Keith Boyfield is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Screen shot 2013-05-04 at 14.58.41Britain’s
planning laws have proved a gold mine for lawyers and the new
sub-species of lobbyists known as planning consultants in recent
decades.  Indeed, the Planning Bar has proved to be one of the fastest
expanding branches of the UK legal system.  Long-running planning
inquiries into airport development or infrastructure schemes, such as
power stations or rail links, have helped fund the legal profession’s
move into the country house market. In turn, they have benefitted from
the soaring total returns to be derived from acquiring ‘amenity’ farms
in the Home Counties and Cotwolds.

But for the UK economy as a whole, the labyrinthine complexity of the
planning approval system has seriously damaged our economic growth and
future ability to attract direct foreign inward investment. No nuclear
power station is likely to be completed before 2020, nor for that matter
any significant airport runway.

Meanwhile, the residential housing market, especially in the
south-east, continues to be largely unaffordable for many young
families. That’s not solely the fault of our beleaguered economy, nor
our crippled mortgage market: the principal reason is the shortage of
building land, and the resulting mismatch between median earnings and
median house prices. It is striking to note that a median priced home in
England is now seven times the median salary. In London, the multiple
is even higher.

In a new Centre for Policy Studies report published this week, Inna
Ali and I advocate the simplification of planning regulations into a new
Consolidated Act. This legislation should be designed to reduce the
unacceptable delays experienced in gaining planning permission for new
development across Britain.

We further propose that those directly affected by new development,
whether commercial , retail or residential, should be compensated
financially for any loss of amenity they suffer. It’s no surprise that
residents object vociferously to any form of new development when it is
merely the local authority which benefits from a 106 agreement –
replacing the village hall roof or planting a new coppice of trees. What
is noticeably absent is any form of direct monetary compensation to

We also believe that privately negotiated convenants can provide the
means to maintain and enhance neighbourhoods without the heavy hand of
local planning officers. Since the nineteenth century. some of the
country’s most attractive neighbourhoods have been sustained by such
covenants, including London’s Belgravia and many residential areas of
northern cities, such as Altrincham in Greater Manchester.

In the last year, there has been a noticeable renewed interest in the
whole idea of Garden Cities, originally pioneered by Utopians planners
in the early twentieth century. Yet, “as in all utopias”, noted Jane
Jacobs, the influential American writer on cities, “the right to have
plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge”.

We argue in our CPS study that we need to embrace the ingenuity and
dynamism of the private sector to develop new Garden Cities and
neighbourhoods in underutilised locations across Britain. Only a tenth
of the country is actually categorised as urban, and half of this
comprises gardens and open spaces. Consequently, there is considerable
scope for new development so long as we tackle the constraints imposed
by the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act and the slew of legislation
enacted over the subsequent 60 six years.

The crucial flaw with so many of the new towns constructed after the
Second World War was that they were primarily focused on rehousing those
who were bombed out of their inner city homes. But in this brave new
dawn towns such as Cumbernauld or Skelmersdale failed to provide a mix
of housing, notably owner occupied dwellings.  People were simply dumped
in brutalist barracks designed by disciples of Le Corbusier.

As a consequence, these communities  ossified and decayed as
employers decamped to other locations. The tragedy that ensued was that
these new towns took on all the appearance of new slums, characterised
by high unemployment, social problems and a marked dependency on illegal
drugs of one form or another.

Looking ahead, we urgently need to build attractive new towns with a
broad range of housing and a strong emphasis on homes for owner
occupation. Milton Keynes has demonstrated how well- designed
communities can prosper. It ranks as Britain’s fastest-growing city,
offering a diverse employment mix, low unemployment, higher than average
earnings growth and, particularly noteworthy, one of the best records
for new business patent approvals achieved across the whole country.

People are flocking to towns such as Peterborough, Swindon and Milton
Keynes because their political leaders are keen for these communities
to attract both businesses and residents. As Iain Steward, a local
Member of Parliament points out: “there is no nimbyism in Milton
Keynes”. Furthermore, in contrast to many new towns, money borrowed from
the Treasury has been repaid fully with interest.

Such communities can meet the demand for affordable housing if
sufficient land is freed up by a reformed planning system. There is
still much to do if we are to overhaul our housing market and enable
younger generations to become home owners – a long established
Conservative goal. Towns such as Milton Keynes provide a template for
how this vision can be fulfilled.

Simplified Planning, by Keith Boyfield and Inna Ali, is published today by the Centre for Policy Studies.

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