In Defence of Democratic Planning
Democratic Planning under Attack
Since it came to power in May 2010, the Coalition government has severely weakened land use planning in England. Indeed, planning has been demonised. The government has brought in new guidance and statute to deregulate planning and tilt it sharply towards serving land owners and property developers instead of representing the public interest and social and environmental good. This is an ideological attack on the role of government in society and the economy, saying in effect that it is the private sector that knows best and can deliver.
The attack on planning has six related aspects:
- The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies soon after the Coalition took over in 2010 was an assault on the ability of planning to take a strategic national role in economic development and in tackling persistent problems like the North/South divide. It also removed the ability to plan efficient and equitable distribution of jobs, housing, services and infrastructures within regions. Instead, “letting local people decide”, “localism” was heralded as the answer. But it defies common sense that national or regional planning issues can be tackled by purely localist measures.
- The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) approved in 2011 took this further by tying the hands of local councils in order to free up the developers. The main message of the NPPF is the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. At face value this sounds reasonable. But the “presumption” means that unless there is a very good reason for refusing a development, it should be approved. The proviso that it should be “sustainable” is undefined and therefore open to any interpretation; and is limited by whether or not sustainability measures are “viable”, that is, profitable.
- The government has introduced a requirement that “viability” is a material consideration when considering a planning application. This is a very significant shift from using democratic planning criteria (the public interest) to the use of market criteria (private interests). Thus, plans and planning applications must now be assessed in terms of narrowly financial profitability, not community or ecological viability. If a developer thinks that a local authority standard for the proportion of affordable housing in the proposed scheme or a requirement for Code Level 4 for sustainable homes is too costly, he can refuse to include them. The local authority will not be able to use its planning standards – even if they are in an approved Local Plan – as grounds for refusal. There is a little more scope for refusal if the local authority plan is very up to date, but this can and will be challenged as well. Hanging over all this is the fear that legal costs could be awarded against the local authority if it does not have a cast iron case – and the NPPF weakens this case in many instances. Planning Inspectors are ruling against local authorities and in favour of “the presumption” in more and more cases.
- The government has weakened the ability of local authorities to bargain with developers to get “planning gain” from new, profitable developments, that is, to extract some of the unearned increase in land value and use it for social purposes. This has particularly affected councils’ ability to secure affordable housing. Planning gain from developers for affordable housing has normally been secured through “Section 106” agreements between planning authorities and developers. Thousands of affordable homes have been delivered through this mechanism. Three changes have been introduced to undermine this. First, as above, the “viability” requirement trumps other considerations. Second, to ram the point home, Government has specifically asked local authorities to review their requirements for a proportion of affordable housing in planning applications. In the new Growth and Infrastructure Bill, there are provisions to allow developers over the three year period to 2016, to go back to local authorities to renegotiate affordable housing Section 106 agreements and enable them to appeal if they think a local authority is being unreasonable. So, section 106 agreements already signed mean nothing and new ones can be altered at any time if a developer claims new circumstances make them “unviable”.
- The government has introduced a neighbourhood planning system which allows communities to draw up their own plans but only if they conform with local authority plans and with government planning policy. This sham localism raises expectations in communities but in fact forces them to follow government pro-property market policies. If communities do not follow these rules they will lose Government funding support for preparing their plans. Communities are encouraged to bargain with businesses and developers who can offer bribes sufficient to get the community’s endorsement – which has been referred to as “Tesco’s charter”, thus driving a coach and horses through the principles of planning in the public interest.
- The last four points show that the ability of the only democratically-elected body at the local level, the council, to plan development in the public interest has been drastically weakened. The Government’s “localism” rhetoric covers over this weakening of local councils. The only “local” actors who gain are developers and land owners.
The government’s justifications, and confusions
This demolition of democratic planning is a part of the Government’s wider strategy of “promoting free markets”, reducing public spending and state regulation, and imposing austerity, all in the name of “reviving economic growth”. Weakening of planning has thus been justified as “unblocking investment” in the built environment. George Osborne on more than one occasion has said that planning is the principal reason for the lack of growth in the UK economy. Of course this is nonsense – the idea that billions of investment is being held up or taken elsewhere because of so-called excessive controls over planning applications and because of planning bureaucracy is untrue. The reasons for the recession are quite different – not least the banking crisis, the Government’s austerity programme, and reduced wages and benefits.
The attack on planning is ideological, yet with many contradictions and confusions on the political Right. Planning is seen by some on the Right as a “socialist” measure aimed at containing the private sector. In the real world, Tory councils and voters in the countryside are fighting other Tory interests in the property industry over controlling development in the countryside and in the Shire Counties in particular. The Daily Telegraph regularly launches front page attacks on the Coalition Government for undermining the protection of rural England, then on the inside pages promotes free markets and a reduction in state services. Similarly, industrial and retail sectors of the economy, endorsed by leading Tory Michael Heseltine, do not want a free for all, but a strategic approach to infrastructure planning and development shaped by a significant measure of local and regional planning control. To appease these interests, the government has taken powers to override local decisions and local democratic processes. Elsewhere on the Right, free marketeers in think tanks like the Policy Exchange and Institute for Economic Affairs want an end to (most) planning and state involvement in economic development.
The power of the property lobby
What is consistent, however, is the strength and persistence of the property industry lobby led by the House Builders Federation, the British Property Federation, and the Country Landowners Association, for less regulation, more “flexibility” over planning, and special pleading over the interpretation of planning guidance. This lobby has been very effective at gaining the ear of successive Governments about loosening planning controls – while at the same time gaining Government financial support for house building, mortgage guarantees, and infrastructure spending. In other words, less government intervention which restricts their options, and more government intervention which increases their profits. All in all, they are the most effective lobby outside the defence industry. When they shout Government generally jumps. The most recent example is the March 2013 budget where the house builders have yet again commandeered scarce public money on the back of promises about meeting housing demands which their own business model cannot deliver. Their model depends upon keeping prices up, thus ensuring the majority cannot afford to buy. And as for those in need of social or affordable housing they are not in the picture.
….which caused the crash
Lets not forget it was the property sector that created the unsustainable boom of the 2001-2008 in Britain, the US, Spain, Ireland and elsewhere which ended in the crash. This was the sector that was backed by the banks and financial institutions that crumbled when the crash came: when property was given the greatest freedom and government support, it undermined itself. This was the same sector that said that prices would fall if more houses were built, that promised sustainable communities, and better quality homes. In fact prices rose steeply even as supply increased, promises of sustainability and quality were withdrawn as soon as the credit crunch hit (they declared that “sustainability is a cost”). The failings were there for all to see. In the face of the evident need for a long term, strategic approach to economic development, community renewal and environmental protection, the short termism of the sector is allowed to dictate policy.
Labour’s failure of nerve
How do they get away with this? One reason is that the Left has few alternatives to hand, or lacks the courage to say no to the pressures from the property industry. It is expensive to say No through legal challenge, and this deters objectors and it takes political courage to face up to the wrath of the Daily Mail championing the fear that middle England will “lose their homes”. That’s why the Labour Party in Government usually abandons thoughts of taking on the property industry or the landowners, and goes on the defensive about its record of town planning. It rarely speaks with any confidence about the achievements or possibilities of democratic council and community led planning and development. Its default is to go into “partnership” with the development industry. Local and national governments thus place themselves in secondary position to the property industry over decisions and strategy for land and housing supply, planning regulation, and house prices. Hence the failure of the Sustainable Communities Plan of 2003-10 to deliver a “step change” in new housing supply in South-East England. By placing trust in the house builders to build, public bodies abandoned their own role as direct developers, or builders of council housing, or the opportunity to give land to communities to do it themselves.
Where next? In defence of democratic planning
What many want to hear from the Labour Party is a critique of the Coalition policies on planning, spelling out the dire implications, saying why they should be opposed, and what Labour would do about them if it were in Government. This will not occur without greater understanding on the Left, both within and outside the Labour Party, of the importance of land use planning and the threat posed by the government.
The Left needs a Manifesto for Planning and Land that defends the successes of democratic planning, that picks apart and exposes the self-interested arguments of the property lobby, and that spreads the word that there is an alternative. Many people in communities and councils across the country are already resisting the government and developing alternatives. These initiatives need to come together to launch a counter attack to the Coalition assault on planning.
PNUK has taken the first step on this path by producing a Draft Manifesto for Planning and Land. The next step will be a major national conference in 2014 entitled “In defence of Democratic Planning”. We are seeking the widest participation in planning and organising this conference – from community and activist groups, local politicians, environmental campaigners and those whose housing needs go un-met.