When you create tax or regulatory regimes which are more complex and unpredictable than necessary then lots of bad things normally happen. Markets become uncompetitive and opaque, the need to provide quality is undermined and new competitors are discouraged. That is particularly the case in the land and housing markets which are naturally imperfect. One home is rarely a perfect substitute for another home. And a developer nearing the end of one housing development cannot simply buy his next parcel of land on a Friday and start building on the Monday.
This is why it matters that the English planning system is so complex. This is the smoking gun if you want to understand why we don’t build enough homes in this country. The English planning system is not predictable as good regulation should be. It operates on a discretionary case-by-case basis almost unique when you examine other countries’ approaches. This is the fundamental difference to nearly all other approaches. In turn, greater uncertainty has increased planning risk, pushed up the price of permissioned land and acted as a rising barrier to entry. It’s no coincidence that the proportion of homes delivered by small builders is declining (12% and falling); that only 10% of our homes are self-built versus a 50% European average; or that modular construction is struggling to gain a foothold.
I was one of the task force which fed into the Government’s Planning for the Future consultation paper. It is bolder and more radical than much of the work of Create Streets or the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which has sought to be more incremental. That undoubtedly brings risks. Will the market ‘turn off’ as landowners and developers await the new normal? But the white paper is getting three big things right.
Firstly, it accepts that the popular beauty and liveability of the new settlements that we create matters. It matters for the public acceptance of their creation and for the lives that our children and children’s children will lead in them. There’s a growing corpus of evidence that many of the components that make places beautiful (such as walkable streets, ‘gentle density’ and street trees) also make them healthy, happy and sustainable. Far too few new places achieve this, less than a quarter in one recent study. That must change with more visual local plans setting popular ‘pattern books’ for what’s acceptable.
Secondly, the white paper is spot on that we need to create a more predictable level playing field.it is the first serious attempt to fix this and to move beyond a simple “anti-planning” rhetoric. Implemented well, this white paper should free up planners better to support the public and to be strategic planners not just development control officers.
Finally, the white paper is right that we need to ‘bring the democracy forward’ and re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which councils engage publicly in the creation of local plans. Creating shorter, more powerful and more visual local plans will help but councils will also need to reinvent their use of digital technology.
These proposals should help to move planning from a culture of fear to a culture of affirmation. We are heirs to beautiful towns, set in incomparable countryside. Our goal should be to pass that heritage to our successors, not depleted but enhanced. That is what it means to build beautifully. Well-implemented, these proposals should help achieve that. Beauty is not an arbitrary addition to the builder’s aims but fundamental to promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth.
The author is the director of Create Streets and was co-chair of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission