Sunday, February 9, 2020

Planning for growth or sustainability?

Policy Exchange (Jack Airey) has produced a very interesting and challenging report on the planning system: Re-thinking the Planning System for the 21st Century.

The critique illustrates two features of the current system. Local panning authorities are their own worst enemies, exposing themselves and the system to these fundamental criticisms.  But the reason why Airey is right to predict that the recommendations will give rise to ‘scare stories’ is because of the mess that has resulted from most of the contributions the private sector has made to development in the last decade or so.  The justified criticisms of the current system might suggest wholesale reform, were the private sector to have earned or now merit any trust.  The planning system will have imposed costs on the private sector, but there is no reason to believe that greater freedom from regulation would result in greater quality or, importantly, greater levels of sustainability and resilience.  Many of the problems and delays would be sorted were the private sector to deliver quality, sustainability, affordability without the need for protracted negotiations and coercion.  

Policy Exchange chooses to keep the identity of its funding under wraps so readers are unable to see the names of the pipers playing this tune.  Work by PE would also carry greater credibility were its research to informed by the fact that the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the world.  There is no evidence that the wealth of the few will be employed for the benefit of the many if there was less regulation over the use of land and buildings.

PE has also chosen not to declare a climate emergency to ensure that climate change and biodiversity loss inform all its work.  In fact there is a repeated paragraph intended to show that Airey has taken climate change into account:
Climate leadership.
A reformed planning system will allow the building of infrastructure more easily, not least the infrastructure necessary to achieve the UK target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (e.g. more wind farms and better public transport).”
About 2 of the 100 pages purport to demonstrate this, but refer only to on-shore wind, broadband and an abandoned tram.   A reformed planning system is indeed needed to address the carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, but Airey has not shown that this will be achieved by the private sector through less rather than more regulation (and enforcement).  The Building Regulations could do some of this job but sustainability is much more than the structural and thermal performance of buildings and drains.

As he says, beauty need not add to costs, and there is no reason to believe that a freed up private sector is any more capable of delivering sustainable housing than it has been of delivering beautiful environments.  The report describes the limited freedoms enjoyed through ‘permitted development’ rights, but does not mention the way the right to change from office use to residential has resulted in some of the most sub-standard living accommodation since the advent of the planning system in 1947.

The system controlling the use and development of land and buildings does need to change but, for the next decade, this must be in a way that prioritises the need to reduce carbon emissions (including those embodied in new buildings and infrastructure) and not to enable economic growth as measured by Policy Exchange.