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01/10/2013

A dismal record

Words:

In the past three years, all the major theoretical arguments about planning have been won hands-down by a combination of planning and environmental organisations, but with little or no discernible effect on government policy, writes Tony Fyson.

The most anti-planning regime in 60 years has ruthlessly pursued its dismantling agenda. Regional planning has been abolished, infrastructure decisions distanced from democracy, spatial strategic thinking derided and a spurious localism substituted, ostensibly as a way of letting local communities get control of what goes on around them. In practice it threatens to allow the power of markets and government sweeteners to combine in support of limited and uncoordinated private sector development, with only modest benefit likely in terms of extra housing where needed. 
 

Looming crisis

The democracy of local government is belittled and disproportionately starved of funds while struggling to exert worthwhile control by requiring neighbourhood plans to conform to local plans conceived without meeting up-to-date regional or national needs. The chief effects of this mayhem are an ever increasing shortage of housing and many abandoned sustainable development and renewable energy standards.
 
Of all the ideologically-driven outcomes that the coalition has caused, the housing situation has deservedly attracted most attention. With little over forty per cent of the annual requirement currently being built, it is worth emphasising that this critical situation is not like the economy, where recession can change to growth in the blink of a quarter’s figures. GDP may take time to regain a previous peak but improvement is signalled at the slightest percentage rise. By contrast in most years that housing supply improves but still falls short of its target there is no improvement in the plight of the under-housed population.
 
As a new TCPA-sponsored analysis of the 2011 census shows, the new housing requirement in England is now 240,000 to 245,000 annually, five to ten thousand more than the currently cited figure. The increase is largely due to population growth, though there is also evidence that in the first decade of the century household formation levels dropped sharply with more adults sharing accommodation. This reversed an established trend and suggests that there is also pent-up housing demand that cannot be met at present. Researcher Professor Christine Whitehead argues that planning for much higher housing output is vital otherwise economic recovery will lead to higher prices and loss of affordability. “Planning based on the past few years of recession will simply build in the next crisis,” she warns. 
 

"Higher housing output is vital, otherwise economic recovery will lead to higher prices"

 
Sixty per cent of the demand for new housing is in London and the South, but the remainder is also concentrated in and around big regional cities. The TCPA’s well-known response is that a significant proportion of new houses should be built in substantial new settlements following Garden City principles. This solution has been embraced by all three main parties during and since the last election, but in practice has failed to find political support from the coalition with its obsessive rejection of state-led policy direction for local development planning. 
 

Housing projects

The RTPI’s new paper on delivering large scale housing adds useful discussion of problems associated with community engagement, land, infrastructure, leadership and governance. The paper points to the ability of New Town Development Corporations to buy land at existing use value and thus to finance their own infrastructure and bravely draws attention to Scotland’s new national spatial plan. Location decisions about major housing projects are bound to need coordinated planning at a regional level within a framework set nationally. To leave such matters to the haphazard chance of local acceptance and the effect of persuasive ‘incentives’ is to risk a chaotic and inadequate outcome.  
 
Tony Fyson is a writer on planning matters
 
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