How do we avoid a Shift to Zoning leading to Segregated Cities

Oliver Wainright in the Guardian about the Housing and Planning Bill – he contacted me in advance but I was travelling in Africa.

Hugh Ellis seems ever more outspoken on the zoning ‘permission in principle’ issue

“It is extremely dangerous,” says Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association. “It could apply to all forms of development – for example, fracking could easily be given ‘permission in principle’ as part of a minerals plan. You can’t make a decision in principle about a site until you know the detail of its implications, from flood risk appraisal to the degree of affordable housing. Giving permission in principle would fundamentally undermine our ability to build resilient, mixed communities in the long term.”

Ellis fears that the bill marks the introduction of a “zonal” planning system, along US lines, whereby land is zoned for particular uses at a broad-brush scale and permission granted without the finer-grain negotiation of applications on a case-by-case basis, which has always defined the English postwar planning system.

Zoning is one of the major contributors to the economic and social segregation of cities in America,” says Ellis. “If the government is going to make such a fundamental change to the planning system there needs to be an enormous amount of public debate and research. The future of British cities is at stake here, but there’s been no white paper and no public discussion at all.”

I certainly agree and have argued that such a fundamental change requires much more research and discussion through a white paper and ultimately a dedicated bill.  However the sheer success of many zoning based systems, of delivering higher quality housing in volume, especially in continental Europe, means that I think we must shift towards a zoning based system.  We are almost unique – apart from Ireland and Jersey, in having a discretionary development control based system.  It makes every case a spot zoning hearing with design review – which shows that features of a dc based system can be added selectively to a zoning system – as they are for example in Vancouver – but making every case discretionary is a enormous waste of developer and planner resources as the principles of development have to be argued multiple times.

Is Hugh right that ‘Zoning is one of the major contributors to the economic and social segregation of cities in America’.  I think the evidence and research conducted on this matter shows this to be partial.  Zoning has certainly been used in the US as a tool to encourage racial segregation, and social segregation through mandating sprawl.  However as every history of US zoning from a comparative perspective shows this was almost unique to America (and a lesser extent Austrailia) with zoning on the continent being used as a tool for social inclusion and planning of diverse compact cities.  Equally rules encouraging segregation and sprawl can equally be possible in discretionary systems – if national policy or laws dont prevent them.

Exhibit number one here is the standard text – Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation Sonja Hirt Cornell University Press 2015


It takes an outsider like Hirt—who is Bulgarian and therefore familiar with both European cities and governmental power—to recognize the stark differences between the control of land in American cities and that in their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world. A professor of planning at Virginia Tech, Hirt positions herself as the Alexis de Toqueville of planning, equally baffled and fascinated by the odd world that Americans have built. …

Zoning was originally conceived as a way of separating noxious or harmful land uses from people who might be harmed by them. Europeans enacted hierarchical zoning, in which objectionable uses were excluded and anything not explicitly excluded was permitted.

The United States takes the opposite approach. Noxious uses aren’t segregated. Instead, prized uses are the ones that are segregated. Under this “flat” zoning scheme, “urban and suburban worlds in which everything was not only in its place but was also in its own separate place.” This approach isn’t so much wise as it is lazy. It’s easier to exclude “incompatible” uses than it is to promote diversity. And incompatibility is infinitely reductive, with potential conflicts and desired exclusions at every turn, until its reaches the level of single-family detached house. That’s why, where single-family neighborhoods are concerned, bakeries are treated no differently from nuclear power plants.

In addition zoning was often used as a tool of racial segregation in the US in a way that it was not in Europe – even under fascism – although in continental Europe Jews for example were already segregated into Ghettos in most countries by pre zoning laws perpetuated by prejudice.  So arguably there was little ‘need’ for it.

It is fairly easy to ascertain the principles under which zoning is a progressive inclusionary tool. and these should either be embodied on the face of the housing and Planning Bill or in the NPPF.  The TCPA should be taking a leaf out of its US counterparts and arguing for their enactment.  My 10 point plan.

  1.  Zoning should always be based on a ‘permitted unless harmful’ basis rather than ‘only permitted’
  2. Zoning should incorporate the German ‘daily needs test’ to allow – indeed mandate, community facilities and local shops
  3. No zoning should take place before design of the community – at concept superblock scale – this indeed is the golden rule of planning.  Design first plan later.
  4. Local Authorities should have the power, as in Germany, Netherlands and France – to acquire land at existing use value subdivide and sell.
  5. There should be explicit regulation of plot subdivision and amalgamation. To prevent segregation through plot size.
  6. ‘Inclusionary zoning’ such as for affordable housing should be mandated
  7. Local planning authorities should be required to mandate rules for ‘exaction’ minimum and maximum space for roads, open space and public facilities, and this should be transferred at the point zoning is granted.  This should be enabled by a national enabling regulation – no need for 106s for these
  8. Enact part 1 of the Equalities Act 2010 so LPAs are required to considered the social segregation impacts of zoning
  9. Introduce proper provision for rezoning and spot zoning review, make it either or – so you cant apply for planning permission if zoning permission in principle applies – that way the new provisions would bit and have no let out clause
  10. Include a mandate for large sites to include a 2% land provision for excluded groups – such as Gypsies and Travellers.

One thought on “How do we avoid a Shift to Zoning leading to Segregated Cities

  1. While living Greece I didn’t notice any stark segregated neighbourhoods, we just have to show a closer affinity with Europe than America. The government also needs to think intelligently when implementing laws like this, its implications will stretch far and it will hopefully speed up the construction of affordable homes.

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