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Solving the housing crisis needs more investment in planning, not less

There are two housing crises in the UK, not one, argues David Pendlebury - and they both need more resources to solve

The Chancellor  of the Exchequer is set to deliver the Budget on 16 March. There is likely to be a continued focus on house building and rightly so, as we’re in the midst of a housing crisis.

We actually have two housing crises in this country, and both require more investment in planning. The first crisis is a crisis of quantity – we’re not building enough homes. The second, less discussed, is a crisis of quality – the homes and neighbourhoods we do build are often low quality and uninspiring.

If the chancellor travels in the same direction as the government has been, there are likely to be more cuts to planning when we need more investment. This combined with over 30 years of ever-increasing deregulation and liberalisation of development means a further erosion of the positive impact planning can have.

Many of those who have been the strongest proponents of this deregulation are now desperately trying to understand why this hasn’t led to the increased housing delivery they predicted.

In other parts of Western Europe, local and central planning bodies have been increasingly given the powers and tools to improve not only delivery, but also the quality of development. The results have been startlingly better built environment outcomes.

The RTPI has looked at some of these developments in a report that examines the role of “planning as market-maker”. The report demonstrates that proactive and positive planning has been critical to delivering built environments that would be the envy of any UK town or city.

On the basis of the Housing and Planning Bill, the UK Government appears to think that the housing crisis is primarily (or even exclusively) one of quantity rather than quality – hence its proposals for both further deregulation and more powers for the Secretary of State. The problem is that such reforms risk further undermining the ability of local planning authorities and other public agencies to play the kind of positive planning roles that we examine in the report.

A better starting point for major developments in the UK would be to decide what we want from the places in which we live and work. Anyone’s list is likely to include good public transport, strong and sustainable economies, green spaces and good urban design.

We can’t leave these things to chance in the hope that private sector developers will deliver them without a leading role for planning. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect the private sector to deliver these kinds of places on their own, when developing great places requires a broad vision and coordination across developers, investors, local policymakers, and communities.

Planning is the one function that can undertake this coordination. When given a more enterprising and creative role, planning can provide a better environment for the private sector, and deliver a better built environment for everyone else.

Planning is much more than just about regulating the use of land, but somehow this has become the dominant thinking in the UK and has led to the perception that planning is anti-growth, cumbersome and bureaucratic.

What comes out perhaps most strongly from our recent research is the leading role that local government and public agencies can and often need to play in new development. In-depth case studies from Hamburg, Lille and Nijmegen illustrate how planning can overcome market failure and deliver positive economic outcomes for people and places. In all three cases, the planning system has played an enterprising role in negotiating with, shaping, and stimulating the market, and in providing the preconditions for private investment.

Most of those in the private sector would welcome this form of planning, since it reduces risk, provides greater certainty, helps to guarantee demand for their developments, and creates demand for the kind of places people want to live and businesses want to invest in.

Indeed, the UK has examples where this kind of planning has been delivered. Brindleyplace in Birmingham and MediaCity in Manchester (pictured) are good examples of high-quality, mixed-use environments where the ingenuity and creativity of private developers was matched with the coordinating ability of the local authority. We need more examples like this in the UK.

With cuts hitting planning departments hard, alongside further calls for more planning deregulation, planning teams are less able to play their role as effectively as they would want to in delivering the places and houses people want.

It’s time to see political messages and resourcing that recognise how planning can be a positive tool for a stronger economy and a better society. So, ahead of this Budget, we remind the chancellor that if he is serious about delivering more houses in the UK he needs to be serious about investing properly in it.

David Pendlebury is a former RTPI economic research officer and now works for AECOM

Read Planning As Market Maker


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