Posted by: Adam Roake | January 5, 2011

Chaotic Development – What We Might Be In For

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Coalition Government is intent on a significant dilution of the current development control system and instead a return to a permissive system where it is easier for house-builders to deliver their view of what the market wants.  Nick Boles much touted comments during question time at the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute End of Year 2010 (fast-forward to 07:01) offer confirmation that neither he, David Cameron nor Nick Clegg believe that town planning ‘works’, in the sense of delivering places people aspire to live and work in, so that chaotic development, dependent on market forces, is his, and by implication the Coalition Government’s, preferred approach. 

Certainly the on-going shenanigans from Mr Pickles over Regional Spatial Strategies (see here) would indicate a government that’s chaotic, in the sense they don’t know how to go about their business.  However, it is becoming clear that “chaotic development” is the guiding principle behind all of emerging policy including the Localism Bill.   I’ve written before about Mr Pickles’ true indifference to protecting the Green Belt, despite Coalition rhetoric elsewhere (e.g. The Coalition: our programme for government, page 11), and how the Coalition now appears to see evidence as an unnecessary burden on policy-making.  Just before Christmas, CLG asked anyone who’s interested to tell them what should be in the new National Planning Framework.   It is really difficult to see how one might respond sensibly to this request.  The four key outputs from the new Framework will be:

  • hand power back to local communities to decide what is right for them – instead of imposing excessive rigid rules from the centre
  • be more user-friendly and accessible, so that it is easier for members of the public to have a meaningful say in planning decisions
  • make sure that planning is used as a mechanism for delivering Government objectives only where it is relevant, proportionate and effective to do so
  • establish a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

So no rigid rules, although the old five and fifteen year supplies of identified housing land will be required (see Steve Quartermain’s letter of 6 July 2010), and if you haven’t got them there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development (although not very sustainable because you can depend on cars again); user-friendly and accessible – hmm, can a technical paper from CLG be user-friendly and accessible; no mention of what Government’s planning objectives might be, so appropriate mechanisms might be tricky to devise; and finally, you will allow development or else we will for you! 

And finally, I’ve just watched Greg Clark telling us about the latest central diktats on parking (fast forward to 0:55), which provides another example of how either evidence or reasoned argument are now unnecessary in policy-making.  Apparently restricting parking in new housing development is “crazy” because “… it doesn’t make cars disappear; instead, it makes people drive around, annoying neighbours and causing congestion”.  All of the research underpinning previous policy of restraint seems to count for nothing (although of course the evidence is still available for use at Appeal), because the minister has decided that policy is “crazy” – and he should know.  Furthermore, when you actually check the revised PPG13, you find that maximum standards have been retained for all uses, except residential, and anyway paragraph 50(2) still prohibits LPAs from demanding more parking than developers wish to provide. 

As we have seen with the Local Standards element of the National Framework (I still don’t understand how that works), Mr Shapps believes that “House builders are the experts at building homes” so that they will now lead on producing appropriate standards for new housing.  Clearly the government’s intention is not that LPAs should set minimum standards for parking or anything but rather that developers should be allowed to dictate standards.  As I suppose one might expect, there is an almost touching ideological belief that the private sector is best placed to build what needs to be built and to know where it needs to be built; if only house-builders were freed from the shackles of a “broken planning system” and allowed to get on with it, local people would soon see how much they really want the new housing the house-builders deliver.  It would be funny were it not so deluded.  Housebuilders are not the experts at building homes, they are experts are making profit out of building homes.  These two are not synonymous.  The business model doesn’t require that they build well-designed housing and neighbourhoods that people aspire to live and work in, only what they can sell at any given time (this FT article is illuminating in this respect) .  They only need to provide sufficient quality to make the sale. They don’t need to embrace concepts about place making, they simply need to minimise their cost and preferably by omitting such concepts altogether, since that usually doesn’t significantly affect sale prices.   And they certainly don’t want to build so much new housing that values begin to stagnate or even fall.  Without regulation they will build to the lowest common denominator sufficient to sell homes and they have no interest in the future of the neighbourhood they’ve created. The house-building business model is simply to maximise profit.  That’s just the way it is.  Trusting them to build our future neighbourhoods, without regulation, is at best naive and at worst cynical.

It would seem then that we can expect a return to a planning regime similar to the 1980s; fundamentally permissive and with a lowest common denominator approach to quality.  It will be up to LPAs to apply what control they can and then only at the behest of their constituents.  Well-resourced neighbourhoods might be able to prevent development in their immediate area but only by shouting louder than their poorer neighbours.  As in the 1980s, housing delivery will continue at chronically low rates certainly insufficient to meet the Coalition’s own population predictions.  These suggest 232,000 new homes will be required every year until 2033 and we haven’t seen housing completions consistently above that level since before Margaret Thatcher was first elected.  The good news for most of us is that there will continue to be inflationary pressure on house prices so that our single most valuable asset is likely to rise at a rate significantly above inflation.  The bad news is that our children will suffer for our greed.

If I am right, Local Authorities should at least get their act together and complete Local Development Documents in double quick time, particularly the Core Strategy and Site Allocations documents.  They will need to be very careful to ensure they have robust housing trajectories and an appropriate identified land supply, because without these, the general presumption in favour of development will enable a development free for all.  In addition they will need to lobby for a robust “Local Standards” document within the National Planning Framework.  I think the key to this will be a thorough definition of “sustainable development”, which should include some tough design quality requirements covering both homes and neighbourhood, such as a minimum Building For Life score of 14 and the space standards proposed in the Draft Replacement London Plan.

For developers and house builders, the outlook is obviously much rosier.  Government are “lifting the burden from the backs of builders” and putting them in charge of writing their own new regulations.  The only thing you need to do is listen carefully to the locals and make sure you have a sensible and reasoned answer for why their objections aren’t valid/ affordable/ founded on sound evidence.  Basically you should be coining it guys and you’re shareholders will expect some serious returns. 

As for ordinary people, I think you’re onto a loser.  And it will be your own fault.  If you had shouted louder than the next door neighbourhood you might have convinced your local council to build the nasty housing estate there.  But they had to let it be built somewhere because there is a general presumption in favour of sustainable development and your neighbourhood made the least noise.  Localism a la Coaltion will I fear turn out to be laissez-faire libertarianism.

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Responses

  1. Spot on with everything you say Adam.

    The only thing we have to agree to disagree on is the one size fits all approach to the private car when it comes to rural communities. Attempting to squeezing the car out of rural development, by constricting the available off street parking, has achieved nothing other than pavement parking, lost front gardens and neighbour conflict. Very reluctantly, this is probably one of the very few things I agree with Pickles on – density and gardens classed as brown field being the only others.

    The big question is, how do we break through these negative ministerial attitudes before too much damage is done, ala 70s and 80s with its flat roofed, featureless, monotonous and often cheap and nasty development, both commercial and residential?

    You can almost picture the current Barrett, Wimpey and Persimmon executives dusting of their urban street designs from way back when and trying to see how they can update them to meet current standards in the cheapest way possible.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Roger, and good to see you’ve started your own blog. I particularly like the idea of opening a take away next door to Mr Boles (http://gambba.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/grantham-mp-nick-boles-calls-for-chaos-in-local-government-planning/)!

    I’m not sure I do disagree regarding parking in rural development, where car dependency is just a fact of life (there are issues about how sustainable rural development might be but let’s not go there). The issue I see is that Mr Pickles and team have left it entirely to developers to decide how much parking to provide – local authorities are not required to set a maximum but equally they may not require a minimum level. That doesn’t necessarily solve the problems you’ve identified and it certainly isn’t a Localist approach.


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