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28/03/2019

Conséquences imprévues

Consequences Zara Picken

Louise Brooke-Smith highlights how the unforeseen consequences of political plans can leave planners (and others) picking up the pieces.

How many times have planning professionals call out: “Hoorah, another government tweak to the system – but has anyone thought through the unintended consequences”?

It seems that this is not only the domain of the built environment. Thinking you are initiating change through consultation on new policy or legislation on the assumption that you can control the process, only to find reality taking you in a different direction seems to be the order of the day. Who’d have thought that calling a referendum on EU membership in 2016 would lead to where we are today?

The unintended consequences of not really thinking things through and facing the debacle that exists as I write this piece is shocking. But we can live in hope. By the time you read this, someone might have called out the obvious and we could be back on track with an acceptable deal. Or we have woken up, in true Dallas-style (for those of you old enough to remember 1980s soap operas), to find it has all been a dream and “Bobby didn’t really vote to leave after all”. Perhaps we will have hit a no-deal Brexit and are preparing to live with the consequences.

So what will it mean to the planning world? Will investment dwindle to a slow trickle? Will development take a nosedive and all those cash-strapped planning authorities find that staffing levels are actually about right?

“Let’s not forget that planning is all about economics. it is land use economics in its purest form”

Given the Bank of England’s recent announcements and its sanguine approach to growth, we might find that home-grown needs are more than sufficient to keep the development industry – and the planning fraternity – busy.

After all, we still have a serious housing challenge on our hands and infrastructure doesn’t build itself. If necessity is the mother of invention, the likes of Homes England will be making the most of its expanded workforce, and HS2 might turn into the Hoover Dam of its age and have the same impact here as Herbert Hoover’s economic star turn did for the US in the 1930s.

Some feel that the UK’s housing and infrastructure programme might be our saving grace. Economically, they could be the unintended positive consequences of a troublesome Brexit.

And let’s not forget that planning is all about economics. It is land use economics in its purest form, whether we are working in the public or private sectors, advising developers on the best use of land or applying policy or planning regulations to proposals that no one promotes unless there is an element of commercial return.

Few schemes are entirely philanthropic, even those heavily subsidised by grants and government funding.

So when the planning system is tweaked, or the subject of yet another well-meaning review, the consequences can be surprising and in sharp contrast to the original goal.

As the RTPI and various others recently called out, while the office to residential permitted development (PD) rights had laudable goals when first mooted, the consequences have meant that about 10,000 affordable units have not come forward, housing schemes have emerged where infrastructure or local services are poor, and statutory fees to local planning authorities have been dramatically curtailed.

Perhaps the authors of the PD changes weighed up those consequences and felt that the potential extent of additional housing that would emerge was worth it.

Perhaps the unintended consequences weren’t considered at all. Who knows?

But we have to live with those consequences, just as we have to live with the decision of the majority of the UK’s voting population to leave the EU. Perhaps the unintended consequences will surprise us all. Or perhaps we will all wake up and find it’s a dream as Bobby Ewing steps out of the shower. Speaking French.

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a partner at Arcadis LLP and UK Head of Development and Strategy Planning

Illustration | Zara Picken

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