“The planning rules in this country are not designed to shape development. They are designed to prevent it.” The speaker is Freddie Poser, director of Priced Out, a housing affordability lobby group, but it could be anyone in the construction industry.
Planning in the UK ie. Slow. Bureaucratic. Unpredictable. And getting worse. In a recent twist, Natural England demanded that 120,000 newly built homes be put on hold until developers can prove they are not contributing to nutrient pollution. “A complete disaster,” said the Community Planning Alliance.
The result is a housing shortage. Vacant dwellings represent 2.6% of the stock, by far the lowest level among comparable countries: in France it is 8%, in Japan 14%. The houses are also small. The average number of new builds in England in the UK is 76 million.twocompared to 112mtwo in France and 137mtwo in Denmark. The room size in the UK is less than half that of Denmark.
Planners are overwhelmed
So what’s wrong? Where to start. “There is no rule book in the UK, or should I say England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as planning is decentralized,” says Poser. “Instead, there are multiple acts that span decades. There are endless sticky patches, endless changes, endless levels of environmental reviews and design reviews that the council needs to consider.”
A planner must consider soil conditions, land stability, ecology, drainage, flood risk, road safety, travel plans, sustainability, trees, net biodiversity gain, impact on landscape, noise, air quality, energy, heritage and public participation.
Then there is the location. There are National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the green belt and conservation areas. Anything with a listed building brings its own problems.
Thus, a simple project, such as the demolition of a two-storey building in Enfield and its replacement with four towers, required 195 documents. This included a response from Sport England about increased leisure demand (swimming pool demand would increase by 0.04 pools, plus 0.05 lanes from an indoor bowling centre).
Planners are naturally overwhelmed. There are very few, and those that do exist are underfunded.
Cut budget planning
The Royal Institute of Town Planning (RTPI), which represents the town planners, conducted a survey to find out the condition of the members. Nearly three-quarters think constant planning changes by governments have hampered their ability to offer good venues. More than half think these changes have hampered housing development. Nearly 70% think they are less able to deliver the benefits of planning compared to 10 years ago.
Arguably, lack of funding is counterproductive. A few more pounds in the planning budget would unlock projects, stimulate the construction industry and ultimately reduce pressure on house prices, helping the rest of the economy. Professor Alister Scott of Northumbria University is a strong supporter of planners trying to cope despite lack of resources and being misled by politicians. “The RTPI report on public planning resources in 2019 revealed that the total net investment in planning is now just £400m,” says Scott. “This is 50 times less than local authority spending on housing welfare and 20 times less than estimates of the additional increase in land value that could be captured for the public during development.”
This can present a picture of planners strewn over legal documents. However, the human element plays an important role in consent planning. Research by Leader Floors shows that planning authorities such as Wigan, Isles of Scilly and Richmond approve over 95% of applications; in Hillingdon and East Hertfordshire, the pass rate is less than 40%.
“It’s very political,” says Grace Manning-Marsh, chief of staff at LandTech, a software platform for automating the planning process. Decisions for all major applications of 10 or more residential units are made by local councilors, who can override the planning officer’s recommendation. This is often done for a reason other than planning and the council is left to find a policy to attribute it to. These applications often end up being successful on appeal, but this is a time-consuming and costly approach to obtaining planning permission.”
Subjectivity can be seen, he says, when two planning officers have opposing views on the same project. An application may be rejected, only to be repeated in almost identical form and given the green light by another planning officer.
She tells the story of a planning committee in Oxford, led by Labor councillors, which voted against building a new primary school against an official’s recommendation. No significant factors were cited. The school in question was a Free School, part of the educational policy of the Conservative party. A committee member said he would not support a Tory party policy. The request was appealed and the school opened a few years later.
Rules allow nimbys to block developments
Finally, there is the developer’s bane: Section 106’s delay tactic. In theory, Section 106 ensures that developers contribute back to the community to offset the impact on newcomers. This must be a mathematically calculated sum. In practice, it can be anything but that. “He has been armed,” says one commenter, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Counselors may want to block a development for political reasons. So they make Section 106 so onerous that the developer refuses. They can do it, so there’s no way a developer can check all the boxes, it’s just too hard.”
Agile instinct, short for “not in my backyard,” thrives in this jungle of politics. Even cabinet ministers can throw a wrench in the works. In Enfield, the plan to build four towers, including 132 affordable flats, won council approval, only to be personally vetoed by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, at the urging of Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers. Villiers’s objections focused on scale and design. Shapps blocked development due to loss of parking. The site is located next to the metro stop.
Construction companies know the cost of this failure. Delayed applications. absurd expense. Eroded faith in the system’s sanity as decisions are rejected on bizarre pretexts.
Overall, the cost to the industry and the nation is incalculable. The construction industry is hammered. And life for many is miserable due to the costs and quality of housing. research by [itals]The times[itals] found that 90% of advertised share houses in London lack a living room. The common space is converted into a bedroom. It is a miserable way to live.
“Planning doesn’t necessarily make a development better and it certainly doesn’t make it more beautiful,” says Poser. “It stops development and hampers UK growth.”
It is worth noting that the most beautiful cities in Europe existed before formal planning. The city of Florence is a mess of added stories, messy roofs, improvised ornamentation, and narrow streets. The apartments on Piazza San Pier Maggiore were built centuries ago, at the rear of a now-demolished church where Botticini’s Palmieri altarpiece once hung. The poet Byron declared himself intoxicated with the beauty of the city.
According to our current urban regulations, there would hardly be a building in Florence.
When Florence is banned but soulless rectangular blocks thrive, it’s clear something has gone wrong.