Going Binary – the New Chief Planning Advisor’s Manic Proposals for the Planning White Paper

The path from Policy Exchange to Downing street advisor is a well trodden one.  We of course had the ideas from the tenure of Alex ”Half Baked’ Marsh – including Starter Homes (not one of which has been built).

Now we have Jack Airey appointed as number 10s Housing and Policy Advisor – an entirely self appointed expert in the field with again no professional background or qualifications in the field other than having scribbled a provocative pamphlet or two from that favorite SW1 Dumbtank – the Policy Exchange.  Further ‘wierdos and misfits’ will follow surely.

This would not be so worrying if the Planning White Paper was not due to be out by mid year.

Jack’s big idea, from the recent PE Pamphlet ‘Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century‘is basically to scrap the planning system and start again.  He may gain traction as the White Paper seemed headed soloely up the ally of greasing the wheels of prócedulrism rather than analysising outcomes and deep rotted causes of problems.

The Pamphlet states:

Land use is rationed depending on what planners think is ‘needed’ and thus on aspirations rather than reality. Local planning authorities allocate specific uses for all individual land plots in their area over 15 to 20 year periods based on projections of ‘need’. Yet rapid changes in the economy, society and technology, as well as the unpredictability of human and commercial activity, mean that the ‘needs’ of households and businesses cannot be accurately projected, certainly not over 15 or 20 years.In areas of high demand for developable land, the strong tendency has been
to excessively ration the supply of developable land. Permissioned land is therefore highly prized and highly priced – excessive rationing has artificially inflated the value of land use allocations, often to extreme levels.

And proposes:

Ending detailed land use allocations. The planning system should
not try to systematically control what specific activity can take place
on individual land plots based on fallacious projections of housing
and commercial ‘need’. Local planning authorities have proved
ineffective and inefficient at micro-managing land markets. In this
regard, the supply of new homes, offices and other types of land
use should no longer be capped by local planning authorities in
local plans or by site allocations.
• Introducing a binary zonal land use planning system. Land
should be zoned either as development land, where there is a
presumption in favour of new development, or non-development
land, where there is not a presumption and minor development
is only possible in more restricted circumstances. Land zoned as
development land will include existing urban areas and new urban
extensions made possible by infrastructure improvements. In this
new system:
• Zones should, in general, have no reference to what specific
land uses are allowed on individual private land plots. Market
conditions should instead determine how urban space is used
in the development zone. Land and buildings in the urban
area would then be able to change use without requiring the
permission of the state (as long as rules on separating certain
harmful uses are not broken, as detailed below).
• Zonal designations should be separate from any concept
or calculation of ‘need’. Instead, they should be dependent
on metrics that determine whether land has good access
potential, whether new development would cause
environmental disturbance; and the potential for an existing
built development to expand. Zones should be updated an
ongoing basis and would need to be periodically reviewed by
the Planning Inspectorate.

And final key point

The rules in local plans for new development should be controlled by local authorities.
They are necessarily political and should be voted on by local councillors. The Planning Inspectorate should be required to monitor whether local and community rules conform to national planning policy and intervene where necessary. This should be
the only stage in the planning system when local politicians have a say. They should have no say over deciding applications for new  developments – this should be a purely administrative exercise checking the proposal conforms to local rules

At the heart of this analysis is an essentially sound oberservation.  Plans ration land, they ration land too much because of the local politics of Nimbyism, we need a more rules based certain approach.

For many years this blog – and practice and planning thought in the UK, has got ever closer and step by step to implmenting – especially on large masterplanned schemes, the sessentials of zoning and subdivision systems, supported by a development code, that we see as best practice by many of our european neighbours that build far more per head.

However his proposals are not based on best practice anywhere – they seem based instead on what seems to be a wheeze dept up one alcohol fueled SW1 dumbtank pub lunch – the ‘binary system

However the analysis that planners proposing need is the problem is flawed.  Planners propose need local politicians fight for lower need is clearly the problem.

Simply allocating areas based on ‘suitability’ and abolishing need is simply impractical and the phrase ‘rapid changes in the economy, society and technology, as well as the unpredictability of human and commercial activity, mean that the ‘needs’ of households and businesses cannot be accurately projected, certainly not over 15 or 20 years” is to repeat exactly the crucial planning mistake made by John Prescott which ended long term planning for housing and led to the reduction of housing numbers in startegic plans.  He makes the elementary ‘mistake of confusing forescasts and projections.  Housing numbers as the ONS stresses are forecast not projected.  When one looks back at housing numbers over 40 -60 years it shows that household formation dips during recessions and period of low economic growth and rises during boomtimes.  No surprise people need houses to form into.  As people take decades to grow up, work and die it takes seismic changes over decades to shift the trend of need.

Any plan of any form is always based on a place with a certain population.  People that need jobs, houses, schools etc.  You cannot plan for ‘suitability’in the abstract.  Suitability varies radically by scale, you cannot assume scale without people.  A site suitable for 20 houses on the edge of a Yorkshire Dale village may not be suitable for a Garden City of 50,000 people.  This issue gets especially highlighted when you are dealing with whole new communities which always and everywhere in the history of planning are planned because a certain quantum of people cannot be housed because of constraints somewhere else.

Airey’s manic system does not abolish forecasting it hides it.  It is still there under the illusionists cloth.  If if assumes suitability for a certain scale of development you can calculate from that the population, which always must come from some place.  This is just replacing explicit modelling with non transparent and opaque modelling.  Furthermore you cannot assess suitability of new sites without infrastructure.  If you plan beyond need you risk leapfrog and scattered development not supported by infrastructure.

All of this of course is planning 101 in any urban planning course anywhere in the world.  I know a few in Kabul that it might be productive to send Airey on a secondment to to gain more of an insite as a  ‘wiredo and misfit’.

One thought on “Going Binary – the New Chief Planning Advisor’s Manic Proposals for the Planning White Paper

  1. I’m not sure I’ve grasped your point about ‘suitability’. I think you are saying that designating areas as ‘suitable’ now will fail to take into account the possibility that they may need to change, possibly quite radically, in the future to accommodate needs that can’t be provided for elsewhere? As with Stevenage in the 1950s.

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