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31/05/2016

Lesson from America

How does the Californian planning system compare with England's? The GLA's Jamie Ratcliff offers his thoughts from a job swap in the USA.

Jamie recently undertook a transatlantic job swap with Linda M Wheaton, whose thoughts about planning in England can be read here.

The Californian planning system differs greatly from England’s. It relies mainly on ‘zoning’ to designate use for an area.

With ‘permission in principle’ proposed in the Housing and Planning Bill, the English planning system could be moving towards something similar, which would remove the need for an increasing number of applications to be decided by councillors.

But California still faces obstacles to building enough homes. The process takes considerable time, in part due to complexities in the system that include the California Environmental Quality Act, which seems to give a charter of disruption to NIMBYs and rival developers. There are a variety of local ordinances: one in San Francisco says any height increase on the bay front requires a positive referendum from city residents.

Concerns about gentrification and affordability are as common in San Francisco as in London. Last autumn a law was proposed to stop housing development in a changing area close to downtown unless it was 100 per cent affordable. It was defeated, but sparked debate about the need for homes of all tenures.

I expected to see significant private sector-led regeneration. But most was led by the public sector. I saw transport and sports-led regeneration in Sacramento and placemaking on a grand scale in San Francisco at a former naval base (‘The Shipyard) and an artificial island (‘Treasure Island’). The local tax structure means Tax Increment Financing models are common, and they show the potential for the planned devolution of business rates in England to unlock similar innovation.

Resources for affordable housing in California have reduced in recent years, but there is strong vision, integration and engagement with the funding available. Most comes through Low Income Housing Tax Credits, but there are also programmes such as the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Fund which links funding for transport and affordable housing together.

“Concerns about gentrification and affordability are as common in San Francisco as in London”

An advantage of the Californian system of delivering affordable housing is that it has political consensus. Funding through tax credits – effectively an offset against future tax liabilities as opposed to actual government expenditure – means programmes enjoy strong support across the political spectrum.

Overall, I found the experience of working there most beneficial and would strongly encourage anyone involved in housing development to seek out similar learning opportunities.

Jamie Ratcliff is assistant director of programme, policy and services in the Greater London Authority’s Housing and Land Directorate

Image credit | Shuttershock

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