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Keith Boyfield: Why we need to simplify the planning system

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 residents.

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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