkable streets, ‘gentle density’, and street trees) also make them healthy, happy, and sustainable. Far too few new places achieve this, less than a quarter in one recent study. That must change with more visual local plans setting popular ‘pattern books’ for what’s acceptable.
Secondly, the White Paper is right that we need to create a more predictable level playing field. There is a smoking gun if you want to understand why we don’t build enough homes in England. It’s that our system operates on a uniquely discretionary case-by-case basis. This creates greater uncertainty which has increased planning risk, pushed up the price of permissioned land, and acted as a rising barrier to entry. It’s no coincidence that the proportion of homes delivered by small builders is declining (12 per cent and falling); that only ten per cent of our homes are self-built versus a 50 per cent European average; or that modular construction is struggling to gain a foothold.
Finally, the White Paper is right that we need to ‘bring the democracy forward’ and re-invent the ambition, depth, and breadth, with which councils engage publicly in the creation of local plans. Creating shorter, more powerful and more visual local plans will help, but councils will also need to reinvent their use of digital technology.
It does not stop there. I suspect not many public sector planners read ConservativeHome but please spare a thought for them as well. Most are well-meaning, hard-working, and under-paid. This White Paper could be good for them too, as well as for the quantity and quality of the places we create. One very experienced London official said to me last year:
‘”I was brainwashed into the world of thinking that development control is planning but it isn’t. The plan-making exercise has been marginalised.”
A process which has clearer, more map-based, and more visual local plans, and better digital engagement, would free up planners better to support the public and not just be development control officers on a depressing and needless treadmill treating ever planning application as if it was bespoke. This would be good.
Implemented well, these proposals should help to move planning from a culture of fear to a culture of affirmation. We are heirs to beautiful towns, set in incomparable countryside. Our goal should be to pass that heritage to our successors, not depleted but enhanced. Quantity matters. But so does quality.
Some predictable voices came out very quickly criticising the report in blood-curdling terms. Most appear not to have read it, not to understand the politics or economics of development or to be so wedded to the 1940s approach that they refuse to countenance change, even when it is palpably and desperately needed. (To be fair, there are also some good questions emerging from the more thoughtful or less doctrinaire). But the ‘end of the world’ style critics (some of whom are not just shouty journalists but working for organisations that claim to care about planning and design) need to be able to answer these questions:
- What is so different about how we live in England to most of the rest of the world that means we cannot plan strategically but have to focus on every decision case-by case?
- Why do they think that the UK housing market is so concentrated? Might it possibly have anything to do with the near-unique way we run our chaotic planning system?
- Why do they think there are so few self-builders in the UK?
- The UK is a pretty entrepreneurial place: why is modular build struggling to take off?
- Why should we not move to public engagement that is profoundly more digitally enabled?
If they don’t have convincing answers to these questions which don’t involve the high-risk nature of our planning system (and I have not seen any) then I would politely urge them to roll their sleeves up and help fill in the detail rather than just shouting ‘fire’ from the smokeless rooftops.