Neil Stock OBE is Leader of Tendring District Council and Chairman of the Essex Leaders and Chief Executives Group. He is a peer mentor for the Local Government Association (LGA).
The planning system, as it currently exists in this country, is a socialist construct, borne of a different time when the government of the day sought to own or control every aspect of life, right down to what a landowner could do with their own property.
History records that in the aftermath of the Second World War, a new Labour government swept into power and delivered a radical agenda of nationalisation and state control. The Bank of England, the railways and aviation, coal, gas and electricity, the steel industry, the car industry, even Thomas Cook the travel firm, were all nationalised. Healthcare was nationalised. And so was the right of a landowner to develop their land.
Planning as an ideology was very on-trend in post-war politics; socialist republics and Soviet-style planned economies were popping up all over the place. What planning aimed to achieve was to ensure that the state dictated and controlled every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Not just the type and style of housing and where it was built but also the infrastructure such as roads and transport, healthcare and education, and the mix of retail and commercial premises.
But Britain has changed fundamentally and profoundly since the war ended almost 80 years ago; the past almost literally is a foreign country. Margaret Thatcher famously swept away most of the remaining vestiges of socialism back in the 1980s. Industries were re-privatised; nationalisation was reversed, and no serious political party is advocating its return. It is not even controversial to assert that socialism has been proven to be a failure in every single administration that has ever tried it.
But state control of what can be built and where development is allowed is still with us, and the legislation introduced by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 is still remarkably unchanged to this day.
Planning policy, what can be built and where, is determined by local plans drawn up by local planning authorities (the local council). The process of creating a new local plan takes many years and involves endless and repeated consultation exercises. This is supposedly a democratic exercise, since local councillors have the final say on the draft plan that is submitted to one of Her Majesty’s planning inspectors. They will then carry out an exhaustive public enquiry before dictating the final wording of the plan, which may or may not bear any resemblance to what the councillors had previously agreed.
With the local plan now in place a developer lucky enough to be in possession of a piece of land deemed suitable for development then submits a planning application. Again, this is ultimately supposed to be a democratic decision, as although typically 90 – 95 per cent of all applications are determined by council planning officers, the big ones and the controversial ones will go to the planning committee where elected councillors will make the decision.
But if the applicant does not like the decision they can appeal, and another of HM planning inspectors will make another independent but wholly undemocratic decision. The right of appeal, it should be noted, is reserved only for applicants who have been refused. Objectors who are opposing an application have no such right of appeal, which all helps to undermine the credibility of the system.
The artificial nature of the planning system means that distorted market forces take effect. House prices in the UK are among the highest anywhere in the world as the amount of land that can be built on is dictated entirely by the planning system. That restriction of supply has naturally led to a gross over-inflation of land values, and the exclusion from the dream of home ownership for large swathes of society.
The restricted supply of land has also led to developers trying to squeeze as many dwellings as they can onto the only available plots with results that, to be frank, have not always been pretty.
Ask anyone to identify buildings that inspire them or houses they would love to own, and the chances are the overwhelming majority of the properties they name will have been built pre 1948 and hence before planning laws were introduced. This country has one of the proudest histories of architectural design, constructional heritage and truly outstanding buildings, but it all seemed to come to a crashing halt with the introduction of planning permission.
Planning, to be blunt about it, has simply not worked; it has not facilitated good design, nor has it created vibrant, prosperous communities. Planning inspectors routinely overturn the decisions of democratically-mandated councillors, objectors have no right of appeal, and developers have to scratch around trying to develop the tiny amount of land that does eventually get permission. And of course, the end user, those many people seeking decent affordable housing have been let down most of all.
Before the 1947 act developers could pretty much build anything they wanted on any piece of land they owned. But they did not; they built, on the whole, thoughtfully and with great care. Mindful of the asset they were hoping to create and the end-user they wanted to want it. They certainly did not concrete over every field and green open space; it would have been economically suicidal to do so and entirely counter-productive. Too much development is just as bad for the market as too little.
Almost 80 years on we are long overdue for a radical new approach, and that is why one sentence in this year’s Queen’s Speech shone out like a beacon of hope and salvation: “Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward.” Upon that one short set of words rest the hopes of anyone who really cares about decent homes and about building a better Britain, fit for the future.
It is interesting to note that only 1.1 per cent of England is currently residential; we often think that this country is hugely overcrowded but that is only because the planning system has led to intensive urbanisation and forced the concentration of housing into tiny bits of land within or adjacent to existing development. All the land identified in local plans for new development is a miniscule amount of the actual undeveloped land in this country.
Of course, we do not want all our rolling fields and wide-open spaces to be built on, but we all recognise the need for new homes, and we want them to be decent homes, well designed and well built, that fit nicely into their environment, and supported by appropriate infrastructure. Housing will always be expensive, but it should not be unattainable. We want people to be motivated to strive to work hard and succeed in pursuit of their dream of owning their own home.
We need a new planning system. We need to clearly identify areas that are wholly inappropriate for new development; national parks, flood risk areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and so on. We need to identify areas where any new development would need to be subject to extremely sensitive design criteria such as conservation areas or historic town centres.
And we also need to identify broad areas where the presumption is that development will happen. Local design codes should be drawn up to ensure that the new buildings fit appropriately into the environment. And we also need a meaningful system whereby local objectors – yes, even the NIMBYs – can make their case and be properly heard.
I am very much looking forward to the publication of the new white paper!