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Planning has prevented squalor. Don’t scrap it

The government needs to fess up that its foray into the deregulation of planning has already created slums. Their white paper proposes a fatal return to “laissez-faire” in the middle of a health pandemic and climate emergency. It must be opposed, writes Christine Murray

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The deregulation of planning has already created slums
The deregulation of planning has already created slums

Developers like to whine about the uncertainty of planning in interviews as much as they like navy blue suits: rambling on about the difficulty of valuing land without planning permission, followed by gushing about American-style zoning.

 

The same developers are also lately donors to the Conservative Party. Property companies have donated £11m since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. All that money, in the same year that has seen construction sites kept open during a pandemic resulting in the above-average deaths of electrical engineers, plasterers and security guards, plus the extension of permitted development rights, and now, radical planning form.

 

I expect these same developers are delighted by Planning for the Future, the government white paper on planning reform, for which consultation closes tonight.

 

Planning reform could be a thoughtful process, but the Prime Minister’s foreword to the paper is a disturbing and unnecessary torrent of vacuous bluster: “The time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again.”

 

The government’s foray into deregulation has already created slums with Victorian-era problems

 

Deriding the current planning system for its “discretionary” and “case-by-case” approach, under the proposals land will be zoned for renewal, growth or protection. On land designated for growth, developers will have automatic permission to build without need to consult the community or anyone else, as long as they meet certain standards which haven’t been defined yet.

 

Built environment professionals may salivate over the ‘speed’ and ‘certainty’ of that system. But they should pause and reflect on what planning has successfully prevented, and imagine that on the site next door.

 

Since inception, planning has solved more significant problems for cities, the economy, businesses and people than it has caused.

 

Born of Cholera, as terraced houses marched into English cities, basic health legislation was needed to ensure adequate sewage and drinking water. And with Covid-19’s second spike accelerating, Dr Ben Clifford, associate professor of the Bartlett School of Planning fears the public health implications of the proposed ‘automatic’ planning approach.

 

“We’re going back to Victorian laissez-faire,” says Clifford, who was lead author of the government report on the quality of homes delivered through Permitted Development.

 

The Quaker industrialists demonstrated the link between the physical environment, the quality of housing and people’s health

 

“The timeline of planning, when we describe it, starts in the Victorian era when we had industrialisation in Britain and we didn’t have planning,” Clifford says during our interview for The Developer Podcast.

 

“We had really dreadful living conditions in back-to-back terraces, and it was actually the spread of disease, as well as concerns about people’s morals, that first led to housing campaigns, and to the planning of garden cities.”

 

Clifford described how, as planning matured, it increasingly became about placemaking as it looked to provide adequate green space and community facilities.

 

“The Quaker industrialists wanted their workers to be healthier and so started building the model villages, the Port Sunlights and the Bournevilles of this world. They demonstrated the link between the physical environment, the quality of housing and people’s health.”

 

While planning is often derided as being too complicated, it could equally be described as sophisticated, adaptive, flexible, complex and nuanced.

 

As Hugh Ellis, Head of Policy for the Town and Country Planning Association writes, it’s a system “capable of fulfilling the social, environmental and economic objectives of reconstruction and long-term land management.

 

“There is a logic and clarity to the structure of the system which has never been matched and it delivers on housing and conservation objectives in an unprecedentedly successful manner.”

 

Planning ensures that there are enough school places and employment, or at least transport connections to places to work, as well as adequate roads and basic infrastructure, drinking water, drainage, flood resilience and electricity for homes built.

 

The sophistication of the English planning system has facilitated the mixed-use reimaging of post-industrial wastelands across the country. It has also ensured that homes have adequate daylight. It has prevented slums by ensuring that places have a mix of tenure. It has, in short, planned for the future.

 

The challenges ahead are matched in their sophistication, from flood risk to water shortages, pandemics, climate change and the urgency of carbon mitigation.

 

“We are going back to an increasingly unmanaged, uncontrolled market,” Clifford says, at a time where we need to be managing and controlling growth.

 

If you remain unconvinced by the threat of planning reform, look at what the government’s early experiments in deregulation have produced under the expansion of Permitted Development Rights under change-of-use.

 

The government’s own review concluded all projects should be put through the planning system

 

The government’s own review showed how Permitted Development rights for office-to-residential conversions has resulted in slums with Victorian-era problems: overcrowding, overheating, risk of fire, poor air quality, and squalid criminal conditions in which children are forced to live.

 

Not all of the flats created under PDR were dangerous, Clifford, lead author of the report, admits, but some were: “We leave it to the market entirely, and it sits at the whim of developers. And yes, we get some conversions which are very nice and high quality, because these developers think about their reputation or think it more profitable to deliver high quality.

 

“But unfortunately, a larger number [of developers] don’t make those calculations and instead think the more units you can cram in the more profit you can make. They take the money and run.

 

The report recommends putting an end to permitted development for office-to-residential conversions and putting all projects through the planning system.

 

But on the very same day the government released Clifford’s findings (21 July), Housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced an extension to permitted development – to enable retail conversions, demolitions, and upward extensions to create homes, controversially throwing into uncertainty the future of every high street in the country.

 

The ability to convert shops into homes without permission flies in the face of initiatives such as the High Streets Task Force, commissioned by the government in 2019, and the Towns Fund regeneration scheme, recently under fire for the lack of transparency with which money was allocated.

 

In a tacit admission of how low standards had sunk, the government has stipulated that future office-to-residential conversions must have natural light

 

Most shopfronts are more lucrative once carved up into studio flats. Under the new permitted development rules, there is little that local authorities can do to prevent the conversion of shops into homes. But just as the disappearance of physical bank branches disproportionately affected the poor, the elimination of chemists, post offices, corner and charity shops could result in areas of deprivation where the lack of access to fresh-food shops and services adversely affects public health.

 

A consortium from the creative sector have also come together to oppose the changes to Permitted Development on the basis that it fails to protect creative venues.

 

“The White Paper leaves unclear whether creative venues are protected from PDR, and the proposed system of zoning disregards the fact that cultural locations are not confined to any particular zone, whether for conservation or renewal,” writes Gordon Seabright, CEO of the Creative Land Trust (Seabright is speaking at the Festival of Place).

“Reform should mean greater protection for creative venues – we all know how much we’ve missed them over recent months – and any Infrastructure Levy should recognise that there is more to urban life than housing.

 

“If the UK is serious about using its proven strengths to maintain a global leadership role after Brexit, then surely it makes sense to recognise that our amazing culture is a net benefit for everyone,” Seabright adds.

 

There is concern, too, about upward extensions allowed under permitted development: “The key issue to me on PD for additional storeys is that of right to light to neighbouring buildings usually regulated by the planning authorities,” comments architect Timothy Onyenobi, Director of AA Architecture in Manchester.

 

The recommendations made in the report on office-to-residential conversions were ignored with one notable exception; in a tacit admission of how low standards had sunk, the government has stipulated that future office-to-residential conversions must have natural light in all habitable rooms, and has said it will introduce minimum space standards.

 

The proposed changes aren’t sensible, they’re ideological

 

The need to immediately introduce these two regulations reveal an unfortunate truth for those eager to cut red tape. The elimination of a discretionary and negotiation-based planning system will mean the creation of reams of new standards if the quality of housing, amenity, infrastructure, mix-of-tenure and the environment are upheld. Across US cities, the volume of zoning laws is increasing rapidly.

 

The deal-making nature of the current planning system and its system of appeals can leave it open to corruption, politicking and community protest. But does the property industry really want the alternative – a regulatory by-the-book environment with no room for conversation, and the potential that another developer builds a slum next door?

 

Evolution, not revolution makes sense, not ripping up planning and starting again. But Clifford believes the proposed changes aren’t sensible, they’re ideological: “It’s free market fundamentalism.

 

“Planning of this sort… is a key part of our welfare state. But when you have an ideological driver against the Post War Social Democratic state, then you see a drive against planning.

 

“It’s a retreat away from the notions of planning serving some sort of higher purpose, for people’s health, people’s wellbeing, intervening to create better quality environments. It’s a return to let’s just leave the market and see what happens.”

 

And yet, Clifford believes the Covid-19 pandemic makes planning more important than ever – especially as we have observed the mental and physical health implications of obesity, air pollution, and lack of access to green space.

 

“The spread of infectious disease is on everyone’s mind. That does give us an opportunity to think a bit more about the importance of quality housing for everyone.”

 

“I’ve seen some interesting studies, particularly a graph linking overcrowding in a local authority with the rates of spread of Covid. Clearly if you’ve got smaller dwellings to begin with, it’s more likely to be overcrowded. Given the number of people who are going to live there, and this is a disease that spreads through proximity. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch for the imagination to see the link [between space standards and disease.”

 

“We can see the spread of disease… in places like Singapore where you have migrant workers having to live in dormitories, and that’s where they’ve had most of their Covid spread. And actually it was respiratory disease which was such a concern for the Victorians.”

 

As Clifford says, “we never see the harmful things that planning has prevented.”

 

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Planning reform is one of many topics discussed at the Festival of Place, which runs 2 November - 13 November online. Buy your pass and see you there

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