plundering property rights, or preserving them?
Chapter One: The British and Planning
Chapter Two: Policies, politics and principles
Chapter Three: Practicalities, Reforms
At first blush people who love the market should dislike the land-use
planning system we Britons live with and under. Is not the whole
premise of the free-market that it brings together so many real
people making real and selfish choices that their will – the
net will, if you like - of them all is expressed? And is it not
the essence of the thing that liberty is maximised: an owner’s
liberty to dispose of what is his as he likes, and the buyer’s
to pay a price which is either fair or at the very least voluntary?
Does it not produce wealth and distribute wealth, and produce goods
and services to suit all tastes, better than any other approach?
Do not curtailments on the market damage this vibrancy? Is not the
state likely to be wrong when it predicts and commands and interferes?
Well, yes. Except that the market is not the enemy of good law,
nor good law the enemy of the market. Indeed, the market cannot
flourish without the rule of law – not least in the enforcement
of the contracts which are the essence of market operations. Heroes
of the free-market are the first to acknowledge and celebrate this.
They identify failure of law as the main reason why the market cannot
do its magic in much of the world. [DE SOTO]
And then there are the acknowledged difficulties of “externalities”:
those elements and consequences of market activity which may dearly
cost individuals and societies and which are not included in the
market’s handling of the deals which are the market at work.
As our great free market hero, Friedrich Hayek recognised, pollution
is often one of these. [IEAa] Perhaps the future is (though a noble
tradition represented by Wilfred Beckerman nobly disputes this).
Many land-use issues are similar. A development spoils a view.
Society would like affordable housing even in high-dollar regions.
We try to judge the competing claims of the convenience we might
gain from a bypass and the aesthetic loss of the landscape it crosses.
Such problems bedevil land use.
In short, the market has difficulties seeing beyond the millions
of deals and the millions of deal-making people it mediates so brilliantly.
If you are not a potential buyer or seller in any particular exchange,
then the market is not always brilliant at spotting and valorising
your interest in it.
These market failures bite very hard on the exchange and management
of property and land, and the planning system has developed to address
What is more, it is perfectly possible to erect a case which sees
the regulation of land-use as a core function of the state: the
exercise of development rights affects so many people – so
many bystanders – that it is hardly surprising that like rules
of the road, or public behaviour, it is closely controlled. Or rather:
we use the democratic system to exert our bit of influence. Few
of us feel oppressed by the rules which govern planning. Many of
us feel oppressed when they are not used to protect us, or what
we take to be the public interest.
So we face a paradox. People with property or a busy sense of the
public good are amongst the first to argue that development rights
should be controlled. But are they necessarily giving in to statist
and corporatist tendencies as they do so? Are they falling foul
of heroes of libertarianism – the likes of Hayek or Bastiat?
This is the tension which Mark Pennington has elegantly and painstakingly
explored for the IEA. [IEAc] I am only a little less critical of
what the planning system has achieved than he, and I agree with
him that “the British planning system has never approximated
a ‘centrally planned’ or fully comprehensive system
in the sense of all decisions being taken by a ‘national bureau
of land use’ or equivalent.” Pennington believes that
there is something deeply flawed in the “nationalisation of
development rights” which he thinks the planning system represents,
but he does not seem to dissent from the view that in the final
analysis the state does necessarily have the role of controller
of last resort of development rights.
I, rather differently, stress that in the most important senses,
development rights have not, actually, been nationalised. The value
of “betterment” of land-use changes does not accrue
to the state. A property-owner owns the present value of his land
and gains a good deal if he can get permission to enhance it.
Nor am I sure that land-use planning is quite the sort of “planning”
against which our libertarian heroes inveighed. So far as my understanding
of the libertarian tradition goes, I think that “planning”
was taken to mean the process of trying to predict economic outcomes
and direct them by masses of controls, including the denial of private
The land-use planning system has aspects that look like this sort
of control: especially “positive” planning which seeks
to use the control of development rights to direct economic growth
geographically. But much “negative” planning looks more
like nuisance control. It might be argued, in line with Pennington,
that common and contract law could handle such problems better than
the planning system, but it is arguable whether the upshot would
be less an imposition on our freedom.
In any case, even granted that the libertarian tradition is inclined
to see “democratic” control as a crafty eulogism for
“state” control, it does seem reasonable to see the
British planning system as genuinely democratic, and perhaps too
democratic. Pennington is inclined to argue that decentralisation
would be a reform in itself, whilst I am inclined to the view that
a powerful centre, with some powerful planning clout, is necessary
to overcome the Not In My Backyard syndrome which abuses the very
responsiveness of the planning system. “Undemocratic”
Westminster may be more valuable to freedoms than “democracy
in action” on the ground. But then I am a Burkean and like
representative, national democracy.
Yet planning controls are an imposition of authority, and they
should be challenged all the time and from every angle. The imposers
of rules should know that they must defend them. Especially when
support for them seems selfish rather than public-spirited –
when they preserve not public but private values – they should
be scrutinised with rigour and scepticism. Such scrutiny will fall
to people who love the free-market. It is people who love the free
market who jealously and zealously watch out for accretions of power,
whether authoritarian or monopolistic, which fetter the public interests
enshrined in the voluntary and monetary expression of private desires.
It is not sacrilegious or indecent to ask whether the planning
system really works well. And it is apposite to ask if the market,
or market-orientated ideas, help make it work better. Could the
wider social good, or the interests of the poor, be represented
better if the market had a greater bearing on land-use decisions?
Can the market help good laws to work better as it brings its energetic
magic to bear?
Can we not go beyond grudging respect of the market as it competes
with regulation, but rather – more creatively – celebrate
what it might achieve in tandem with regulation?
Why not go the whole hog?
At first glance, it should not be difficult to imagine a modern
Britain without planning. It would be the Britain we inherited at
the end of the Second World War plus whatever market forces and
a certain amount of local authority manipulation might have produced.
In some respects, we can easily imagine that it would have been
a happier situation than the reality we have seen. It is possible
that London’s Docklands might have been redeveloped earlier,
for instance. It is almost certain that there would be a far greater
housing stock, and with it lower prices for properties of every
sort. There would be more roads (provided Parliament had passed
compulsory purchase bills to iron out – crush – the
local difficulty of the occasional recalcitrant landowner). Factories
and offices would be more numerous, and cheaper. The property element
in the entry price for entrepreneurs might be much lower. There
might even be little north-south divide since those northerners
who wanted to share southern affluence could up-sticks and be a
part of it. After all, the absence of affluence in the north might
be better solved by workers going to where there is growth than
trying to get the growth to move to them. At the moment, they can’t
because their northern properties can’t be traded in for southern
ones and there is too little to rent down south.
It might be easier to have a decent house near a decent job and
to move around the country in one’s car more easily. In short,
without a planning system, we might have had much of what the planners
wanted when they were in growth-encouragement mode.
Presumably, there would be very much development in places where
developers wanted to go, and there would be rather less where development
was wanted. That’s to say: we would have had a great deal
of enterprise and housing and infrastructure in any region within
easy reach of London, and much less anywhere else. At a fine grain
of analysis, one would presumably have seen something akin to the
Irish situation. In that country, farmers are allowed to build properties
for themselves and their families. The result is that there is an
extraordinary number of fields sporting a brand new, hacienda-style
bungalows in the corner.
In the absence of planning controls, it can reasonably be assumed
that huge numbers of British fields would now sport villas and small
housing estates. In short, the trends of the 1920s and 1930s would
have been continued, but with the additional impetus of a national
wealth which has probably quadrupled since then. Development would
not be limited to where mass transit is available. John Betjeman’s
Metroland was suburbanisation on London’s fringe facilitated
and limited by the coming of the Tube system. The mid-twentieth
century produced something which might be called Mondeo-land, and
if the planning system had not been there it might have been a very
forceful movement wherever the car could reach. Presumably, also,
most towns would have produced a sprawl of industrial and commercial
development far greater even than that we now see.
In short, we would probably be richer. And perhaps the wealth would
be better spread. I have said that one outcome of an absence of
controls might have been the intensification of the “honeypot”
of the south-east. But that might have led to real over-heating
(a new ugliness, even worse congestion, for instance). That might
have produced a drift of economic growth northward – and might
have done so more speedily than any direction by planners.
But are we so sure that we would like the outcome of an unplanned
Britain? We might perhaps hope that we were sufficiently rich to
enjoy our well-housed, highly-mobile working lives in Britain and
then leave it to live in France, Italy or the USA where for whatever
reason there remained a better balance between affluence and attractiveness.
This paper explores the principles, practicalities and the politics
of the planning system. It takes real cases when possible and imagines
plausible cases. I make some recommendations which seem to me realistic
as well as imaginative. This work thus seeks to be both loftily
philosophical and rooted in the real world and real likelihoods.
I argue that the planning system grows out of an understanding
that land-use is a proper matter for political control. And I argue
that we should get the planning system off our backs in several
ways, and that we would benefit from a far more adventurous approach,
not least by a newly-empowered and invigorated planning profession.
Perhaps oddly, I think the founders of the planning system understood
its merits better than we do. They were mostly socialists, or at
least corporatists. Yet their expectations of the planning system
can fit our own much more entrepreneurial times. They wanted to
do things on a large scale, with ambition: that makes sense today.
Even when it is in bullying mode, the system can do good, not least
by allowing the market better scope. The planning system could be
used far more than it is to allow markets to flourish over the NIMBY-ism,
the narrow self-interest, of the politically powerful and those
who use politics to produce inertia.
The reason why the planning system is here to stay is that as well
as preserving the old (in landscapes and townscapes), it creates
and preserves the value of private property for millions and millions
of people. Or rather: millions and millions of property-owners believe
their wealth is looked after better by its workings than it would
be in the free-for-all they imagine would take place in its absence.
Thus, a preservationist instinct and rhetoric is reinforced by an
assessment by millions of voters of where their self-interest lies.
These millions of people need to persuaded that there is a bigger
goal – more affluence, more loveliness, more social inclusiveness
– to be had by a twin-pronged, only apparently paradoxical
– new approach to planning. On the one hand planners should
be allowed to do more of what I shall call “positive”
planning, somewhat as the old New Towns movement was once allowed
to do. On the other: there should be more experimentation with letting
individuals and firms do as they will with property, outwith the
usual planning rules. They need to be freer of what I shall call
Several people helped in the writing of this piece, and some were
so usefully indiscreet that I must spare their blushes by not quoting
I should say that I have always loved the British planning system.
Unlike the state health, education and welfare provision whose birth-dates
it more or less shares, it seems to me to be an instrument of public
will which would have to be invented if it did not exist. It seems
to me to embody and to attempt to resolve very deep and pervasive
tensions between the public and private, and between individuals,
* and even within individuals.
Do we think the planning system is too intrusive and prescriptive
about land-use? Sure. Do we think the “nationalising”
development rights is inherently regrettable? By all means. But
then, we regret the state as a necessary evil from the “off”.
Now, let’s get on with the practical matter of making it work
CHAPTER ONE: The British and Planning
The British – beginning to live without the State…
The British people have accepted with surprising ease the idea
that we should allow markets to do as much as possible and that
the state should only do those things the market is bad at. A mark
of the change is that nowadays it is a routine comment on phone-in
radio shows that Britons should not longer tolerate living with
a “Stalinist” National Health Service. This is not the
majority view, probably, but that it is made at all is amazing in
a country in which there was once an extraordinary consensus that
we were blessed with a unique health system.
We are unwinding the incursions into our lives which were made
by the state in the mid-20th Century. We have, for instance, denationalised
steel, coal, rail, water, telecommunications and power generation.
We have partially denationalised the penal and broadcasting systems.
Unemployment benefit, pensions, education and medical services never
did become the exclusive preserve of the state, but recent debate
suggests they are likely to be much less so in the future. Even
where there is state funding, there is increasing use of private
firms for building and servicing infrastructure such as hospitals,
roads and bridges. Housing for many people was a matter of state
or local authority provision, much of that has now been abandoned
or devolved to housing associations (though the state still funds
a good deal of housing).
In short an ethic of personal responsibility has re-emerged and
it is allied with a sense that people would rather be the customer
of private firms than be the client of the state.
…but still in thrall to planners…
But there is one area in which the role of the state is hardly
ever challenged and remains as strong as ever. The planning system
presumes that the market in land doesn’t work. It needs to
be controlled. This is, to be sure, not the same as saying that
land is nationalised, or the price at which it is exchanged is subject
to controls. The state’s intervention is rather subtler than
that. The state insists, in effect, on owning the right to control
the changes of use of nearly every aspect of the physical environment.
Its influence is thus huge. If a person is free to own land, but
not free to do as he or she wants with it, in what sense is he or
she free? How come, then, that we were so willing to give away this
A little history of planning in Britain…
The planning system was the creation of war-time thinking about
a rational society. William Beveridge was the embodiment of this
vision, with his importation of German ideas about health and welfare.
There were several enormous failings in his prescription. It created
a dependency on the state, which emotionally crippled swathes of
society. It demanded high taxation which dampened enterprise. It
starved the emerging mutual and commercial insurance businesses
which might have funded much wider access to a vibrant private sector
It also created a myth: namely, that State provision of health
and pensions would be through a National Insurance scheme. Arguably,
the nation could have developed models which would have provided
welfare without dependency, and done so with schemes which were
much more genuinely run on insurance lines than the fraud the National
Insurance scheme actually was.
The country was not in the mood for that sort of blunt speaking,
and was determined that the state should organise an improved life
for the poor, and do so in a hands-on way. It was readily accepted
by many people of all classes that there should be massive housing
provision by the state and that industry should be rebuilt with
a good deal of central direction. In some important ways, this was
a major change.
The look of Britain – its high streets and pastures, its
industrial works and its mansions - had largely been determined
by the owners of capital. The uses of land – large or small
in scale – had been determined by landowners and their ambitions
or lack of ambition for the terrain they owned. In that sense, it
was importantly voluntary – a matter for the market, with
all its opportunities and brutalities. Insofar as there was state
involvement – compulsion - it consisted in landowners getting
parliamentary approval to compulsorily purchase the land which might
be necessary for, say, a canal or railway, and which ordinary inducements
wouldn’t bring to the market. And there was a certain amount
of town planning by local authorities. But mostly, land and property
owners, large and small, could do what they willed with what was
One effect is little noted: that everything we see now as “historical”
– hedges, high streets, mansions, cottages, roads, canals
– was usually an expression of a contemporary taste (modern,
aggressive, triumphalist, vulgar, whatever) which in its day was
an imposition and insertion on an older pattern. We are the first
really squeamish generation. This change in feeling may be valid
– but it is new.
The Town and Country Planning Act of 1949 changed the habits of
hundreds of lifetimes. It introduced a new statism – or a
new democracy – in control. It mightily constrained the rights
of landowners. It nationalised almost all development rights. In
many small things, from a shopkeeper’s awning to a householder’s
conservatory – the state decreed that unless a property maintained
its ordained appearance and function, the owner was likely to be
breaking the law when any substantial changes were made. In time,
any substantial tree, any fairly handsome bit of architecture (and
some ugly ones) would be subject to conservation rules of one sort
or another. In larger things, any landowner was very severely limited
as to what he could do.
The rationale behind the new thinking and laws seemed sensible
to most people. The war had turned the country into a planned economy.
But it had also created a new dream of a state-planned society which
would honour the contribution the working classes had made to saving
the nation, and enshrine the new closeness many middle class officers
felt to the working class men they had led.
People had grown used to central direction of a war economy, and
could easily imagine that a modern industrial economy would need
well-organised infrastructure. To some extent, this thinking reflected
the orderliness of factories, with work flowing through them on
production lines. The whole country was like a large production
line, and if the state sought to improve the efficiency of production
it should surely seek to influence – or even dictate - where
things were made and how they were moved. So the concept of land-use
planning made sense industrially. It would suggest where things
ought to be done, and forbid them to be done elsewhere.
The workmanlike urban scene could be rationalised and the idealised
rural scene preserved.
British sentimental pastoralism…
The British think they live in a crowded island and had by the
mid-Twentieth Century taken seriously the protection of the green
spaces that history had left untouched. Indeed, pastoralism is deep
in the English psyche. The first society on earth to urbanise, it
was also the first society to develop yeoman agriculture, and thus
rid itself of peasants. The majority of British citizens lived in
towns and romanticised the countryside. British urbanites seldom
had rural cousins or other ties to specific regions or parts of
the countryside whence their grandfathers and earlier forebears
had migrated to cities.
This ignorance of the working life of the countryside is important.
The British were educated to use the countryside as a touchstone
of elegiac beauty. Their art and poetry and hymns all led them to
idealise rural life. They were natural Romantics as well as natural
scions of the Enlightenment. The Continent breeds people for whom
urban life was the epitome of cosmopolitanism and bourgeois culture,
but who have a real contact through close relatives with the countryside
and region from which they sprang. This spirit infused rather few
British people, for whom the city was often a necessary evil or
an exciting interlude. One escaped from the city to an estate or
suburban villa whenever work or affluence allowed. The English aristocratic
ideal of a rural estate was translated for the middle classes into
a more normal aspiration for at least a detached or semi-detached
house surrounded by garden and in a leafy street. These tendencies
add up to a high demand for land – especially rural and nearly-rural
land - for housing.
It was argued by mid-Twentieth Century conservationists such as
Peter Scott that British young people actually had the British countryside
in mind as they sought imagery with which to clothe the patriotism
which drove them to fight Nazism. It was natural that the generation
which fought the Second World War should be energised to build the
better Britain which the generation which had fought the First World
War had promised itself. There should be Homes Fit for Heroes, schemes
to allow soldiers to become smallholders, and a fairer society.
We would look after our countryside better, and somehow provide
all these new homes without the development free-for-all which had
seen ribbon development suburbanise most of our roads. There would
be a renewed passion for the wild scene, enshrined in the National
And the effect of “heritage”…
Something else was happening. During the nineteenth century there
was a huge growth in interest in the nation’s history. What
had once been a minority study by a few educated people was transformed
into a national preoccupation. The modern way of discussing one
element of this was to say that the popularisation of history took
the form of the invention of the idea of “heritage”.
This at first took the form of an interest in the nation’s
heroes (Nelson, Wellington), and then took the form of interest
in the progress that the British had made toward democracy and world
power. This was the “Whig History” of *MacAulay and
others and it produced the effect that the ordinary people of the
country were made to feel that they owned the entirety of the national
story. This means that the country house (previously an aristocratic
preserve), the farmscape (previously the preserve of yeoman and
aristocratic owners) and the urban scene (previously the preserve
of all those individuals who owned property) had become part of
what the people now felt was their heritage. It was a national inheritance
in which each of us had a legitimate interest. We had been taught
to like it, and we had been taught that it was in some sense ours.
Granted that we – the people – now had total power,
through Parliament, it was inevitable that the people would be given
a stake in controlling development henceforth. In politics, the
18th Century view that only taxpayers were stakeholders had given
way to adult suffrage on human rights grounds. In planning, likewise,
people had now to be given influence on the basis of being affected,
without necessarily being financially interested.
Two obvious possibilities flow from this new understanding and
state of affairs. One was that the rights of ownership would be
diluted and the other was that if the nation was in the grip of
sentimentality, nostalgia, or luddism, then any change to the built
environment was likely to seem to be an erosion of this new, treasured
commodity – heritage. This is, broadly, what has happened.
The twentieth Century consensus on planning…..
In the climate of the post-War years, the planning system must
have seemed eminently sensible. It promised to find a balance between
modernising a war- torn, war-weary, class-ridden country and conserving
rural loveliness. There should be new housing but without sprawl.
With luck, there might be rather few casualties of the process.
There was a large housing stock for those who could manage a mortgage,
and there were huge building programmes by national and local authorities
to provide low rental flats and houses for the rest, mostly in towns
and cities. There was little dissent by locals when a new town,
a road, power station (whether coal or nuclear), port or shopping
centre was proposed and built. To be a planner then meant to be
someone who worked with democratically-elected authorities to develop
new, or redevelop old, schemes within a shared vision of what the
future might hold.
The planner drew maps which showed how the future would unfold
on the bulldozed terrain of the failed past. Development “pressure”
was pressure for modernisation and improvement and on the whole
to be welcomed. In short, the inherent bossiness of the planner
was not unwelcome. Importantly, the planner was a professional whose
job was to make the future happen. His work was creative, even though
he achieved much of his work by telling people what they could not
do with their property.
The planner was an official who directed land-use, and did it partly
through the use of development control. The planning system forbad
development which did not match the land-use strategy which it also
outlined. The system could encourage development firstly by saying
where it would be welcome, and sometimes (where the market was unenergetic)
by marrying it to development funds, or even by the use of compulsory
From the start, there was what might be called “positive”
planning, which was a matter of making things happen (economic growth
in blighted areas, land for housing where it was needed), and there
was, rather separately, “negative” planning, which tended
to be a matter of conservation of landscape and the urban scene
through development control. Historically, the first seemed to be
what most planners did or wanted to do; in the modern scene, the
latter is what most do, most of the time.
What is more, the mostly rather socialist purposes of the planning
system have over time been transformed into – or are perceived
to have become – a matter of preserving and enhancing the
economic and aesthetic values of the affluent against the claims
of the “housing-poor”, or the economically poor, to
be given access to homes and jobs. Alan Barber, a former member
of a quango charged with developing policy on urban green spaces
expressed one criticism succinctly: “…British planning
is simply an elaborate administration for the allocation of land,
often in ways which makes a few rich people even richer.”
That is the charge against much development control.
By the 1970s it was perceived that something was not working. Britain
had tried to modernise and yet it was prone to economic stagnation.
It had attempted to build “Homes for Heroes” and yet
there were new slums and youthful malcontents. It had made a countryside
more loved, but less lovely, than it inherited. This was most usually
the failing of “positive” planning. Again Alan Barber
reports the charges well: “…where the planning system
has been most active, the results are often the worst, most characterless
landscapes”. [PLANNING, 16 August 2002]
What went wrong?
From the mid 1970s onward, the planning system accumulated a large
number of enemies. Planners had seemed to do more damage than Hitler’s
Luftwaffe in many industrial cities, such as Birmingham and Newcastle.
In some cities (usually Labour-controlled, and in Newcastle especially)
there were famous scandals around the corrupt granting and promoting
of planning permissions. An important tranche of opinion –
it ran from aesthetes like John Betjeman through to the journalist
(and scourge of bureaucracy) Christopher Booker – complained
about the sum-clearance and the skyscrapers which replaced them
on the grounds that they were ugly in appearance and mechanistic
in intention. It would be years before the architectural and planning
professions could seriously generate a case for rehabilitating –
recreating, refurbishing - the street scene (tightly compressed,
low-rise) which the previous generation had knocked down. Not until
the children of working class slum dwellers (now middle class) paid
good money for the chance to gentrify the slum streets did the penny
Planners took the flak. They had sanctioned mediocre office blocks
and shopping centres where once there had been medieval muddle or
Victorian vigour. The most powerful architects of the day –
men like the very unbohemian Richard Seifert – produced in
the 1960s and 1970s buildings which seemed dull and intrusive, but
which had been brilliantly designed to satisfy planners, and to
optimise the old gain of profit with the new one of compliance.
Actually, Seifert’s buildings (such as Centre Point, at the
junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street in central London)
have aged quite well: they have a certain quiet confidence which
is appealing after the Post-Modern tricksiness and showiness of
the work of the 1980s – but they had little support from aesthetes
twenty years ago.
Planners had erased the low-rise slums and replaced them with high-rise
slums. They had wanted to import some sort of dream from le Corbusier,
as though only the French could understand urban living (whilst
actually the French high-rise suburbs would become by-words of alienation).
They had tolerated or promoted loathed nuclear stations. They had
continued to propose and promote motorways which seemed to attract
traffic whilst spoiling huge views. In the 1970s anti-motorway campaigners
were middle-aged policy-wonks who brilliantly upstaged and outflanked
planning inquiries in a new guerrilla war. They were bureaucratic
swampies who dug themselves into filing cabinets, not trenches.
Planners had not demurred as farmers made significant changes in
the agricultural landscape. But planners quibbled (they still do)
over the signboards over Asian newsagent shops and restaurants.
They had encouraged out-of-town supermarkets which had sucked the
life out of many a high street. They had stifled enterprise by seeking
to direct it wherever fancy took their zoning pencils and they had
imposed rows of dreary houses in what had been picturesque villages.
Indeed, it was in housing that pressures seemed to combine and
become disturbingly real. House building firms were enraged at how
difficult it was to get building land; people seeking houses were
fuming at the expense of plots (or the land element in buying a
house); socialists were furious that farmers could make windfall
profits if their land was zoned for housing; the poor (and not so
poor) were furious that new housing was almost always beyond their
Not all these charges are fair, and not all are the fault of planners.
The real charge sheet…
Not everything is dire.
Not every land-use change has been poorly-managed. Docklands has
some dramatic groups of buildings, Paddington is going to get some.
There are some thrilling factory buildings. Many supermarkets and
some hotels are striking. Many new housing estates – though
unambitious in scale or in layout - now make decent nods to the
vernacular which surrounds them. Some of these successes ought to
be credited to planners. Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow
are amongst cities which have sloughed off a sense of decay or nastiness
to provide vigour at their centre. However, modern successes have
often arisen as today’s planners have got out of the way as
enterprise has been allowed to demolish the work of a previous generation
There is a huge amount of pretty attractive, hard-working countryside
in the British Isles. It could certainly be made more attractive,
if farmers in greater numbers wanted – could afford - to put
aesthetics rather higher up their list of priorities, but even in
its relatively impoverished state in remains one of the glories
of man’s stewardship of his planet. In any case, the planners
are not to blame, except in sofar as they did not allow more farmers
to turn farm buildings into factories. Only to that extent did they
keep farmers farming. The way farmers operated had much more to
do with EU subsidies than with land-use controls.
At the biggest possible scale, we are tempted to believe that the
big vision of “positive” planning has not been delivered.
The conundrum of encouraging and directing economic growth whilst
preserving or creating an aesthetic environment has not really been
resolved. We did not direct economic activity to the places we wanted
it and we did not preserve or create an aesthetically pleasing use
of land and property as we attempted, and largely failed, to use
planning to create or direct growth. Insofar as planning was ever
conceived as a way of directing economic growth, its failure to
do so is hardly surprising to people suspicious of all such statist
It was not planning but bribery which was attempted here, anyway.
Billions of pounds have been spent on urban and regional regeneration
and the evidence as to its usefulness is largely anecdotal and a
matter of opinion. Any conference on urban regeneration will produce
tales of money spent and gain not seen. A few triumphs are trumpeted
– an estate here or there which has been returned to citizenly
vigour by a residents’ association working well with a housing
office – but there are as many examples of misery surviving
energetic and costly good intentions. Aid to impoverished regions
at home bears some resemblance to aid to “underdeveloped”
countries abroad. Where poverty persists was the aid misconceived
or too slight? Where poverty has been reduced, was the aid the main
Some UK regions – south Wales, and the North-east, for instance
– have attracted inward investment. But what was the contribution
of bribes to firms to go there? Is that planning at all? Did swift
rail and road communication to important centres matter more? Or
the right labour availability? Or the right housing for the incoming
managers? Some regions have not become manufacturing centres in
spite of inducements to manufacturers: was the aid inadequate, or
were other factors too antagonistic to growth for any amount of
aid to help? In want sense, anyway, did it need a plan to suggest
that south Wales was ripe for development? Or any other “poor”
region for that matter?
It is much clearer that both “ positive” and “negative”
planning have failed to provide the circumstances in which housing
can happen. There has been very little large scale provision of
private housing in recent decades, and such as there has been *is
relatively unambitious architecturally. NIMBYism has ensured this
failure by crushing any shoots of imagination which local or national
governments might have aspired to. And, of course, NIMBYism has
ensured that “negative” planning has found hundreds
of different ways of saying “no” to developers.
It is a tad disingenuous to say, as house-building interests do,
that these restrictions have been bad for business. The house-building
trade, like the quarrying and waste-disposal trades, have become
fields in which the possession of the right land and the right permissions
is the key to wealth-creation. Playing the system – working
the in-built scarcities – has become richly profitable to
those who understand the game, and have the resources to play it
very long. What is more, many individuals are richly conflicted
when they bemoan the price of housing. House-owners love scarcity:
they love the house-price inflation which scarcity creates and which
ensures that they earn more from property than from their jobs.
Only recently has the scarcity become so severe that house-owners
are questioning the process which has enriched them. “The
Culture of Objection”, as it has been called, loses some of
its appeal. Housing-rich parents see their housing-poor offspring
in difficulties. The middle class in affluent cities sense that
the service industries which enhance their lives may become starved
of labour if there is not a mix of housing. Such mechanisms begin
to bite and produce a political will to change.
We see the effects. The Treasury begins to unleash more funding
for social housing and the remediation of Brownfield sites. The
Green Belt – much of it unattractive land ideal for development
– begins to lose its status as political sacred cow. Bodies
as diverse as the TCPA , the Greater London Group and the Royal
Institute of Chartered Surveyors are now lined up top challenge
aspects, sometimes fundamental aspects, of the Green Belt and the
protectionism which rules across much of our often rather undistinguished
countryside. [ES, FTa] And this was the one subject which no developer
or politically-savvy group dared to challenge a decade ago. It is
in the light of these developments that this paper can propose further
experiments: they no longer look extreme or unworldly. Politics
as well as the market is going their way.
CHAPTER TWO: Policies, politics and principles
What is the planning system?
The planning system may have rather few friends, but any proposal
for its abolition would be likely to produce for it a sudden large
fan club. Huge numbers of people have investments in land and property
and they rightly perceive that the planning system is the deeply
conservative force which has created and maintains much of this
value. That is what makes the planning system a political animal
of some force.
What is this system which is so unpopular and yet likely to prove
In England, it works broadly in the following way. There is a pyramidal
system. At its apex is a secretary of state, always a cabinet minister,
and a small central government department which provides him with
advice. He runs a nationwide network of inspectors who are notionally
rather independent of him. He is the planner of last resort, and
appeals from lower in the system filter through to him. The last
step before him is a planning inquiry , which in some very *big
schemes is obligatory (and chaired by some heavy-weight planning
lawyer) and in others are convened by the secretary of state to
resolve disputes lower down in the chain (these are chaired by his
Then there are regional forums (which may become mini-parliaments,
but have until now consisted of representatives from elected authorities).
It is widely assumed that they should be more powerful and could
more easily ensure local support for locally-painful decisions.
[TCPAa]. I am less clear that there is a large “democratic
deficit” now, or that there is much evidence that localising
power will produce more people prepared to work hard in its exercise.
Below the regions are counties (in the course of being weakened
and in some cases abolished) and metropolitan boroughs (often more
or less co-terminous with a city and its hinterland). Below that
are what used to be called district and borough councils, and these
have been regrouped (often with the weakening of a county council)
into “unitary” authorities. Below them are parishes.
These tiers of authority were in effect a two way street. Down
from the top come the secretary of state’s wishes and demands,
with the sanction of Parliament to back him up. Up from the bottom
come howls of protest as locals, counties, and regions all resist
different bits of the secretary of state’s dictats.
At present, the role of every tier in this process is in the melting-pot,
as the Labour government seeks reform intended to speed up the planning
There have been several shifts of the planning role within existing
departments, and now it has been lodged with the new Office of the
Deputy Prime Minister (an office held by the same John Prescott
who had been in charge of the system in a previous incarnation).
Interestingly, New Labour is accused of pandering to business as
it stresses the need for swiftness as well as fairness, and for
less stress on the “Culture of Objection”. But business
does not take a neanderthal line on planning. The Confederation
of British Industry has since the early 90s taken a close interest
in planning reform, and in 1992 noted that its members both registered
irritation at unwonted delays and incoherence of purpose, and expressed
an appreciation of the horrendous balancing act which the planning
system must maintain. [CBI]
The government wanted the system to be less restrictive of enterprise
and to be less dominated by the interests of anti-development NGOs
such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England and Friends
of the Earth. It has seemed to attempt this by enshrining the rights
of local people in a not very clearly defined consultative role.
It has been argued that the planning system is at present precisely
a machinery that excludes participation and creates a sense of alienation
as it tends to increase economic inequality. [TCPAa]. The cry for
“more consultation” is a modern mantra, made tedious
by constant repetition by the great and the good and any quango,
task force or commission the Government consults. [RCEP] I prefer
to stress that there is indeed wide support for the idea that our
inherited representative democracy at every level is alienating,
but I am much more doubtful that there are cleverer, quicker or
fairer routes to democratic inclusiveness.
But behind the government’s rhetoric may be a sensible craftiness.
Whitehall and Westminster may rather sensibly attempting to dethrone
the NGOs, those self-appointed guardians of the public good, and
instead to empower “real” voters. However, this approach
risks undermining local democracy. Which already has a good claim
to authenticity. Indeed, all too often, local politics does express
local views: and they are too often anti-development. The Government’s
planning green paper issued in 2001 proposed increasing Parliament’s
powers over major projects, and weakening NGO power. Under pressure
from a House of Commons select committee and the NGOs, in July 2002,
a climb-down was announced. [PLANNING, 26 July 2002] The outcome
is likely to be much more a new nomenclature than any very profound
shifts in the location of real power.
Notionally, the centre only has a broad strategy, and it is up
to the local authorities to work the system and decide a good deal
of what happens on their patch. At each level below the Secretary
of State, the authorities must produce plans which accommodate the
centre’s general wishes whilst expressing locally-determined
preferences. This tends to be a case of the centre expressing the
national economic “need” (economic growth, affordable
housing, quarries), and the lower tiers’ greater or lesser
resistance on NIMBY grounds.
However, there are various rather important elements to the Secretary
of State’s power. He is in charge of writing Guidance Notes,
and they can be very detailed indeed. These amount to guidelines,
organised into over 50 subjects, each of which is constantly evolving.
Thus, the Secretary of State says he is keen on out-of-town supermarkets,
or cooling toward them. He indicates that he is keen on “Sustainable
Development” – which might lead him (it does) to say
that he prefers development which relies on public transport, for
instance. He outlines how he foresees noise, quarries and dozens
of other issues being handled.
In this, the British polity shares elements with the Papacy of
the Roman Catholic church. The church has always said it likes “subsidiarity”
– an approach which boasts of its sensitivity to local preferences
and realities. The Catholic Church has always believed that all
decisions should be taken by a tier of authority as close to the
people affected by the decision as possible. It is this ideal which
has been imported into the language of the new Voluntary Empire,
the European Union. But the church has also evolved a system of
Papal infallibility in which the expressly stated view of the Pope
on any matter is definitive. These views are expressed by “Encyclical
Letters” in which each Pope addresses social and religious
matters he considers important. The British planning Secretary of
State’s guidance notes are very like such letters.
Of course, the Secretary of State’s power is not arbitrary,
since he is democratically accountable. Nor need his power be very
prescriptive: he could write permissive guidance notes. Moreover,
he normally seeks to exert power as obliquely as possible. For instance,
his guidance notes are not legally binding. But because they will
guide those decisions that he must take, or decides that he wants
to take, as the final arbiter in matters of dispute or where he
feels a lower tier of decision-making has got it wrong, they are
Similarly, the SoS does not simply tell the lower tiers what he
wants, as a matter of dictat. Rather, he tells them what he would
like to see happen, and then can refuse to give legal authority
to the plans produced by lower tiers of government until they are
in accord with his wishes.
The centre vs the locality
The centre might (does actually) insist that Hampshire, for instance,
ought to provide a higher percentage of the perceived need for housing
than, say, Sutherland because whilst Sutherland is huge and few
people need to or can work there, Hampshire is where many people
want to live and is crucial to the South-East’s being a national
The politics of the policy is fairly easily seen. Political parties
differ rather little in proposing that they want to see more land
made available for housing (people without decent housing will vote
for that) but that they will be very protective of Green Belts,
and the existing landscape (most existing house-owners will vote
for that). If this sort of political platform is hardly adventurous,
it is hardly surprising.
Unadventurous as it is, it has always conflicted with the much
more “preservationist” attitudes of most constituents
of the county and district authorities. Naturally, Hampshire tends
to complain that there is no chance that it could accommodate the
huge numbers of houses the Secretary of State proposed for it. The
huge majority of Hampshire’s voters have a lot to gain by
keeping its roads, trains and town centres from getting no more
crowded than they already were, whilst those who are likely to be
condemned to overlook new houses instead of fields are particularly
vociferous. Since most housing in Hampshire would be on Greenfield
sites and since most greenfields sites have some sort of wildlife
in them, it is easy to use the green wildcard.
The policy whereby the Secretary of State runs what is known as
a “predict and provide” system is widely regarded as
ridiculous since his chance of predicting anything correctly is
remote. Critics of the system attack either the demographic predictions
on which it is based or the merits of such “positive”
planning according, usually, to their self-interest. The difficulty,
however, in getting rid of “predict and provide” (as
Mr Prescott recently found when he tried it) is that there is a
huge amount of resistance in the system to new housing and every
other development, and only mighty shoves from above make it happen.
Mr Prescott found himself enunciating a new policy of predicting,
monitoring and managing demand: but it was quickly exposed as sham,
at least insofar as it claimed to have found an alternative to pro-development
pressure from the centre. With so many forces demanding stasis only
a powerful direction from the centre would ever get things moving.
The role of the lower authorities
At county level there are “structure plans”, more written
than drawn, which suggest that the broad area needs (or does not
need) more supermarkets, more waste dumps, or incinerators, or more
quarries. In principle, if this level accepts its responsibility
toward, say, dealing with its own waste and makes the unpopular
decisions about where to site facilities, it will have few difficulties
with the centre. More often, there is a genuine reluctance at local
level to provide facilities and a genuine political pressure on
the centre to make them happen.
Once the county level has negotiated how many houses it will “accept”
(or quarries, or anything else), it then looks to the districts
to incorporate such things in their plans. At this point, though
the system resists the word, there are the kinds of zoning maps
which the public would understand to be plans: that is to say, there
are maps with different land uses coloured in on them.
A good deal of politics has happened to make all these stages materialise.
County councillors and district councillors have scrapped over what
should be written and drawn in plans. Below them, the parishes where
the action is to take place have yelped as they discover that they
are to be dug up or concreted over. Powerful NGOs have ensured that
the public distaste for change is loudly heard.
It is seldom noted, but ought to be, that this is an extraordinarily
democratic and open process. The Secretary of State’s predictions
of the nation’s need for housing, quarries, and so on, is
done with parliamentary scrutiny. At every stage, as he exerts pressure
down through the system, democratically-mandated councillors at
every level seek to resist the Secretary of State’s wishes.
In very large measure, then, the paralysis which is so often observed
in the planning system reflects a very real dilemma, a very real
ambivalence amongst the British people. We have seemed for many
years to have tolerated a situation in which, for instance, new
housing is hard to come by.
How democratic is that?
We live in a mature and functioning democracy. None better, famously.
None more under attack, arguably. One of the things we should notice
about it is that Parliament works because MPs embody the opinion
of every level of society. Their constituents matter one by one
because cumulatively they contribute to the majority which takes
the MP to Westminster. But the national interest matters too because
the party which the MP represents has to embody its vision of the
national interest in order to produce a platform. Thus, in principle,
Parliament can handle and does enshrine the individual, the local
and the individual.
There are some extraordinary features of the British parliament.
One is that it has never been much prone to pork-barrel politics.
That is to say, the constituency MP has seldom been able to “sell”
his vote on a national issue in order to get some advantage for
his constituents. This is because it is understood and accepted
that the MP has validity at three separate points: he is an interesting
individual, he represents a place and he represents a party. If
he overplays any of these elements at the expense of others, he’s
finished. Because no-one in British politics is free of these constraints
and opportunities, whether he is the Prime Minister or the youngest
new-intake MP, everyone understands how the system works.
Imagine the system at work in a crunch issue. An MP wants state
aid for a factory in his area. Or perhaps he is resisting the arrival
of a municipal waste incinerator, or wants a port. He is free to
demand or resist these things, and it is understood that he must
and should. But if he overdoes it and starts to fly in the face
of his party’s interests as he does so, it is understood and
accepted that the party leadership can publicly declare that this
person has now overstepped the mark and should agree to his party’s
position or consider his position. Perhaps he does so, and continues
*his lone action. He may get a reputation as wonderful constituency
MP, with no future nationally. Or he may go down as a wonderful
maverick, with a shaky position in both his constituency and his
party, and as someone who is relying on his personal popularity
to see him through.
It is worth remembering that the British do not have a federal
system of government, and that is why we have less horse-trading
than is usual in such systems. Perhaps because we became a nation
state so early in our history, and because we were small enough
for the writ of the centre to run fairly well, and perhaps also
because at least historically the regions could run their own affairs
with little reference to parliament, there has been little need
or opportunity for the regions to work out ways of bullying the
centre. Anyway, we have avoided the system in which US states (or
EU states) and their representatives have sometimes been awkward
on national matters much more because of the leverage on some local
issue such recalcitrance brings than because of the principle ostensibly
Those of us who love the British representative parliamentary democracy
are apt to eulogise it as the embodiment of a system in which the
national parliament can capture not just the “will of the
people”, but a properly nuanced, conflicted, multi-faceted
balance between all the competing wills of the many interests represented
rather haphazardly by “the People”. The People are not
a monolith, but a *fissiparious tribe of people who self-centred
and community-minded by turns, who are autarchs but also whingers,
who must be governed.
In the case of planning (as in many others, but especially in this),
what “we” want is fractured and complex. There is the
narrow interest of the parties to a property deal or land-use change,
and then there are wider interests. But the wider interests are
conflicted: as a piece of land changes hands and a developer seeks
to build on it, there are vastly, tensely different views amongst
the wider world as to what should be preferred. And then, granted
that it is difficult to work out what is to be preferred in principle,
there is the even more difficult matter of resolving what will be
allowed in practice
It’s a complex business, the matter of discovering what the
democratic will actually is, and what the rights of the opinionated
should be over those of the financially interested. But there is
a modern – perhaps even a Post-Modern, feature – of
modern life which makes things very much more difficult.
Our contemporary problem is that we are re-inventing the relations
between the personal and the institutional, and that makes democratic
life very difficult. We are “privileging” (as the neologistic
verb has it) the personal. Broadly, the trouble is this. For about
a hundred and fifty years (from let’s say the 1830s until
1980s) it was broadly accepted that Britain’s institutions
had tremendous rights over our personal lives. The British people
used a rhetoric of freedom, and it had been hard-earned. But there
was a respect for authority. Parents believed that their children
should be sent out to the world ready to obey church, school and
police, indeed adults in general, let alone authority figures. Adults
were largely not merely law-abiding, but willingly so and also fearfully
so. We might gripe about what was happening, but we broadly accepted
that authority had rights, and that as individuals we had surrendered
some of ours to it. Granted that this was so, it was important that
the authorities had democratic legitimacy, and this was increasingly
However, as the democratic legitimacy of institutions was increased,
the people’s trust in them did not continue to increase and
indeed from the 1970’s onwards it was increasingly eroded.
The bonds of trust and acceptance between the person and the state
were eroded. This did not mean that the state relinquished power,
and in many matters the centre – Parliament, Whitehall –
The limits to the centre’s power
We have seen that it is largely a fiction that the British local
authorities have much power in the planning system. They must obey
national guidelines, or find their decisions over-ruled. We have
seen that their representatives have little leverage in parliament
when they dispute some central planning policy. So we should see
a situation in which centrally-decreed growth happens easily and
smoothly. But actually, nothing could be further from the case.
The reason, broadly, is that the British planning system is held
to ransom by the noisiest citizens . Sometimes, citizens can stop
things outright. More often they can make for astonishing delays.
The people of Britain campaign and vote for a situation in which
it is very hard to plan anything and very hard to get any development
at all. They have voted for the current muddle, and should not complain
about that. The current muddle is one in which developments of many
kinds are regarded as necessary, and are part of party manifestos,
and the status quo of land-use is – contrariwise – given
a hallowed status.
The people speak...
It is very often said that a very high percentage of the planning
applications which are made, get allowed. This may be because most
applications are trivial, and are made after decades of experience
in judging what is allowed and what would merely be a waste of time
to propose. In any case, the major proposals come forward after
negotiations with planning officials, so that it is clear what is
worth proposing and what is not.
In fact, it is difficult and expensive to get anything developed
in Britain. We need to unpick the difficulty. This is because there
really are strongly competing forces at work.
Is there a philosophy of planning – or not planning?
One of the best reasons for supposing that it is not likely that
one could dismantle the planning system altogether is that a very
serious and committed attempt to follow the idea to something like
a logical conclusion did not conclude that it could be done. Mark
Pennington’s work for the IEA is elegant and useful, and in
effect concludes that there is something about development which
requires regulation. The market cannot satisfactorily distribute
this particular good. This is of course a matter of regret to those
of us who love the market and like to see its vigour at work wherever
possible. We love its ability to produce developments and deals
which produce goods and services in a range of qualities and prices
to suit as many of us as possible.
In the case of bringing land- and property-use to market, the essence
of the problem is that there are benefits and disbenefits which
the market is not good at dealing with. The market is brilliant
at finding a rational price for goods and services. It is especially
good at producing the price at which a supply of a desirable is
forthcoming. In short, the market is one of the legs (with fungible
money, property rights and contractual law) which has produced capitalism.
We should not be surprised that the market by itself does not distribute
development rights very well. That is it so say it can and does
find the right prices for exchange of property well enough. But
it cannot capture all the “externalities” of changes
to that property which the public also demands be considered and
rationalised. This would be the case to some extent even if land
were not a finite resource: neighbours would have disputes about
land use changes in the largest and emptiest countries. But these
matters are of intense interest when people live close together
and when they do not feel that moving house is an easy thing to
A further problem is that people are assumed to have a right to
accommodation, quietness, access to roads, even an unchanging view
and many other rights whether or not they can afford to pay for
them at the price the market would deliver them (if it could deliver
them at all). Restrictions on people’s freedom – rules
of one sort or other – would certainly arise.
Many things are in finite supply – Rembrandt’s paintings,
for instance – and the market deals with their distribution
pretty well. It finds out how much people are prepared to pay. But
all is changed if it is sensed or decided that everyone has a right
to a Rembrandt painting. If it were once determined that all of
us had a right to own or at least see a Rembrandt painting, then
the market would be unlikely to do the trick, since it could not
cut up the Rembrandt and preserve its value, nor ensure that the
person able and willing to pay for the great master would also be
prepared to display it.
But these are not the killer reasons why the market is bad at distributing
development rights. The real difficulty is this: whatever one does
with land or buildings has implications well beyond the interests
of the owner, or the buyer and seller, of the property. In short:
everything done in this sphere at the very least produces an effect
which is public. I cannot build a house on my land (or remove a
tree, or erect a factory, or let my palace deteriorate) without
affecting the view – or affronting the values - of the people
who overlook it or feel they have an “interest” in it..
There is quite a useful analogy here: visual impact is just another
sort of pollution. They are alike not least in the way that the
market is not easily able to charge a price for many sorts of pollution,
or find anyone to pay, the costs of these “externalities”.
In the case of smoke pollution, say, it is possible to see ways
in which the wider public’s dislike of this externality of,
say, soap production might feed back to the market price of the
goods involved, perhaps by the choice of consumers as they boycott
the polluting product. Or one might posit that the smoke would produce
illness and that might produce litigation and that might impact
the market or other factors working directing on the well-being
of the firm producing the soap. In many cases, free-market people
are likely to be able to argue that these mechanisms are actually
cheaper and easier ways to discipline the anti-social than regulation
would be. It is important to spot that even these market-orientated
mechanisms depend on regulation, or at least the law of nuisance
and personal damage.
The case of development rights is more difficult. At its simplest,
the people with a direct financial interest in a development are
usually very small in number whilst there is a huge potential number
of people with an interest in the matter. These bystanders may include
any number who believe they stand to gain from the development,
and any number who believe they stand to lose. Sometimes their interest
is financial, sometimes it is emotional. It will often be vociferous.
So land and property could indeed be bought and sold and the sellers
and vendors be perfectly content that development potential had
been included in the price to the parties’ satisfaction, but
any of these transactions might attract huge public opprobrium.
It is giving the appropriate power to the opprobrium – neither
too much nor too little – which is the essence of the regulatory
and legislative nightmare which is planning.
The tragedy of the commons
Since the biologist (and misanthrope) Garrett Hardin first proposed
the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” it has often
been used in discussing the problem of the treatment of “public
goods”. His analysis concerned the reasons why a commonly-owned
grazing land would tend to be over-grazed by herdsmen. The reason
was this: any one herdsman would have an interest in seeing his
cattle graze as well as possible. It was obvious that he would prefer
this to watching his neighbours’ cattle graze better than
his own. What was less obvious was that he would be rational to
prefer that his cattle over-graze the pasture (and that the pasture
be less productive for the future of his or anyone’s cattle).
The reason for this was that he knew any of his neighbours might
behave similarly and it was better for him to be the first to destroy
the pasture, rather than to be one of those herdsmen who had to
graze on a pasture which had already been destroyed. Now, this account
of what herdsmen do has been disputed. But its broad outline seems
to carry pretty well into the situation of fishermen working stocks
of fish, and it works well too with the exploitation of forests.
There are solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons. One is better
government: the herdsmen ought to gather together to produce a system
of regulation. The other is to see whether private ownership of
property or rights can do better. Suppose people were made to pay
for a portion of grazing land or for the right to a certain amount
of animals and grazing time per animal anywhere on the communal
land. That might help, but even so would involve more regulation
than the prior, primitive situation. This is often the case: for
the market to work, there needs to be the rule of law, and often
quite few new laws.
In the case of forestry, sustained use of a tropical rainforest
is entirely possible, but several “goods” – including
a future crop - may be damaged if current users over-exploit the
resource. One method of making the market come to the rescue of
this situation involves the state issuing longer licences to fee-paying
logging firms so that they are either incentivised or forced to
do their current logging is such a way that there is the prospect
of sufficient renewal for there to be a good prospect of a further
crop in fifty years time.
When we come to development rights we can see that the tragedy
of commons is also relevant. Any development (and absence of development)
produces effects which can put individual interests at odds with
common interests. One problem of land use change is that it produces
a sort of reverse tragedy of the commons: there is often a common
benefit to be had from development, but it can often be hard to
win over those who feel themselves to be individually damaged by
the changes involved.
Isn’t democracy a market anyway?
A democratic nation so manages its political economy – the
politics of its economy – that the state can reasonably claim
to enshrine the idea and even the fact that the individual’s
vote and his share in the commonweal means that each is a stakeholder
– a monetised stakeholder, at that – in the nation’s
wellbeing. In other words, when one exercises one’s vote,
one is also opening (or closing) one’s wallet. Indeed, one
is often volunteering to be put under the yoke of being more generous
than one might be if the same effect was to be achieved by a succession
of smaller, more obviously voluntary steps. Something like this
is happening when affluent people vote for a socialist government
or a high-taxation conservative one: they believe they should be
generous to the poor. They also seem to believe they are more likely
to be generous in the rare, excited, traumatic and climacteric moment
of a General Election when they make a decision which will last
for four years. They do not trust themselves to remember to be generous
in the many ways and on the many days that a more purely voluntary
system of generosity through charity would demand.
People are familiar with the idea that when people making choices
they are “voting with their wallet”. When they choose
which way to vote they are also choosing how to spend their money,
or how they see their monetary advantage.
What is more, as voters choose how to spend their tax-dollar, various
parties (rather like firms) compete for their vote (and in effect
for the right to their dollar).
In these ways, democracy is very like a market. The wishes of a
population are mediated, and many human wishes are expressed in
cash terms. Of course in one crucial way a democracy differs from
a market. Not merely are non-financial values enshrined, but people
with little money are accorded the same power as those with lots
of it. And yet democracy and the market ride along well together
because in both what large numbers of people really want are discerned
and allowed to compete.
Planning principles – and polluting them
There are several unspoken principles in the British planning system.
They are deliciously noble, fit for a Roman republic. They demand
that citizens be stoical and serious. The principles are these.
1) Property rights are important.
An owner may do whatever he likes with what is his, except those
things which are forbidden for reasons of clear public good. Actually,
nearly everything is now forbidden unless permission is granted.
Perhaps unexpectedly, I have little complaint about the way this
principle has been thoroughly subverted. Most decisions by planners
on things like gates, windows, hedges, commercial uses of private
property and the rest, seem fairly sensible. Not all, but most,
seem useful. Those that are absurd (or which I think are wrong)
can simply be corrected, without disturbing the general principle.
2) Citizens should not be bribed
Locals should not be cash-incentived to accept decisions which
have been made in the public good. There is value in this principle
– but all the same, we could improve our economy and our environment
by more often finding the real price of people’s objections
to developments, and quite often paying it. We are beginning to
be far more honest about bribing communities and individuals as
the general will proposes development against local opposition.
In a “People Power” age, this may be the only way of
getting Parliament’s writ to run with anything like ease.
3) A scheme should be judged on its own environmental merits.
Assessment of environmental benefits and damage should confined
to those which are local to the development. There is merit in this
case, but we should accept that often we might well allow damage
in one place, and that we can often “make up for it”
4) A scheme’s merits should be judged on its own local merits.
One shouldn’t judge a scheme by some supposed effects far
distant elsewhere. This is not the same as saying that the planning
system cannot be used to encourage economic growth or anything else
in a region. But it does suppose that any particular development
should be allowed if there is a local case for it, without a hidden
agenda – for instance about “keeping the lid”
on developments in the South East, the better to encourage growth
in the North East. This principle is hard to square with a policy
which seeks to encourage growth in “disadvantaged” regions,
but we should aim toward an understanding that growth is probably
not “fungible” – it does not necessarily flow
away from places where it is barred and into others where it is
5) Parliament’s will is supreme.
It is the glory of our democracy that it captures the national
interest which will by definition reign over the interests of individual
or lesser authority. There is much strength in this proposition,
and it argues for a strong, nationally-directed planning system,
impervious to local quibble. Unfortunately, modern “inclusive”
rhetoric risks undermining this old-fashioned wisdom.
CHAPTER THREE: Practicalities, Reforms
A free-market politician meets the planners....
When we vote for a central planning system, we are in part voting
for the idea that representative democracy is the machine whereby
our larger interests are mediated against our narrower interests.
Many of us are house-owners, but we vote for a system whereby houses
are built near us inspite of ourselves. We do so partly because
we reluctantly accept that our fellows need housing, and we do so
partly because we accept that economic growth requires development.
We don’t want it near us, usually, but we don’t want
it not to happen. The planning system in principle produces the
least worst effect: an element of predictability and a degree of
rationality as development is shoe-horned into our country.
It is thoughts of this kind which led one of our most thoughtful
planning supremos to modify his thinking.
Nicholas Ridley, Secretary of State for the Environment in the
Conservative government of the late 1980s, was keen on the free
market, and might reasonably have been expected to dislike planners.
Actually, though, on some of these matters he rather reasonably
took positions which one might not expect. Trivially, he was discovered
not to despise NIMBYism in private quite as much as he affected
to in public. He did what he could to campaign against a development
near his own home. Actually, this merely reminds us that NIMBYism
is rational and necessary: the important thing is that authority
needs to be able to overcome it. Some of his other enlightening
changes of mind will emerge as we discuss some changes in attitude
which are needed.
I propose four main ways in which we can improve the planning system.
1) Exceptionism – getting round the system
2) Money compensation – paying people to reject NIMBYism
3) “Values” compensation – restoring beauty
4) Proprietorialism – letting owners be voters
5) Redefine economic welfare
6) Improve respect for Parliament
7) Abandon “redirection” aspirations
It often seems that planners fail when they are successful and
are most successful when they fail. That’s to say: when they
get their way (1960s inner cities) they do damage and when they
fail to get their way (their rules are waived in regeneration zones)
the growth they desire happens.
One of the factors which have helped planners regenerate some regions
is that they have been allowed to scrap their own rules –
the rules which shackle them? - as they seek to encourage growth.
In other words, owners of land have been given greater freedom to
act, and have used it to the full, and to the benefit of society
at large, and of the environment too. People were prepared to consider
huge schemes - and all the ups and downs any such scheme will inevitably
suffer – provided they have a relatively free hand. Indeed,
planning for growth looks remarkably like getting the planning system
out of the way. New towns, enterprise and business zones have all
been the scenes of development, and have achieved their work by
allowing large areas to be excluded from the normal planning system.
They have happened by letting “positive” planning by
enterprise and idealists to over-rule “negative” planning
by bureaucrats. We should be careful: the planning profession working
for enterprise (doing “positive” planning for it) is
still planning, and necessary, and potentially highly creative.
Where bureaucratic planners stayed firmly on the case, they have
little to boast about. Most of us complain about the state of our
built environment. Mostly we feel that the post-war generation inherited
from previous ages an urban scene which was quaintly or gloriously
attractive and that we have generally failed when we added our own
touches. We mostly feel that we have failed at micro and macro levels.
Individually the majority of our new factories, offices and houses
have not been lovely. On the larger canvas – at the level
of streets, estates (whether industrial or domestic) we are inclined
to feel that we have a huge amount of scruffy decay (in our industrial
and commercial heartlands, for instance) whilst the developments
we have made have not often been exciting.
Some of the country’s most cherished “preservationist”
policies have contributed perversely to rising land costs and housing
scarcity outside their own areas. Thus, the desire to preserve the
character of the rural and urban scene has produced local plans
which are overly restrictive. One way of overcoming this effect
is to propose that for “special” cases, development
should be allowed “outside the envelope”. We explore
this in Recommendation 1) below.
The Green Belts and National Parks have produced high housing costs
not merely within their areas, but in neighbouring areas. It is
assumed that these are places of great aesthetic value. But they
are not all by any means equally beautiful or for any other reason
unsuitable for housing. We should be challenging the guardians of
these “special” areas to come up with “special”
housing which would be suitably excellent in some way for such special
places. An example is at Recommendation 2) below.
1) The solution here is for villages to embrace the idea that the
planning rules have been drawn so tightly that whilst the village
is almost over-protected environmentally, it has lost the opportunity
to accommodate the kind of housing that might be affordable by low-earners.
The answer is to exploit a little known loophole. This is the system
which allows planners to sanction development “outside the
envelope” (namely outside the areas zoned for housing in the
local plan), provided it is for social housing.
The biggest advantage of this approach is that it allows a developer
(usually a housing association) to work with a local authority (often
a Parish chairman) to identify a piece of land (usually farmland
on the edge of a village) whose owner (usually a farmer) would be
willing to sell at well below the normal for land zoned for housing
“within the envelope”. The farmer knows that he has
only one buyer (the housing association), and that the price will
be far lower than it would have been if his land had been within
the envelope. Indeed, it might be a fifth or even a tenth of what
would have been. But it night be well over twice its agricultural
This is not an ideal situation. Yet alternatives to it might be
much worse. The current planning system is restrictive and works
with market forces to price poorer people out of housing. One should
often argue that the planners ought to be less restrictive –
but that would often lead to even more provision of expensive houses.
To be so much less restrictive that land for housing was very cheap
might mean that large areas of the countryside became ugly. It would
be a political non-starter.
So this curious hybrid of a compromise may be the best we have.
It at least has the merit of bringing deals to the market which
would otherwise be stifled.
This case is now explicitly accepted and it one of the instruments
we should be promoting hard.
Providing lower cost land for social housing in rural areas has
for years depended on allowing building “outside the envelope”:
that is, allowing developers to strike deals with landowners on
land which would not get permission for market housing, but on which
development for cheaper housing is allowed. This is called “rural
exceptionism” and it is very important for its tacit acceptance
of one of the bad things about planning. This is that it has so
stifled the flow of land from agricultural use into housing use
that houses in the country are now too expensive for low or middle
income people. It is of course a neat trick to empower developers
to negotiate low prices for new land for housing, wrung from farmers
who understand that such “exceptionalism” allows them
to sell land at prices well below its worth as designated housing
land but well above agricultural values.
What is more, such policies confront conservationist, NIMBY political
prejudices head-on: resist “rural exceptionism” on a
field adjacent to the village, and one is condemning the sons and
daughters of the local “indigenous” rural people to
living. Thus, incomers are shamed into allowing that the “natives”
Exceptionism has been proved to work in many rural areas. There
is a now decent head of steam for its extension into urban areas.
Cambridge University’s centre for planning and research has
suggested in its “Fiscal Policy Instruments to Promote Affordable
Housing” that “urban exceptions” ought to be allowed
to imitate the existing rural success. [PLANNING, 23 August, 2002]
The government or house building firm should announce a competition
with a substantial prize. It would be on offer to any school within
a National Park or Green Belt. The challenge would be to produce
a plan for a New Town or towns accommodating 10,000 people within
the park or Green Belt. The idea is this. The current generation
of grey-beards who run regional and local politics will not see
the adventure in concreting over a part of such places. The idea
is a non-starter. But if we engage a younger generation in the competing
issues surrounding National Parks and Green belts they will see
the merit of reinvigorating the rural scene with schemes whose benefit
might be low cost or high quality or both.
2) Money compensation – paying people to reject NIMBYism
The commonest problem in planning is that people want development,
but not in their own backyard. This is the well-known NIMBY problem.
The obvious thing to seek to do about the dislike of local developments
is to valorise and monetise it. That is to say: if we could find
ways of making sure the wider public shared the monetary benefit
of development, they might be less inclined to oppose it. As they
benefited from development, so they might the detriments they sense
be lessened. By such means one might bring market mechanisms to
bear on planning matters which are currently made difficult by dissent,
noise and votes.
The difficulty is that there is merit in the principle that if
a development is democratically determined at a national level to
be a good thing, then local objectors should just accept that they
are beneficiaries of the larger good, and should not expect to be
able to halt progress. In some cases, if they are very directly
and very severely affected - are subjected to real inconvenience
and worse - they can be compensated. But it was important not to
allow the principle to be eroded to the point where people could
be compensated for allowing something just on the grounds that they
didn’t much like it, or some slight nuisance. The country
had to progress, all of us had to accept some of the strain –
and so on. In short, we were expected to be a little robust.
A scheme was supposed to be judged on its merits. The developer
was presumed to have a right to develop his property, and if there
were not powerful objections, then the things should go ahead. Gradually,
and in defiance of this rather grand principle, developers grew
increasing used (under what were called Section 106 agreements,
after the section in a planning Act which allowed the practice)
to being invited to add on to their scheme various components which
were designed to ameliorate its impact on the surrounding community.
For instance, a new road to a supermarket, or a roundabout connecting
a spur road to a main road, might be negotiated onto the original
scheme. Purists still wanted these enhancements to be directly related
to limiting the impact of the scheme itself.
But what if a new housing development would produce a need for
a new school? Should the developer pay for this? Nicholas Ridley,
a purist, thought at first that this was wrong, in principle. The
developer of houses was in the housing business, and he and his
customers (who would be paying in the end) had a right not to be
fined for moving into a new area. They should not have to pay for
the right to do what it had been determined was in the national
good. The new houses brought new people into the region, and they
come with the same rights (which their taxes pay for) as existing
inhabitants. Why should they be charged through their house purchase
for a new school when the Treasury had already budgeted for their
schooling on Budget Day.
The “right” could see the force of this conclusion.
The essence of seeking more from developers is that as capitalists
they were seen by the thoughtless or the left as profiteering villains
who ought to be fined – charged anyway – as much as
possible to do business. To the free market mind such activity was
state rent-seeking. The state would become a corporatised highwayman
exacting a toll on honest business, and thereby – in the jargon
– increasing transaction costs.
This principle was noble, and seems market-friendly. It seeks to
let the market work without bribery. And yet, it is can also be
seen as inimical to the market.
One way of helping development projects to the market is to help
local people gain from the profits which the project will generate.
If there are local objections and they are likely to stop the deal,
then why should not the deal-makers find out the price which is
required to make the locals feel better – tolerant –
of the project? Of course, it would be offensive if local people
were to manufacture spurious objections in the hopes of being bought-off,
and that would always be the risk of any system designed to put
money their way. And yet, the market would be at work in such systems.
If developers had to factor into their sums not merely the development,
but also a sort of community tax on the development, then as they
assessed various sites and various options they might steer away
from some greedy communities, which might find they had priced themselves
out of the development game.
But this complacency may be misplaced. Let us suppose the public
interest is that land should come to market as cheaply as possible,
the better to produce (say) cheap housing on it. It would help our
cause to find that one way of overcoming local objection is to load
extra costs onto the project in the form of bribes.
Put this the other way. If it is just to get developers to pay
a community tax for the right to develop, why would it not be equally
right to pay developers to leave their right to develop unused?
Would it not be regarded as intolerable that a poor community should
pay heavily to be free of an unwanted factory proposal? Why –
then – should it be right to make a project which might benefit
poor people pay a penalty?
These sorts of arguments have merit and bear inspection. And yet,
a government anxious to see the public interest expressed –
anxious to develop a new airport runway, a supermarket, an incinerator
– might simply find irresistible the practical possibility
of dangling a carrot in front of reluctant communities. To do so
would seem to have a market-orientation. Here is a level of objection:
let us try to monetise it and incorporate it in the monetary calculus
of the deal. Nicholas Ridley, faced with the difficulty of getting
almost anything major through the English planning system moved
toward that thinking. So should we.
Quite often, of course, locals object to new schemes as a sort
of insurance. Take an area which is likely to see an expansion of
an airport. Stansted in Essex, for instance. Here, there is a real
“threat” of more aircraft noise, but also a rise in
house prices as, presumably, the former rural backwater is seen
as the gateway to a busy wider world. Existing house-owners sense
that the increase in activity has brought them greater wealth, and
that they have little to gain from further noise, and something
to risk. They are in “enough is enough” mode. But they
put at a discount the likelihood that the increase in activity which
brought increased value may well be worth continuing, and that great
value will ensue. Don’t they perhaps feel that they need no
further risk (even if the likelihood is that more wealth will follow
more nuisance)? Don’t they perhaps feel that their councils
may wring further concessions if their rather phoney dissidence
escalates? Why should they not cash-in their existing profits and
allow other, less risk averse, owners to take over?
Interestingly, the present Government has recently proposed a scheme
which might well produce the worst of all possible worlds. Anxious
about the appearance of a sort of corruption as developers negotiate
with cash their way past local objectors, Mr Prescott has proposed
a “tariff” – an automatic impost on all developments
to cover wider disbenefits. Mike Haslam of the RTPI suggested this
payment of tax to the local community might produce more planning
permissions, but fewer cheap houses: hardly the outcome sought.
[FT] The process would institutionalise the “corruption”
of the current system whilst robbing of the one benefit it has:
an understanding that this developer of this scheme has come to
terms with this community. It is [September, 2002] likely to be
We should be far more robust about the seriousness of people’s
grievances. One approach is to challenge objectors with the question:
“what did you know abut the nuisance-qualities of this place
whenever it was you bought in to it?” Most people have chosen
to pay high prices to live in places close to, say, an airport which
long pre-existed their owning property nearby. If they find new
nuisance unacceptable, they can simply leave. We should compensate
only those who can prove they have been unwittingly infringed upon
and have lost value because of a development.
Compensation schemes ought to be encouraged, but be so arranged
that they find the cheapest price at which this or that community
or individual will withdraw objection to a new development. In effect,
communities should be bidding against each other to get the compensation
which might go with new schemes.
3) “Values” compensation
Imagine a proposal for a by-pass. Those opposing the development
will have the loud, effective and unequivocal support of Transport
2000 (and anti-car, pro-public transport campaign supported by public
transport workers’ unions), Friends of the Earth, Reclaim
the Streets. These bodies will usually argue (often wrongly) that
new roads create congestion by encouraging more traffic than they
But the greatest objection will be that roads eat landscape. FOE,
the county naturalist trust movement, The Council for the Protection
of Rural England, and quite possibly the birds, trees and plants
campaigners will all weigh in. Freelance, grunge campaigners will
dig themselves into an unpromising piece of woodland whose antiquity
and scarcity they will exaggerate. English Nature and the Countryside
Agency (statutory bodies charged with defending the natural environment
and the landscape respectively) will add their more muted support.
Because these are crowded islands, most routes chosen will cause
the destruction of wildlife, or a view.
The wildlife argument is bedevilled by a problem which is peculiarly
acute. We now value “biological biodiversity”, but we
refuse to be tied down as to what this means. If we assessed biological
diversity at a national level, we could easily argue that hardly
any roads damage it. The nation, in this view, is a repository of
“x” number of species. That’s to say: unless a
road killed off the only representative of a particular species,
then it couldn’t be said to have damaged the sum total of
biodiversity. This is the species diversity argument, and it would
have only a fairly weak power to scupper development.
But there is a refinement of the biodiversity argument which argues
not that rarity matters, but that generality matters. This view
supposes that every bit of the nation should seek to maximise its
biodiversity. It is attractive and important in the sense that it
emphasises that it is the ease with which any of us might come across,
say, a bluebell wood which matters. Taken to its extreme, every
farm and every garden and every wild place should be so managed
as to hold as many species as possible. That would be possible,
but it might mean, for instance, reforesting the moorlands of Britain
so they held more species than they do now.
In any case, this habitat-orientated view is now prayed in aid
of resisting almost all developments. Any rarity of species, but
also every habitat however common, is taken as making a site important,
and of course it tends to make every site equally important.
There is a way out of this problem. Most developments destroy something
which someone will argue is valuable. When they claim it has “value
in its own right” we should aim to upstage them. The answer
is to remind people that we live in islands so knocked about by
man’s activity that we are spoiled for choice when it comes
to improvable habitat. We should be able to propose that for every
acre of habitat which is damaged or destroyed by any particular
development, the developer or the state will go to work on ten times
as much habitat elsewhere to compensate “Mother Earth”
for the destruction wrought. When an ancient site is threatened,
we can offer to do excellent archaeology somewhere else. When a
valuable building is to be lost, we can offer to restore something
There are objections to this approach. One is that it is just another
form of bribery. Those people who kick up a fuss on a particular
subject should not be bribed into silence. They should listened
to, and over-ruled if necessary. Thus, if we want a stretch of road
more than we want the tatty bit of woodland it replaces, then that’s
for democracy to decide, and those who don’t like the balance
we strike should be silent about it once their case has been heard.
But it will be wiser and cheaper for us to spike their guns. They
are arguing for the inviolable importance of a particular bit of
woodland. We are reminding them that nature is fungible. We can
“swap” their bit of nature for a much better one elsewhere.
We can create, encourage and manipulate naturalness almost wherever
we like. We might, indeed, take a lofty view, a view as lofty as
the objectors. We might say that our national obligation is to have
a lot of nature, and if we lose a bit in the south-east, then we
must remember to make much more of it somewhere – anywhere
– in the realm. Mother Nature will look out on her British
assets and see a larger amount of nature than she had before, and
But this will be poor politics. We should be saying to local objectors
that we regret the diminution of naturalness in their area. Mindful
of it, we will enter into management agreements with the farmers
all around that area and pay them a sum sufficient to ensure that
the area is farmed with greater environmental sensitivity. That
is to say: we accept that every and all depradations on naturalness
are regrettable in themselves, and diminish local people’s
pleasure, and will ensure that the damage done on their patch is
compensated for on their patch.
One great merit of this approach is that it would go so some way
to finding out which part of local nature-lovers’ complaint
was about nature and which was a casuistical NIMBYism. It would
also be cheap, because in truth developments seldom do much harm
to nature, and naturalness is quite cheap to come by.
The British have not dared to create a new town or city since Milton
Keynes was conceived and built in the Garden City tradition. More
recently, most new housing was conceived on too small a scale, with
too little architectural ambition. Sometimes, substantial swathes
of housing have been built, but without the sense of purpose which
might have increased the density of occupation and the likelihood
for an urban scene to develop. This is little remarked in the housing
debate: yet it is what irritates many thoughtful people the most.
These are the people who remain faithful to the Garden City movement,
that curious amalgam of the romantically anarchist, the capitalist,
the ruralist, the socialist and the Utopian. They are inclined to
overstate the possibility that a few new large cities or towns may
very greatly relieve the pressure on the rural scene. But their
fundamental insight remains sound: it is possible to think big in
planning. The result need not be social engineering so much as the
creation in one fell swoop of an environment large numbers of people
choose. It is surely right to sympathise with Lord (Richard) Rogers
and Professor Sir Peter Hall, both luminaries of the Government-sponsored
Urban Task Force, who argue that a good deal of London’s notorious
shortfall in housing could be addressed by adventurous planning
in some London’s easterly boroughs – the Thames gateway.
[PLANNING, July 19, 2002]
Yet the difficulties are manifest. The Town and Country Planning
Association runs a competition which reviews proposals for new settlements.
The interesting entries tend not be realistic and the viable ones
tend not to be interesting. [TCPAb]
Taking “Prettyville” towards the market…a fantasy
“Prettyville” is a fiction of my imagination. It is
a town of 10,000 souls with two potential site for new housing.
One site is a wildflower meadow owned by a poor farmer and the other
is an unremarkable field owned by a rich farmer. The people of Prettyville
are aware that the town’s young people (the indigenes who
are sons and daughters of the soil) cannot afford to buy property
in its environs. The majority of the people would rather that nothing
was built, because either site would impact on their views and,
they believe, marginally reduce the value of their houses.
Suppose that there was no planning system of any kind, and that
the poor farmer was very willing to sell his aesthetically pleasing
meadow whilst the rich farmer did not want to sell his boring one
(it is not the best view in the village, but it is his view).
In that scenario, the flower-rich meadow would be lost and the
boring meadow would survive. It would be a matter of luck whether
the new housing development included low-cost housing. But this
situation would be very often replicated, and sometimes the boring
meadow would be the one which was developed. Housing would probably
be much more available than it is now, and cheaper. The government’s
objective about rural housing would probably be more nearly met.
There would be fewer wild flower meadows.
In this scenario, had the local people cared about the meadow,
they should have voted for their local council to buy it. Indeed,
their best hope would be to own a good deal of land and then they
could control its sale and use. They could sell it with covenants
as to what sort of development should be allowed.
The odd effect of this however is that the only serious solution
from the community’s point of view would involve if not the
nationalisation of land then something a little like it (the “communitisation”
of land). What is more, the locals might well decide to stitch things
up so as to allow no more housing development. Against that possibility
one would have to consider an alternative outcome: the profits from
development could be ploughed into the community and that might
powerfully influence it toward development.
Certainly, government direction would be out of the picture, and
so would planning in the sense that we mean it now.
But these ideas would involve every townsperson accepting the extraordinary
idea that the town shell out probably large sums for land, and it
is hardly probable that there would be unanimity on such a scheme.
Would townspeople be given a vote according to their share of the
progressive taxation which might have produced the purchase? Possible,
There are one or two other options that still might be compatible
with dismantling the planning system, though it would only be abandonment
of a sort. One might abolish all development control but maintain
a system of landscape protection. Supposing one repealed the Town
and Country Planning Act but maintained the rules by which various
vistas and wildlife habitats are protected to greater or lesser
degree from development. This would produce an effect remarkably
like the present one except that on unexceptional sites there would
be an unplanned free-for-all. Of course, the business of defining
the “off-limits” areas would become even more politicised
than it is now, because there would be even more local and campaigning
pressure to zone even more areas as off-limits. Communities would
feel themselves to be under great pressure to buy up tracts of un-zoned
land in order to control its development. Still, this might be a
relatively attractive option, at least from a free market point
But could it ever happen? What would be the incentive for a nation
of property owners to risk embarking on a course which would almost
certainly entail large numbers of people spending large sums of
money if they wanted to secure the continuance of a presumption
that development will be rule-bound which they currently get for
Large scale proprietorialism – nearly realistic
So let’s suppose that existing property-owners within a local
authority would have little incentive to vote for such a change
in the rules, even if the house-poor and the economy might gain.
There is something to be said for such a move toward “proprietorialism”
in new developments. Let’s imagine a scheme devised by a firm
to buy a large aristocratic estate (or an abandoned mental hospital
and its estate – which has arisen). A standard commercial
option would be to produce a scheme in which there is a “gated
community” in which each proprietor buys a property with various
These rules might consist in behavioural clauses about noise or
washing lines or lawn-mowers or whatever. Such a proposition is
interesting but hardly novel. It is commonly available now, in America,
the UK and in France. A purchaser would want to know what was likely
to happen to the land around his or her house, and around the clutch
of houses which constitute the rest of the development, and could
then make up their own mind about the conditions. Affluent and socially
unadventurous would be the most clamorous for this sort of scheme
for its very predictability (its dullness).
But suppose the people buying the estate were more adventurous.
They might as co-owners buy into the estate as an entire business
project on the basis that half of it was to be developed for the
co-owners’ houses and the other half was to be developed later,
by common agreement amongst the many co-owners of the estate. They
would have an incentive to gang together to ensure precisely that
at least their estate was indeed planned – the way they like
it. A halfway house, not impossible to imagine, might have the planning
system to say that the estate was large enough and discrete enough
for it to be a matter of indifference to the wider community what
went on there. It might be deemed to have planning consent for any
activity – industrial, housing, agricultural, forestry –
that its co-owners envisaged.
This last position is of course interesting for our purposes because
it reveals a major problem with planning – and suggests a
way through it. This “proprietory community” model allows
the market to mediate the planning dilemmas that otherwise must
be done politically. Everyone who stands to gain and everyone who
stands to lose within this system can see most of what they lose
and gain in money terms as well as in aesthetic preference terms.
They might not like to see their view damaged by a factory, but
also accept that they would be so enriched by the sale of the land
to the factory’s owners as to overcome their reluctance. A
co-owner might hate the factory but love the fact that the proposed
factory’s managers are incomers who constitute a market for
the co-owner’s house whose sale can fund a retreat to a factory-free
But the problem remains, actually. A co-owner buying into the estate
has to make a judgement as to whether his co-owners will make the
right decisions, as he or she sees them. One might, after all, bank
on one’s co-owners doing such and such a thing, and then watch
appalled as they do the opposite. One might end up monetarily richer
but visually poorer (or vice versa), and that might not be the preferred
option if one had banked on one’s co-owners opting for an
undeveloped idyll (or a money-making industrial estate).
Of course, this model could be refined by covenants and so on so
that one could be sure that one’s co-owners actually had limited
opportunities to take the estate in directions one did not like.
Those covenants would be voluntary, contractual and to that extent
not political. They might satisfy a free-market purist because they
did not involve the state. They might feel just as restrictive,
Indeed what is striking is that this scheme, especially in its
more imaginative versions, is that it would become remarkably “political”
as its stakeholders manoevred, lobbied and plotted for the outcome
which suited them. In short, though it would be market-orientated,
and though it would not involve a communally-held asset, and while
one’s stake in it would be sellable, all the same its most
remarkable feature would be the degree to which it felt like a commune.
We should be experimenting in large scale corporate town-building.
We should be encouraging a few local authorities to cede much of
their planning power to firms which would risk owning large tracts
of ground and offering long leases or covenanted sales to house-purchasers.
Such thinking is around already: the Co-operative Wholesale Society
(admittedly an idealistic firm) has explored such a scheme on one
of its large landholdings. [TCPAb] It would be fascinating to see
an urban authority grant in-principle planning permission to a tract
of land on which they would like to see landscaped high-rise housing
In country or town, they could specify the housing density they
seek. Authorities at every level would have to spell out the infrastructure
support they would offer, and it would be even more interesting
if this was in cash terms. That way, the firm could decide much
of the form in which they wanted to offer in terms of schools, hospitals,
and so on.
This adventure would incur the same wrath that a conventional New
Town would, but it would have the attraction of being an inspiring
and modern approach, with none of the dullness which attaches to
the statist idealism, or the municipal idealism, of the older New
There may might well be a presumption that the result would be
a Disneyfication, or a Princes Charlesification of our land, as
McTowns sprang up. But why should this be true? It is just as likely
that Virgin and Marks & Spencer and Time Out might agree to
take on different neighbourhoods of such a new town or urban unit
and “theme” them in very different ways. Or one developer
might cede different streets or zones to different designers, ranging
from the Georgian Society to Richard Rogers and Wayne Hemmings (who
already “themes” for a housebuilder). The FT interviewed
Tony Pidgley, the scion of the Berkeley Homes empire, who believes
he can take risks on low priced land and create much more interesting
housing options than the industry conventionally accepts as inevitable.
5) Redefine economic and aesthetic welfare
Why are roads so difficult to build…?
Road development is hated by very powerful campaigners and their
media allies and that any proposed scheme attracts very vociferous
local objection. This means that the government’s road building
programme is highly politicised. At any one time it consists of
a list of a few dozen proposed roads. It is a list which will grow
or shrink, and look more likely or less likely to be built according
to the government’s reading of its ability to pay for schemes
and its reading of the state of play between the pro’s and
anti’s. Because the programme is compiled and funded centrally,
even quite local schemes (such as bypasses for towns) become national
issues. Larger schemes, such as motorways or links between motorways
are necessarily argued over at a national level.
To an extraordinary degree, the business of political acceptance
for road-building is a matter of perception. Each of us carries
a mental picture of the British geography. To an important extent,
many of us believe that it is being concreted-over and that each
new road is an insult to our rural tradition. This is peculiar:
any domestic flight over our country will show an enormous amount
of farmland with a ribbon or two of road stretching across it. A
few more incursions of road into that scene will seldom matter,
though it will almost always provoke huge debate. And then there
is the difficulty that new roads are proposed on the basis that
they will be good for the economy and they will be opposed on the
grounds that they are bad for our aesthetic life. Thus, for instance,
it was argued that Hastings needed a bypass to revive its economy
and it was counter-argued that the countryside round Hastings was
a natural resource of great value. That is to say, economics was
counter-posed – as so often – against aesthetics. Now
whilst Hastings’ might indeed be a rural idyll of value, it
is too often forgotten that had a bypass brought affluence of Hastings,
and relieved pressure on the coast road which divides the town from
its foreshore, then that too would have been an aesthetic gain.
Few people would find it more attractive to live in an ugly failing
town than in a vigorous successful one.
Besides, it could be argued that a road through beautiful countryside
is a blight to those who see it, but a great visual asset to those
who travel on it. That’s to say: the view from the road will
be a new view of loveliness to those who use it, just as it is a
new blight to those who overlook it. Yet you will seldom hear the
positive side of that equation. It was, for instance, odd that most
people agreed the road past Stonehenge should, of course, be buried
so that the view from the monument should not be spoiled. What was
not remarked was that a glimpse of the stones was one of the glories
of driving in the area, and the means by which many hundreds of
thousands of people saw them. Indeed, by seeing them fleetingly
and freely, many of them were presumably freed from the desire to
stop and visit the stones, and thus their road-view contributed
to relieving visitor-pressure, which was the main problem the site
It is one of the perversities of the anti-roads campaign that it
cannot believe that all those motorists are in some sense and in
some degree (often a very great one) exercising their own rational
and heartfelt choices when they travel by car. Making money, visiting
granny, conducting a love affair – these are all the kinds
of things which get people into their cars. It might for various
reasons be preferable if people were in trains, or not travelling,
and it might be legitimate for governments to seek to influence
these life-patterns. But it is importantly true to say that in doing
so they are manipulating the freely-expressed, hard fought-for,
expensively-bought choices of their adult citizens. When the government
argues for roads, it is arguing for the often-expressed wishes of
its citizens. When it bows to pressure not to build roads, it is
often giving into noisy pressure which is more influential than
it is truly democratic.
We should challenge the NGO perception of the aesthetic and spiritual
values on which they claim to have the high ground and on which
they actually present rather an impoverished, nervously middle-class
6) Improve respect for representative democracy
We have stressed that the Secretary of State enshrines a national
interest whilst locals stick up for their own interests. It is sometimes
suggested that local people ought be allowed more power relative
One might, for instance, abandon “predict and provide”
in housing matters. The South East might continue to attract business
development. But there would be even less housing for managers and
staff. This situation would arise because, absent the SoS’s
bullying, local authorities would have more of their own way. They
would say they had no room for housing. In short, one might have
all the restrictiveness of the present planning system, but none
of the centrally-dictated insistence that planners allow development
which presently applies.
The state would be off your back, locals would be getting what
they want, and much good would it do them. Arguably, because without
homes there will be little economic growth, the nation would suffer.
Perhaps the businesses which would have come to Hampshire would
go to Scotland or Wales, instead. Perhaps they would go abroad.
It’s hard to predict. Would these outcomes be bad? Would they
have added to the sum of human happiness?
What is surprising, surely, is that the state’s central intervention
might come to be thought fairly benign: local objections are overcome,
but not in a shocking incursion upon freedom, whilst new jobs and
houses have been found. Indeed, the curious thing about the Secretary
of State’s bullying is that he is in effect insisting that
there be more development opportunities put in front of the market.
We more often think of this effect in the field of housing. Actually,
though, similar issues arise in the provision of municipal waste
plants and quarries, let alone the much rarer cases of nuclear power
plants, or additional runways or terminals at airports, or treatment
centres for paedophiles. The romantic notion that we should allow
as much power as possible to reside locally looks very flawed when
one tries to imagine how much harder it would be to get anything
– or any market activity - done in anyone’s back yard
if local power ruled.
We should argue much more forcefully than we do that national politicians
and national institutions are responsive, responsible and serious.
Scapegoating and denigrating them is for immature commentators and
7) Abandon “redirection” aspirations
Planning is a necessary evil, and it should not be expected or
allowed to direct market activity more than absolutely necessary.
The free choices of individuals is a better guide to the national
well-being than a centrally-directed dictates.
On this view, one should decide whether to allow more housing in
the South-east according to whether the South-east can reasonably
accommodate the growth. Unless the new developments were hideously
intrusive, damaging to wildlife, and so on, then the freely-expressed
cash-backed desires of house-buyers and the cash-hungry greed of
the landowners and developers should be allowed to do their business.
This was view held by much of Westminster and Whitehall. It was
originally the view of Nicholas Ridley’s when he was SoS.
But he came to rather enjoy going along with the NIMBYism of the
South East’s voters. If he believed that if he maintained
strict development control in the South East large numbers of Conservative
voters would be happy, and what’s more – and more principled,
perhaps – was the thought that if growth was constrained in
the South East, then to the cheapness of property in Ridley’s
beloved North-east would be added the further advantage that all
sorts of economic activity would be looking for somewhere to go.
The North-east could attract the activity that had been displaced
from the South-east. This was activity that the North-east badly
needed, and he was prepared to stretch a point to make it happen.
Is growth mobile? Is it directable?
Is growth mobile? If it isn’t, has it been silly to try to
“force” development northward by keeping a lid on development
in the South East?
The paradox is this. Growth was easy in the south, not least because
of the constraints on growth represented by the planning system.
By keeping the South gorgeous, more firms find it prestigious to
be there. Senior managers are happy to work there. True, good staff
are in short supply, but the supply is of good staff.
So it is not certain that had there been no planning system, the
market would have expressed itself much more vigorously in producing
growth in the south. Growth might have produced an increasingly
and haphazard urban environment, and the south might have started
to be the victim of its own success rather sooner than it did whilst
planners had some power. The unplanned urbanisation of the south
might have made it less popular as a venue for foot-loose, globalised
entrepreneurs. Some of these might have decamped up north. Others
might have given the UK a miss and gone to the Paris or Amsterdam
or Frankfurt hinterlands.
It is moot point whether planning controls or their absence would
have worked sooner to restrain the South East’s growth, or
redirected growth northwards.
Had the South East “overheated” in the absence of planning,
perhaps manufacturers might have gone north. Yet more might have
followed those that spotted that Herefordshire and Gloucestershire
combined opportunity, relative cheapness, and loveliness. True,
they did so at the expense of being further from London than Croydon.
But they were lovelier, too.
So there are many reasons why the north might not benefit from
planning constraint in the south.
But that does not make the case for abandoning the planning system.
The greatest beneficiary of tight planning controls in the south
might be the south and the nation (including the north, through
geographical redistribution of some of the taxpayer’s wealth,
if it is the case that planning tended to its increase).
Would “wrecking” the south improve the north?
In the absence of a planning system we might have seen such intensification
of use in the south and such virtual dereliction in the north that
there might have been a reaction in favour of locating in the north,
where there were empty roads and great scenery. But could one be
sure? One of the problems in attracting development to the north
has been that though there is labour, it is of the wrong kind; though
there are cheap sites, many are contaminated; and whilst there is
much open space, much of it is National Park, and affluent retirees
are more likely to find it attractive than are executives or their
workers. In short, the North was cheap, but only in some places,
and in places no-one found it easy or obviously desirable to develop.
That’s to say: the south might remain – whether constrained
or overheated - an extraordinary magnet because it has all the economic
advantages of a critical mass of entrepreneurs, skills and professions,
plus access to the main UK airport and proximity to the commercial
centres of the Continent. It also has the inestimable virtue of
cachet. It is not all clear that even if it were allowed to become
spoiled by development, or overpriced because of planning controls,
that there would be a commensurate rush northward.
Recommendation: We should be rather robust in asserting that it
is unlikely that growth is fungible or mobile. One cannot easily
“direct” it to an undesirable place by “locking”
it out of a desirable place. One may attract development to an otherwise
undesirable place by reducing the price of land, or improving some
aspect of its amenities, but that is not at all the same thing and
is difficult enough. Tight planning controls in place “A”
ought to arise out of the needs of place “A” and without
a subtext of interest in place “B”.
Our reasoning here is partly a matter of principle. We are suspicious
of “positive” planning where it is the exercise of authority
to overcome market reluctances. And that – just to make it
clear – is not because one does not seek to influence events
on the ground – say, to improve place “B” in some
way. It arises more from a perception that to restrict the freedom
of individuals in place “A” to do as they want (whether
through the market or democracy) in order to work miracles in place
“B” is a classic case of the kind of state plunder our
tradition worries about.
Ends essay copy
CBI: CBI Planning Task Force, “Shaping the nation”,
Confederation of British Industry, London,
DE SOTO: De Soto, Hernando, The Mystery of Capital, basic Books,
New York, 2000
ES: Tony Travers, director Greater London Group at the London School
of Economics, “Is it time to think the unthinkable on the
Green Belt?”, page 11, Evening Standard, 9 July 2002
FTa: Mike Haslam, Weekend, p6, the Financial Times, 18/19 May 2002
FTb: Anne Spackman, A whi-kid vision you can afford, FT Property,
the Financial Times, May18/19, 2002
IEAa: Hayek, Frederich A, The Road to Serfdom (Reader’s Digest
condensed version, 1945), IEA, 2001
IEAb: Bastiat, Claude F, The Law (1850), IEA, 2001
IEAc: Pennington, Mark, Liberating the Land, IEA, 2002
PLANNING: weekly journal with close links to the Royal Town Planning
Institute, Haymarket Publications, www.planning.haynet.com
RCEP: Royal Commission on Environmental Polluttion, 23rd report,
Environmental Planning, HMSO, Cm 5459, March 2002
TCPAa: Town and Country Planning Association, Inquiry into the
Future of Planning, “Your Place and Mine”, TCPA, London,1999
TCPAb: Town and Country Planning Association, Tomorrow’s
New Communities, TCPAc: London, undated
TCPAd: Policy Statement, “Green Belts”’ London,