Nicholas Boys Smith: Planning reform is not just about numbers. We need development that people want.

24 Jun

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets and was co-chair of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission with the late Sir Roger Scruton.

If you had forgotten that planning is the toxic third rail of British politics, the Chesham and Amersham by-election result last week will have reminded you. The facts are stark. A Conservative majority of 16,000 slain and reshaped overnight into a Liberal Democrat majority of 8,000. Liberal Democrat leaflets artfully evoked middle England’s worst fears: “automatic planning permission granted,“ “power handed to developers to build on green spaces,“ “residents’ right to oppose developments removed” – and “The Chilterns must be protected.” Incendiary quotations from the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Journalists opining that these messages “cut through.” Former Conservative leaders Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith opposing the plans and Isle of Wight MP, Bob Seely, citing “significant pushback from communities on planning.”

So is that it? Is that the end of planning reform for another generation? I hope not. Because, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, the British planning and development process is one of the most complex and expensive, risky and regressive, anywhere in the world. Since 1947, the right to develop in the UK has been nationalised. But the implementation of that nationalised planning right is profoundly unpredictable. A new building in England needs a planning permission; a case-by-case judgement by a planning officer. This judgement is based on the local plan which is a policy document, not a regulatory one. It gives principles and guidance. It doesn’t set rules. Knowing what you can build, “winning” permission (a telling phrase) takes time, judgement, experience – and lots of money.

This is fundamentally different to most other countries where the right to develop is not nationalised but regulated. In countries as diverse as America, France and Germany, as long as landowners follow the local regulations, the complexity and cost of development is very modest compared to the UK. In Germany, for example, the freedom to build is a part of the constitutionally-guaranteed definition of property. Hardly surprisingly, far more homes than pretty much everywhere else are built by small developers or self-builders.

In contrast, our complex and risky process has not just retarded the rate of housebuilding, but created a near cartel of the largest developers as well as a boondoggle for consultants and lawyers who make a good living feeding the current process a constant diet of expensive reports and assessments. This adds up to a savage trick played by the old upon the young. A smaller proportion of people born between 1981 and 2,000 are homeowners, at this life stage, than for any previous generation since 1926. And their rent payments have increased from ten per cent of net income 30 years ago to around 30 per cent now. This has enhanced generational inequality on a seismic scale with immense political ramifications. Britain’s housing challenges are not just retarding the age of home ownership. They are fundamentally changing generational fairness, particularly in the south-east. The sight of those who espouse progressive principles supporting a system which requires inherited wealth, large cash flows, or expensive lawyers, to create homes is, to put it politely, quite surprising.

It is a question of how and what as well as how many. Our over-reliance on a small number of big developers has consequences. When I co-chaired the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission with the late Sir Roger Scruton, one of the most consistent messages we heard from members of the public was that they felt “done to”, “built at”. One told us:

“My local experience is that the community is seen as an inconvenience to be swept aside during the planning process. Consultation has fallen to almost nil…. developers hold considerable sway.”

The evidence strongly suggests our correspondents were correct. Polling shows homes built by smaller firms tend to be better. And a study of every property sale in six British cities found a premium associated with older neighbourhoods up to seven times greater than the premium for new build homes. Two thirds of British adults say they would never consider buying a newly-built home. And, given their lamentable build quality, you can hardly blame them. A recent survey by UCL found that at least three quarters of new developments were mediocre or poor. Where are the architects you ask? Sadly, too many (not all) are dismissive of public preference (“the public need educating to understand good design” is one of the most noxious concepts) and the volume housebuilders simply don’t employ them in consequence. Everyone loses.

As the results in Buckinghamshire show, the knee jerk assumption in Britain over the last 70 years has therefore firmly, and rationally, become that new development will be bad and is best prevented by anyone who loves their local neighbourhood. Frankly, I don’t blame NIMBYs for not wanting most new homes anywhere near them.

So the current situation is indefensible. We’re not building enough homes. We’re not creating good enough new places. And confidence in the process is so low (two per cent for developers, seven per cent for planning) that all attempts to improve the situation are meet with knee jerk and politically exploitable resistance.

If the government wants to win through, they’ll have to frame the debate, and the reality of what they are proposing, in very broad terms. The answer is not just about numbers or planning but about the location, nature and quality of the new places we are creating and our stewardship of the old. We need to engender a renaissance of civic pride and revitalise the great tradition of civic involvement. Beautiful, popular, healthy and sustainable new places should become the natural result of working within the system, not the consequence of working against it.

I would say this wouldn’t I – but I think the recommendations of the 2020 Building Better Building Beautiful Commission can point the way. Here are four key themes.

One theme is indeed planning and communities. We need shorter, more visual local plans, setting a predictable level playing field so that we cease to overly rely on the big boys. These shorter more visual plans should be very provably linked to what people locally like and prefer, making use of dramatically improving digital engagement and visual preference surveys.

Planning must aim to create what local people like and believe to be homely and beautiful. Development should be a net gain not just “no net harm.” We need to bring the democracy forward so that more of it takes place in setting the local plan. We then need to create multiple locally-led fast tracks to beauty and to locally-improved places or new homes. One idea with potential is “street votes” – voluntary intensification of the suburbs on a street by street basis. There should also be even stronger support for community-led development.

A second theme is stewardship and tax. We need to incentivise responsibility to the future, not penalise it. We need to move from a “build by unit” model to a ‘patient capital’ model. UK tax codes encourage a short-term approach to development by often doubling the proportional tax bill to landowners who co-operate or maintain a long term interest. This is unintended but it is perverse. It should be changed. There needs to be a level tax field between different approaches not an incentive to take a bad approach. Industry bodies, landowners and government should co-operate to create a new recognised stewardship “kitemark” which should have a series of legal and management standards on the approach to land and development.

A third theme has only grown in salience since we published last year and, possibly changed its nature due to the revolution in online working. It is regeneration and sustainability. We must end the scandal of “left-behind” places. Too many places are losing their identity or falling into dereliction. They are noisy, dilapidated, polluted or ugly, often scarred by fast roads through what should be their thriving centres. Such places provably create fewer jobs, attract fewer new businesses and have less good schools. They do not flourish.

Government has committed to ending the scandal of “left-behind” places. Excellent. But it is never enough to invest in roads or shiny “big box” infrastructure. Development should be regenerative not parasitic. A member of Cabinet should be responsible for ensuring that new places reach the right standards, co-ordinating perspectives between the ‘triangle’ of housing, nature and infrastructure.

At the local council level, there should be a Chief Placemaker in every senior team and a member of the local Cabinet who has responsibility for placemaking. Government should align VAT on housing renovation and repair with new build, in order to stop disincentivising the re-use of existing buildings. The built environment sector is currently responsible for 35-40 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. A new-build two bedroom house uses up the equivalent of 80 tonnes of CO2. Refurbishment uses eight tonnes. Even with the highest energy-efficient specification, new build would take over 100 years to catch up. The embodied energy in the bricks of a typical Victorian terraced house would drive a car more than ten times around the world. The greenest building is the one that is already built. Beautiful buildings are conserved and adapted. Ugly buildings are torn down and replaced.

A fourth theme is management and the way the public sector intervenes in our towns and streets. Too often over the last 70 years, the public sector has made places uglier and less prosperous. We need to change corporate performance targets for highways, housing and planning teams in public bodies. They should be targeted on objective measures for well-being, public health, nature recovery and beauty (measured inter alia via popular support). We should be measuring quality and outcomes as well as quantity. There is an urgent need to improve the procurement targets, process and scoring within central and local government and, Homes England. Finally, new public buildings should be popular and beautiful sources of civic pride with polling on local popular design preferences as a normal part of the procurement process.

This all amounts to a profound generational change from a vicious circle of parasitic development to a virtuous circle of regenerative development. As the recent by-election results show, trust in new places will not be reborn in one parliament. It will take many years. (And I have not even had space to touch on the need to re-green our streets with millions of street trees or improve architectural and planners’ education to be more practical with more focus on popular preferences and the associations of urban form and design with well-being and health).

The good news is that recent changes to what is called the National Planning Policy Framework following from our report are starting to move the dial in the right direction. This important overarching document now asks for beauty more clearly, makes it easier to refuse ugliness and expects a biodiversity ‘net gain’ on sites. At Create Streets we are starting to see this make a change, for the better, on the ground. But there is much more to do. And a wide discussion to have over a generation.

There is no fundamental reason of economics or technology that prevents us creating streets and squares, homes and places of humanity and beauty, places in which we can lead happy, healthy and connected lives, know more of our neighbours, and be more joyful as we go about our daily life. We, as a society, have just not done it and we are paying the consequences. Roger Scruton wrote that:

“Home is not occupied only by us: it is inhabited by the ghosts of our ancestors, and by the premonition of children who are yet to be. Its essence is continuity, and it provides the archetype of every experience of peace.”

I hope that, 50 years hence, more of our fellow citizens will be ‘living with beauty’ and leading happier, healthier, more sustainable and better-connected lives in consequence. To achieve this will require planning reform. But it will require far more. We have started the journey: neighbourhood groups planting street trees, new local community land trusts building local homes, the government facing into the wild winds of planning reform. I pray that, as a society, we are able to finish it.

Nicholas Boys Smith: The high street is dead. Long live the high street

11 Mar

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and the co-author of its report Permitting Beauty, published with the High Street Task Force

If you have breathed or blinked recently, you’ll know that the high street is in trouble, vanquished by the click of a mouse and a delivery man on a scooter. Change is never easy and rarely victimless. Ask any former Debenhams employee. But there is an opportunity within this calamity to create more homes, green our towns, and enhance local prosperity. We need to rediscover town centres and high streets as they were and should be; not just as chain store strips but as proper entrepots of living and working. However, to do so, we’ll need to abandon planning as we know it. Here’s why…

First of all, never forget that due to a very odd planning system we don’t have enough homes in the right places. The ratio of homes to households is tighter in the UK than almost anywhere, 0.99 versus a European average of 1.12. The UK’s housing affordability crisis is therefore worse than in most countries. The average UK house price rose by 378 per cent from 1970 to 2015 versus a 94 per cent international average. This is ravaging generational fairness. A smaller proportion of people born between 1981 and 2000 are homeowners, at this stage in their lives, than for any previous generation since 1926. The crisis is particularly acute in successful city and town centres where physical constraints limit the number of new homes.

But we also have too many shops in some places. Savills’ analysis for our new report, Permitting Beauty, found that 12 per cent of British shops are vacant – 158 million sqft. This is mainly due to the internet gods whose share of retail sales has risen from three per cent in 2006 to nearly 19 per cent in 2019 and, briefly, 33 per cent in 2020. Too many shops. Insufficient homes. It is hard for any well-intentioned person to argue against some sort of systemic rebalancing.

Since 2014, the Government has therefore taken steps to ease the process whereby shops can change use to homes, via what is known as ‘permitted development’. In a series of orders, shops and restaurants have been given the right to convert to homes without planning permission. This has been viscerally unpopular with many planners and architects. Amidst all the pantomime bile, however, there are some reasonable concerns. Poor conversions can undermine the attractiveness and ‘clustering effect’ of existing high streets – you tend to go to ‘the shops’ not one shop. Others are worried about poky flats squeezed into dark ground floors. Nearly 40 per cent of the conversions under permitted development change of use, from retail to residential, did not meet advisory national space standards.

In fact, the policy so far has had limited effect. Only 1,325 net new homes were converted from shops via permitted development between 2017 and 2020 and probably around 2,000 in total (figures aren’t available for every year). This is for several reasons. Local authorities can prevent permitted development by issuing specific orders. And even when they don’t, conversion still requires ‘prior approval’ which, many say, is nearly as risky as planning permission. It raises practical problems as well: where do those ugly big wheelie bins go?

However, we should be converting more shops. And it is not just a question of creating homes. Retail to residential conversions could help revive our town centres, many of which desperately need an economic vaccine. A town centre should be a place where people wish to come to meet, to converse, to buy, to sell, and to be amused in the process. High streets need homes and offices, not just shops. Historically this was how they worked but too many of England’s town centres and high streets during the twentieth century came to rely on the single bet of ‘retail’. Homes and officers were decanted out to suburbs and business parks. It has not proved to be a resilient or prosperous strategy.

In parallel, we culturally gave up on caring about the beauty and liveability of our high streets. Too many town centres, even in rich neighbourhoods, declined into no places, with fast cars, semi-derelict areas, unsightly gaps, and disused or abandoned public buildings. However, multiple studies suggest that more activity in town centres supports local prosperity and economic growth. Strong towns are good for us and for our standard of living. Helping recreate active town centres with a hearty mix of homes, shops, schools, and offices, all within easy walking distance would, statistically, therefore, tend to support residents’ wealth and health.

It would also be greener and a much cheaper way of creating new homes. The built environment sector creates nearly 40 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse gasses. Repurposing old buildings instead of throwing up new ones would fraction this. Creating a new-build two-bedroom house uses 80 tonnes of CO2. Refurbishment uses eight tonnes. Similarly, converting an existing building is on average £670 cheaper (35 per cent) per square metre than building afresh. Public money supporting new homes via Homes England could go much further.

Is there, therefore, a way to create more homes in high streets whilst actually improving them? There is. The British development and housebuilding industry is very concentrated due to abnormal levels of planning risk. The Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, has therefore set out a vision for a planning system which makes it easier for small builders and local firms to play a bigger role by setting clearer and more predictable quality standards. Unpredictable regulation, as we have at present, favours the big boys and hugely pushes up the costs of raising capital to ‘win’ planning permission.

This is how we should convert shops to homes. Local and neighbourhood plans should set out locally popular and visually clear design standards (known in the lingo as ‘design codes’) for their conversion. You can see some on pp. 34-51 here. These wouldn’t work in all circumstances. But they would work surprisingly often. (Don’t tell anyone but most Victorian high streets are remarkably similar up and down the country though with different brick types). This would reduce the planning burden for local authorities. It would be much easier for the multitude of smaller owners to understand. And it would encourage ‘bottom-up’ investment whilst ensuring, through clearer visual standards, that new homes were both big enough and that their facades did not destroy the appeal of town centres.

Encouraging town centre living and the systemic repurposing of many shops is the right thing to do. It is cheaper, greener and good for our health and wealth. The alternative is leaving shops to lie empty. This helps no one. Achieving this will mean abandoning case by case governance from the town hall but setting clearer, more popular, and more visual local ‘codes’ to cover the majority of cases in the majority of places. Permitting beauty is surely preferable to tolerating ongoing collapse.


Nicholas Boys Smith: Home alone or terraced friendship?

7 Dec

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and Chairman of the Government’s Design Body Steering Group.

As the nation prepares to emerge, blinking, from Lockdown II, it is worth asking: what consequence is lockdown having on our relationships with those around us? And does where we live, influence this?

During the first lockdown, Create Streets undertook an indicative survey via social media of 438 people into the relationship between where they live and how connected they felt to their neighbours, both before and after lockdown. It was not a controlled survey so can only be indicative. Nevertheless, the breakdown of home types and locations is a reasonable match for the British population with only a modest skew. We therefore believe that, while not definitive, our findings are helpful particularly as some of them corroborate other findings in different countries and decades. We found that:

  • We came together during lockdown. Our study found that people know more of their neighbours than before lockdown, with 37 per cent of people now knowing six or more of their neighbours, compared to just 29 per cent before.
  • Good fences make good neighbours – terraced houses were the best COVID-beaters. Respondents living in terraced houses spoke to more neighbours than those living in other types of house or in flats. 40 per cent interacted with neighbours more than four times a week as opposed to 33 per cent of those living in semi-detached homes or 23 per cent in detached homes. Those living in purpose-built flats were the least likely to speak to their neighbours. 45 per cent of those living in apartment blocks did not interact with their neighbours in any way (over double the rate for terraced homes).
  • Cars appear to stifle neighbourliness. Those who used cars as their main form of transport were less likely to interact with their neighbours in any form (31 per cent), during and after the lockdown, compared to those who walked (25 per cent) or cycled (13 per cent). Cars are also associated with reduced social cohesion at street level. Fourteen percent fewer of those with properties facing busy streets were likely to interact with their neighbours regularly than those who lived on quieter streets.
  • Denser environments do not always guarantee tighter communities. Rural areas had greater levels of social interaction during lockdown compared to suburban and urban areas. Despite proximity, 32 per cent of respondents from urban areas stated they had no interactions with neighbours during and after lockdown. This was double the rate (16 per cent) of those who had no neighbourly interactions in rural areas.
  • Access to greenery is strongly associated with greater neighbourliness. Our research found that both access to front gardens and access to private gardens were associated with many more neighbourly interactions compared to environments with no outdoor space. Of the respondents with no form of outdoor space, 59 per cent did not have any social interactions with neighbours, during and after lockdown compared to 33 per cent from the rest of the sample.

2020 has brought untimely death to many and economic hardship to millions. And worse is yet to come. However, there is a thread of a silver lining. Lockdown has also helped re-forge bonds of neighbourliness and reminded us of what matters in ways which should perhaps never have been forgotten. As we (please heaven) re-find normality in the months to come, can we try to hold on to some of these modest but important upsides? It is worth it. Knowing more of our neighbours makes us happier. So does living in places we find attractive and safe.

The next few months and years are likely to be a period of flux in the spheres of planning, house-building, and highways design. Amongst the certain or probable changes are;

  • The government’s Gear Change Plan for walking and cycling has provided £2 billion of funding to encourage walking and cycling;
  • The new Highway Code is also expected to encourage more sustainable transport with a ‘hierarchy of road users’ where cyclists and pedestrians are at the top;
  • The new Manual for Streets 3 is expected to support street design which is less car-dominated, building on the important work of Manual for Streets;
  • The Urban Tree Challenge Fund is supporting the planting of at least 20,000 large trees and 110,00 smaller trees in English cities and towns;
  • The new model National Model Design Code (following on from last year’s National Design Guide) is expected to give local planning authorities clearer guidance on the creation of new places;
  • The Government has said it intends to implement most of the findings of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I co-chaired alongside the late Sir Roger Scruton and which recommended creating a ‘fast track for homes’ that local people find attractive; and
  • The vision set out in the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, is likely to lead to local plans which are more visual and easier for the affected population to understand.

In this context, our indicative survey has several important suggestions for future highways and planning policy in order to support health, happiness, reduced land use, and public support for new homes. If we want to maximise public health and connectedness, highways policy and design codes should:

  • Create gardens. Local plans and local design codes should require front, back and communal gardens wherever possible (these can be modest in size). These are associated with speaking to your neighbours more which in turns is associated with personal well-being.
  • Create terraced streets. Local plans and local design codes should, wherever possible, support terraced homes. In our COVID survey, these are associated with speaking to your neighbours more than purpose-built flats or semi-detached or detached homes, whilst also being more space efficient.
  • Create quiet streets. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets which design out fast speeds. These are associated with cleaner air and knowing more of your neighbours.
  • Support walking and cycling. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets on which it is easy, pleasant, and safe to walk or cycle. Making it easy to get about by walking or cycling is associated with more neighbourly interactions.

Let’s escape from lockdown but let’s learn from it as well.

Nicholas Boys Smith: Quantity and quality – why the Planning White Paper is getting the big questions right

7 Aug

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets.

I was a member of the taskforce feeding into the Government’s Planning for the Future consultation paper. It is bolder and more radical than much of the work of Create Streets or the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which have sought to be more incremental. That undoubtedly brings risks. Will the market ‘turn off’ as landowners and developers await the new normal? But the White Paper is getting three big things right.

Firstly, it accepts that the popular beauty and liveability of the new settlements we create matters. It matters for the public acceptance of their creation – and for the lives that our children and children’s children will lead in them. There’s a growing corpus of evidence that many of the components that make places beautiful (such as walkable streets, ‘gentle density’, and street trees) also make them healthy, happy, and sustainable. Far too few new places achieve this, less than a quarter in one recent study. That must change with more visual local plans setting popular ‘pattern books’ for what’s acceptable.

Secondly, the White Paper is right that we need to create a more predictable level playing field. There is a smoking gun if you want to understand why we don’t build enough homes in England. It’s that our system operates on a uniquely discretionary case-by-case basis. This creates greater uncertainty which has increased planning risk, pushed up the price of permissioned land, and acted as a rising barrier to entry. It’s no coincidence that the proportion of homes delivered by small builders is declining (12 per cent and falling); that only ten per cent of our homes are self-built versus a 50 per cent European average; or that modular construction is struggling to gain a foothold.

Finally, the White Paper is right that we need to ‘bring the democracy forward’ and re-invent the ambition, depth, and breadth, with which councils engage publicly in the creation of local plans. Creating shorter, more powerful and more visual local plans will help, but councils will also need to reinvent their use of digital technology.

It does not stop there. I suspect not many public sector planners read ConservativeHome but please spare a thought for them as well. Most are well-meaning, hard-working, and under-paid. This White Paper could be good for them too, as well as for the quantity and quality of the places we create. One very experienced London official said to me last year:

‘”I was brainwashed into the world of thinking that development control is planning but it isn’t. The plan-making exercise has been marginalised.”

A process which has clearer, more map-based, and more visual local plans, and better digital engagement, would free up planners better to support the public and not just be development control officers on a depressing and needless treadmill treating ever planning application as if it was bespoke. This would be good.

Implemented well, these proposals should help to move planning from a culture of fear to a culture of affirmation. We are heirs to beautiful towns, set in incomparable countryside. Our goal should be to pass that heritage to our successors, not depleted but enhanced. Quantity matters. But so does quality.

Some predictable voices came out very quickly criticising the report in blood-curdling terms. Most appear not to have read it, not to understand the politics or economics of development or to be so wedded to the 1940s approach that they refuse to countenance change, even when it is palpably and desperately needed. (To be fair, there are also some good questions emerging from the more thoughtful or less doctrinaire). But the ‘end of the world’ style critics (some of whom are not just shouty journalists but working for organisations that claim to care about planning and design) need to be able to answer these questions:

  • What is so different about how we live in England to most of the rest of the world that means we cannot plan strategically but have to focus on every decision case-by case?
  • Why do they think that the UK housing market is so concentrated? Might it possibly have anything to do with the near-unique way we run our chaotic planning system?
  • Why do they think there are so few self-builders in the UK?
  • The UK is a pretty entrepreneurial place: why is modular build struggling to take off?
  • Why should we not move to public engagement that is profoundly more digitally enabled?

If they don’t have convincing answers to these questions which don’t involve the high-risk nature of our planning system (and I have not seen any) then I would politely urge them to roll their sleeves up and help fill in the detail rather than just shouting ‘fire’ from the smokeless rooftops.