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Osborne’s Budget pledge: Selling England by the pound

A map of England with pound signs

I take as my text the words of Simon Jenkins in The Guardian on 21 March: “Money talks. The planning regimes that should channel profit to wherever it is least destructive are ever more corrupt.”

It has been one of the pillars of the success and acceptability of planning that corruption has been rare. I’m not so naïve as to think that money has never changed hands but, were such behaviour rife, the number of occasions when anyone has been found out would be more than just a handful.
And, wary of financial incentives, successive governments have been careful. In the various guises adopted by planning gain, it has always been the rule that any payment should strictly be for matters relevant to the development. Handing over cash for irrelevancies to secure a permission that would not otherwise have been granted was rightly and tenaciously opposed on all sides so we have been free to take objective decisions.
As you (but apparently not ministers) know, this involves identifying a need, looking at options and selecting sites for development. Public views are important, but a weight of opposition is not usually determinative if the principles behind the choices are sound.
But now cash insidiously enters the equation. Starting with the New Homes Bonus, and moving through wheezes such as offering cash to those prepared to sell their villages to frackers, we saw in the Budget that, “the government will launch a government-funded staged pilot for passing a share of the benefits of development directly to individual households”.

“There is little evidence that markets make balanced social and environmental judgements”

A frenzied extension of this comes from the Adam Smith Institute. In a blog in January it proposed: “Significant planning reform that abolished the Town and Country Planning Act (which includes the legislation ‘protecting’ the Green Belt from most development) and decentralised planning decisions to individuals through tradable development rights (TDRs). This would give locals an incentive to allow new developments because they would be compensated by the developers directly, allowing for a reasonably efficient price system to emerge and making new development much easier”.
All this is deeply worrying and would change the nature of the planning system in fundamental ways. There are many objections to the monetisation of activities such as planning (read What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel for an analysis). Mainly, of course, the lousy development that would ensue; random, inconsistent, and unpredictable. There is little evidence that markets make balanced social and environmental judgements.
Even if we accepted that this is mainly a matter concerning adjacent residents, appalled by the dreadful prospect of having other people living near them, rather than one for the wider community, there is a fairness objection. Those who don’t need the cash will continue to resist incentives for unwelcome development, while those less fortunate will take it and never mind the environment. Development will head not to places where it’s needed but places where there might be acquiescence. And there is a corruption objection – not just the opportunities it opens up for impropriety; but also the corruption of social integration, the removal of the need to explain and convince and its replacement by the simplistic norms of the market and the abandonment of selflessness. And any cash disbursed to the locals is cash no longer available for genuine community benefits.
The RTPI took a dim view of the Budget announcement, and rightly so. Among the chaos-inducing blizzard of tinkering we’ve endured for four years, this must be the most dangerous. Simon Jenkins’ warning is timely.
Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former chief planning inspector

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