Creating places of beauty and opportunity
Review of Planning 2020 (Final Report of the Raynsford Review of Planning in England Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), November 2018) (1)
by Peter Latham
Socialism means planning, of services and facilities, of the economy, and of towns, cities and villages. Few realise today what good town planning can do for people, in neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. Most regard it as an opaque practice, or an obstacle to extending their home.
HOW PLANNING HAS CHANGED
Yet in 1947 it began with fine ideas. The development rights of land were nationalised. The rise in land value after planning permission ("betterment") would accrue not to the landowner, but to the community. This provision did not survive the 1951 Tory Government. Later in 1961 the conservatives gave landowners the right to expect "hope value" when their land was developed. (2), putting paid to early ambition and letting land speculation increase. (Hope value is the term used to describe the market value of land based on the hope of getting planning permission for development on it.) In 2014 land acquisition costs could be 40% of the cost of a new house, whereas in Milton Keynes after 1970 they were only 1%. (3)
In 1947 comprehensive land use planning control was introduced. Responsibility was delegated to local councils, who would prepare a plan and manage development in accordance with it. Unfit areas would be redeveloped using compulsory purchase powers. This framework survives today except that big holes have been punched in it centrally by extra permitted development, allowing empty commercial buildings to be freely converted to flats on unsuitable warehouse parks with no minimum standards. These are the slums of the future. Compulsory purchase has all but vanished.
To make matters worse, local government has been carved up piecemeal, forming a chaotic patchwork. Powers are now split between counties and districts in some places or sit with unitary authorities in others. Elsewhere some powers are devolved to combined authorities to promote elected mayors. Funding has been repeatedly cut. Regional ministry offices have been closed and regional planning scrapped. Permission in principle has since been centrally imposed on brownfield sites for house building, with the local planning authority only able to assess the details of such schemes. The change represents an erosion of local democracy, and a further bias towards developers. Today we have a centralised, fragmented and understaffed system hardly capable of carrying out its duties.
The Review argues that today's planning is little more than a land-licensing system for private housebuilders. Public intervention is insufficient to provide happy outcomes for people where they need it. Other regulatory regimes, such as licensing, building control and housing standards have been changed for the worse over a long period.
Imagine working under such constant, regressive change. Yet the Raynsford Review refuses to be cowed, arguing for ambitious reforms. It makes 24 recommendations for action by Parliament, national and local government, professional bodies, universities, the Law Commission, communities, the private sector, and civil society groups. It suggests a road map for change, starting with achievable measures, building confidence for necessary radical solutions as soon as possible.
The suggested improvements are:
- A new legal purpose to promote long term sustainable development, social justice, and the well-being of individuals; to reduce inequality and to increase resilience to climate change. “Sustainable” means without compromise to future generations, not “economically viable.”
- An extensive dialogue about the values of democratic planning between all cross-sector partners: professions, private and public sector organisations, amenity bodies and government ministries.
- An enhanced people-centred Local Plan, positive and powerful, with more efficient preparation.
- A new role for local authorities as master developers, with a strengthened public sector lead, as recommended by the Letwin Review (4).
- The power for communities to plan effectively, along with increased accountability and community participation.
- People to be given the rights in the Aarhus Convention 1998: access to information, a right to participate and a right to challenge. A transformation in public awareness of planning and our development needs.
- Higher space and accessibility standards, so people benefit directly. A legal duty for Councils to plan for decent and genuinely affordable homes.
- A new building code to shape the quality of places, protecting peoples’ health, safety and well-being, consistent with new national standards on space and accessibility. Not subject to viability testing, and in tune with local and strategic plan policy.
- A simpler hierarchy of national, sub-regional, and local development plans. Optional neighbourhood plans, locally produced, would not be over-ridden when challenged by vested interests, as can happen today.
- Special delivery bodies, such as Development Corporations, to implement plans and projects in areas with long term economic challenges.
- A new Sustainable Development and Well-Being Act, consolidating 28 years of piecemeal legal amendments. Integration of the various legislative regimes: town and country planning, nationally significant infrastructure projects, and new towns.
- Realignment of the agencies of English planning, distinguishing policy making bodies from delivery agencies. A re-purposed National Infrastructure Commission and an enhanced role for Homes England.
- Effective powers of land assembly and land value capture for public authorities, with a strengthened status for the development plan to enable it to socialise betterment values.
- Redistribution of national land tax revenues to low demand areas, by using revenue from stamp duty land tax, and by a review of the total revenue stream presently derived from land taxation.
- Finally, the creation of innovative, visionary planners with the skills, enthusiasm and ethical commitment to create places of beauty and opportunity. University planning schools should have a social mandate to support good outcomes for people. Planners should have improved standing especially in local government, and a “Do No Harm” obligation should be included in built environment professional codes of conduct.
THE TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING ASSOCIATION
The Association’s purpose is to pursue better place-making, with better life chances for everyone.
Founded by Ebenezer Howard in 1899 as the Garden City Association, the TCPA has long campaigned for healthier new settlements and better planning generally. Its thinking is deeply sceptical of neoliberal economics, and has a strong utopian current, including around land reform. In the last 10 years its work has been notable for vigorous campaigns on sustainable infrastructure and a return to garden city thinking. This effort has borne fruit in Parliament, in the professions and development sector. One result has been the report of the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee on Land Value Capture (5), widely regarded as authoritative, and useful to progressive opinion.
The wide-ranging recommendations illustrate both the complexity of capitalist society in its development sector and the extent of the crisis we are living through. Disjointed, backward looking government prevails. Sadly, proper planning is seen as unnecessary nowadays. The challenge is enormous, even for modest gains. There are vested interests to be confronted, and silo thinking to be broken down. Many players should improve their game if good planning is to be inspired by social principles rather than pragmatism.
The discussion allows a glimpse of how building a new planning system, with its focus on health, well-being and freedom from current contradictions, could be akin to the making of a new society on a socialist economic base.
A Labour government committed to redistribution will have much to do in the planning field. The desired improvements in housing, health, public transport, employment, open space, recreation, retailing and distribution, utilities, carbon reduction as well as science and manufacturing must be brought about locally by the good use of land, minimising inefficiencies and harm; in short a new way of living on the ground.
The present uplift in value captured of about 50% (5) should be increased, but must go mostly to local authorities, rather than the Treasury. However, as long as development land remains privately owned, socialisation of the benefits will be limited.
In 1945 there was a push for nationalisation of development land, but even then the balance of forces would not permit it. The result was the high taxation of betterment, a system that was readily scrapped by the Conservatives in the 1950’s after the Labour upsurge had died down. Good planning needs more socialist awareness.
(1) The Review Team spent 18 months taking evidence in seminars, discussions and meetings, receiving 200 submissions from public, private and third sector organisations, and individuals. It was chaired by Nick Raynsford, TCPA President and former Labour Housing Minister.
(2) Land Compensation Act 1961
(3) Ellis H and Henderson K. Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a Better Future. Policy Press 2014. P.128-9.
(4) Letwin, O: Independent Review of Build Out: Final Report. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and HM Treasury 29 October 2018.
(5) Land Value Capture HC766. Tenth Report of Session 2017-19 Housing, and Communities and Local Government Select Committee, Sept 2018 para 28.