What Follows the Age of Neoliberal Planning Policy?

As we have written here many times the NPPF was the culmination of the project of realizing Neoliberal ideology within Planning Policy.

The current May government seems a distinct shift away from Neoliberalism – similar to around the world – abandoning its key aims of a minimal state with austerity and low government intervention.   A shift underway even before the Brexit vote in the key institutions of the IMF and World Bank.  Secular stagnation, increasing inequality and stalled wages growth in the developed had undermined the key argument that marketisation would lift all boats.

Now even the right wing dumb tanks like ASI have started embracing a term hitherto used as a term of abuse a clear sign of being on the intellectual back foot.

Neoliberalism always had a loose grip on planning policy.  It was not a good fit because even Hayeck recognised the need for a planning system to safeguard property rights and avoiding courts becomining overburdened.

Its introduction in the NPPF was done in the crudest possible way.

Let me explain, human settlement anywhere in the world is the result of one of three kinds of planning.

  • Planning By Grid – formally planned areas, usually only affordable and sufficient to house the upper echelons of society and the only areas provided with proper infrastructure and services.
  • Planning By Exception –  Used by the most wealthy and powerful to short circuit planning rules to develop the most desirable and exclusive land.
  • Planning by Occupation – those who cant afford to live on the Grid, are forced to live off it, through informal settlement, beds in sheds or simply sofa surfing or living in mums basement.

Every single example of human habitation around the globe can be assigned to one of these three categories and they can easily be mapped.  They map directly to the geographical location of class in countries with weak planning systems.

The origin of the street grid and urban planning, in ancient Eygyptian temple cities and the writings of Hippamus of Miletus are clear, planning is to build the city for the  worthy, the virtious, the powerful.

The NPPF rather than expanding ‘Planning by Grid’ expended ‘Planning by Exception’ to those with the money and resources to force schemes through the system.  There was a utopian belief that local communities everywhere would rise up and deliver neighbourhood plans through ‘Planning by Occupation’ but without access to land the main outcome of neighbourhood planning has been to enhance rentier income through keeping land prices in villages high.

The fundamental contradiction of neoliberalism was though it proposed free markets it loudest exponents were those who benefited from rentier incomes.  The rhetoric was a mask for narrowing not extending markets, keeping house prices high and policies such as overwide Green Belts which maximised rentier income.  The world came to distrust neoliberalism as millennials realized it was a scam to protect the property interests of baby boomers and hell to everyone else, a policy which destablised financial markets.

This is perhaps clearest in the assault on ‘Planning by Grid’ in the NPPF and planning reforms.  Regional planning was lambasted by Pickles and Cameron because of a perceived threat to Green Belts.  It had to go.  But embarrassingly the need had not gone away and every single area mentioned in CCO press releases as little as two years ago is now planning far larger Green Belt releases.  The treat to force local plan progress through planning by appeal, and the architects of the NPPF such as Alex Morton and Johathen Rhodes are contrite and open about its failures.

A shift away from neoliberalism means a shift more towards ordoliberalism and Christian democracy and towards the social market with its key ideology of some form of social compact between classes and different segments of society and layers of government.  Hence the new emphasis on  social housing.

We shall have to see how far the government will go to move away from the NPPF.  I doubt it will change dramatically for fear of destablisation.  But far from being the centre of things I think its appeal led approach will become more residual.  Zoning and subdivision planning, masterplanning and new Settlements served European Christian democracies well and many of its methods and solutions will be adopted without acknowledging the very European source.   Rather countries such as Malaysia and Canada, which learnt from the Europeans, will be held up as role models.

Where local plans are late the government will try to find some proxy to do them that doesn’t look like a regional assembly.  County councils will make a come back in areas with two tiers and in the half the country that is unitary combined authorities and joint plans will be the norm.  The government has still to get its head around how to deal with overspill from major cities like London (as highlighted in the LPEG report), especially where some authorities retain tight Green Belts.   Some authorities are bringing forward Garden Cities, but mainly to deal with local need not overspill.  Here National Government needs to take far more of a leadership role.  I would not be surprised to see a National Policy Statement on Garden Cities led by a body such as the National Infrastructure Commission to deal with overspill need, which would not prevent locally led Garden cities, suburbs and Garden Villages to deal with local need.  I also would be be surprised to see an opdated New Towns Act to deal with value capyure, as long as the leasehold reform act which would prevent Letchworth like Trusts being set up today, is reformed.  See here and here for my ideas on this.