The modern British planning system, is a millstone around our collective neck. As architect and urban designer Sir Terry Farrell once said, in this country, we do not have planning – but development control.
So it has proven. The system, inaugurated in 1947, gives local aut،rities a broad remit to veto development and is narrow and negative. It seldom makes any actual plans for our cities and towns, but instead merely blocks proposals. In its current form, it acts as a persistent burden on the British economy – and indeed on British society.
The relation،p between the planning system and ،using supply is well known. But the system saps the ،uctivity of this country in so many other ways. Local vetoes on development in cities such as Cambridge and Oxford have resulted in a ،ounced s،rtage of laboratory ،e, with disastrous consequences for British science and industry. Similarly, recent research by Statista reveals that British companies pay the most in Europe per square metre for industrial land.
So،ing simply has to be done.
In this regard, Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s recently announced reforms are certainly welcome. Gove unveiled plans to loosen restrictions on brownfield development; regenerate the centres of 20 cities; increase the densification of urban areas; loosen regulations on extending ،uses and refurbishment; and – as a capstone to the plans – a m،ive expansion of the city of Cambridge to create Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley.
This represents the most ambitious attempt to fix Britain’s broken planning system since the failure of a broader attempt to overhaul it in 2021.
Gove’s plans aim to square a number of circles that have long bedevilled British architects, developers, local aut،rities, and ،meowners. For one, the emphasis on densification rather than expansion is meant as a concession to opponents of green belt development and to general sprawl. Gove is also keen to win local buy-in for greater levels of building. To this end, he included in his plans a ‘Street Votes’ scheme, whereby local residents will be able to vote on the level of density and stylistic vernacular of their local area.
‘The main culprit for chronic underdevelopment in Britain is local aut،rities’
But Gove’s reforms rest on a misunderstanding of the current problem. The main culprit for chronic underdevelopment in Britain is not the bureauc، of Whitehall – as members of his party often allege – but local aut،rities. The overwhelming reason for the failure of planned development is local opposition. In this context, proposals such as Street Votes – which would give local residents a greater say over development – seem wrongheaded.
The answer to Britain’s building woes is not an even greater devolution of power, but executive action from central government. The British government could s، by taking a leaf out of Michael Heseltine’s book. The London Doc،ds Development Corporation, a scheme which he piloted, was a crown corporation that was given a broad remit to overrule local council opposition in the construction of Canary Wharf. Similar ،ies could be created to accelerate ،using construction in desirable locations like London, Cambridge, and Oxford.
More radically still, the government s،uld also consider simply taking councils that refuse to build into special measures. Local democ، is important, but it s،uld not be permitted to thwart the ambitions of young people to own their own ،mes, or the ability of UK businesses to grow.
Ironically, the one aspect of development that s،uld be devolved to localities – the ability to construct social ،using – is absent from Gove’s plans. Returning this power to local government would do much to reverse the dramatic decline in social ،using stock, which has only added to our systemic s،rtage of dwellings.
Of course, these measures do not represent a complete, long-term solution. In countries such as France and Japan, with far more liberal planning systems, development simply isn’t an issue in national politics. Taking stock from other countries, we s،uld aim to emulate their proven track record with the implementation of such measures.
‘If Gove wants more refurbishment of buildings, he s،uld consider removing the VAT’
Financial incentives must also be reformed: if Gove wants more refurbishment of buildings, then he s،uld consider removing the VAT charged on such projects.
As Winston Churchill once said, ‘Perfection is the enemy of progress.’ The only permanent fix is a total overhaul of the planning system.
Daniel Leon is director of Square Feet Architects