Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Environmental stewardship is a key WR concern.  We should be living within our means, not plundering the next generation and those to come.  At the same time, we must ensure the next generation have somewhere suitable to live.  Planning policy, especially for housing, typifies that dilemma, with warm words about sustainability easily corrupted into developers’ patter.  Environmental stewardship?  Of course, shall we plant some daffodils on the new roundabout?  How many would you like?

I retired last year from my job as a planning policy officer in local government, partly in frustration at the system’s inability to empower anything more visionary than business-as-usual.  If I had to define planning, I’d say it’s simply the process by which we choose in what order the nice bits get destroyed.  In the end, they all go.

The Tories’ latest proposals for deregulation have been panned, and with good reason.  We’ve seen nowhere enough really political analysis of where we’re at and why.  So here are 10 observations, the distillation of cynicism.

1.         Proposals for deregulation come round more or less every year and it makes no difference who’s in power.  London listens occasionally to industry and attentively to finance – and it should be understood that volume housebuilders are land speculation companies with only a side-line in construction.  London doesn’t listen to local communities because it has no fear of them.  What’s the worst they can do?  Vote for the other side?  Who think fundamentally the same?  Even at Cabinet level, even the best planning minister can achieve nothing original.  The Treasury dictates planning policy and its neo-liberal to-do list goes back a very long way.

2.         Planning is structurally biased, at every stage, towards development, and therefore the developer’s view, yet is routinely condemned as a ‘barrier’ and a ‘burden’.  If it never said ‘No’, it wouldn’t be doing its job, of being a barrier protecting our past and our future, while ensuring developers don’t impose burdens on others by building homes without all the necessary supporting uses and infrastructure.  Libertarians would be wrong to suggest that letting the market rip will painlessly solve all problems and create no new ones.  The question decision-makers should be allowed to ask is not ‘Is this bad enough to refuse?’ but ‘Is this good enough to approve?’  A particular concern among heritage professionals is that there must be no reduction in the powers of County Archaeologists to insist on proper, developer-funded site investigation before any development can be allowed to start.

3.         The planning system already includes massive scope for deregulation, at the discretion of local communities, through their local plans and development orders.  There is, according to a leading planning barrister, nothing proposed that’s not already possible, if that’s what communities want.  The Tories are seeking additional powers to impose what communities don’t want.

4.         Because it’s the housebuilders’ handmaid, planning isn’t good at meeting priority needs.  What gets built is what sells, not what’s needed: mansions funded by London salaries, not starter homes, still beyond the reach of Wessex wages.  Badly designed remedies like Help-to-Buy turn out to funnel wealth to the well-off.  At every opportunity, requirements to provide affordable housing to meet local needs are whittled down or eliminated.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  The public sector used to build homes for rent: shortages of housing are the result of it ceasing to do so.  It also used to be a big landowner, big enough to steer the market instead of being short-changed by those who can hide in tax havens.  Planning alone has a limited impact.  You can’t truly plan what you can’t control and you don’t truly control what you don’t own.  The least a radical government could bring in would be a Land Value Tax, to capture the landowner gains that the public decision to grant planning permission for A but not for B creates out of nothing.  Set at appropriately varied levels to get things moving, this could be a very positive tool, delivering the development the community wants, instead of the community the developer wants.  It would ensure that land is rapidly recycled, with no excuses, enabling fields to be kept for their proper purpose of growing food.

5.         In the boom times, we’re told we need more deregulation to get homes built faster, while in recession we need it to get them built at all.  It’s a cheap bit of rhetoric to claim that the construction industry will get Britain spending and help the Treasury out of a rut.  This is recycled corporate spin.  New build isn’t everything.  Planning needs to become conservation-led, moving resources into refurbishment, to lengthen the lives of existing buildings and improve their environmental performance.  Investment is also needed in the right sort of infrastructure, such as microgeneration, superfast broadband, and getting our public transport up to levels that would be considered barely acceptable in London.  These are construction jobs too.  The Tories remain shamelessly unambitious in their targets for reducing carbon emissions, kicking the can down the road to 2050.  Where are the mandatory standards for maximum insulation, solar panels on roofs, grey water recycling measures, and all the rest?  None of this is experimental but it all costs developers money they’d rather use to fund the ‘Conservative’ Party.

6.         We’re fed up with having housing targets dictated to us by London, spuriously labelled ‘objectively assessed need’.  There’s no such thing.  Nationally set binding targets cut debate at planning inquiries about how many homes to plan for, but only by erring on the side of over-provision of sites.  This gives developers ‘choice’, the opposite of a predictable, planned strategy where everyone knows where they stand.  Over-provision leads to cherry-picking, with complex urban sites left until last, in practice never.  Why do we have planning inquiries anyway?  If your democratically elected council has decided the way forward, why should some panjandrum from London have the power to come down and overturn it because some party donor got upset?

7.         We oppose London sticking its nose in.  We also oppose commercial interests having a privileged role in the planning system through the region’s 10 Local Enterprise Partnerships.  It’s their phantasmagorical figures for economic growth that shape the housing numbers.  If it’s their ambition for your city-region to be the fastest growing in Europe, who will dare point out that you can’t have serious growth without serious harm?  The easy development sites went a long time ago.  Now the problematic ones are being built upon.  The next cut of the salami may be the one that catches your fingers.  Ultimately, we need fewer people, not more homes.  We should be winding-down housebuilding, not ramping it up.  Moving to a smaller, better economy, especially in already over-heated areas, isn’t the disaster that moving to an ever-larger, ever-more-disruptive one will continue to be.

8.         With no-one allowed to voice the entirely reasonable objection to development in principle they have in common, local communities must resort to nimbyism, trying to pass the buck.  Studies claim that new towns are the best way to limit environmental harm, but no-one will volunteer to host one, quite rightly, because the harm is reduced, not eliminated.  Instead, councillors will sometimes try to ‘spread the pain around’, making problems like traffic congestion worse.  With the planning system unable to place any value on the ‘zero development’ option, its advocates have no alternative to direct action.  Those in power are highly experienced now at suppressing that, reviling zero development as the extremist option.  It’s not.  That would be to continue with growth, regardless of the consequences.

9.         Councils routinely consult on new local plans.  If no-one objects, this is taken as consent.  It’s not in the interest of anyone within the system to ask whether a lack of response is the rational reaction of tired objectors to a rigged process, where people’s answers are disregarded because they challenge the question.  I’ve seen council planners go out of their way to find people to give even lukewarm support to their proposals, to counter the weight of local opposition, in the belief that those motivated to object ‘must’ be unrepresentative.  Objectors have to go on winning, every time, forever; developers win once and the local beauty spot is gone.

10.       The common theme to much of the above is that big business and banks control the London government, regardless of party, and London government has taken upon itself the sovereign right to second-guess what’s correct for local areas.  This corruption – call it what it is – happens because Wessex voters put their cross next to candidates of the London-based parties.  It can’t end until they’re all able and willing to vote WR.