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Let’s Improve Planning, Let’s Abolish It!

I’m the managing director of Positive Homes. Since 2016 we’ve developed five little sites – the last of which won ‘Development of the Year’ at the 2021 Offsite Awards. Everything we’ve done is one version or another of ‘modern methods of construction’ (MMC), and highly energy efficient.

So Red Brick said, how about 1,200 words on what it’s like to be a (new-ish) small housing developer. Well, blimey. Where to start?

How about small developers built a quarter of new homes in the late 1980s. Now it’s 1 in 12. And SME developers always have higher per unit costs. Even worse: At least 99% of all the new homes built since at least 2008 are obsolete the moment their buyers first step over the threshold. That’s because only 1% of new homes are ‘A’ rated for energy efficiency (including all of ours).And ‘A’ is the least they need to be, to avoid a hefty retrofit bill to make homes ‘net zero’ carbon.

Both of these facts are the inevitable consequence of a dysfunctional planning system, that has created an oligopoly of large companies. Hardly a surprise that 94% of small developers say planning is their biggest problem. Why? Because the system makes something not scarce at all (land) into something beyond valuable, by restricting its supply.

Some more facts: According to Savills, we consistently lose around 26,000 hectares of agricultural land a year. Which sounds like a lot – except we have more than 18 MILLION hectares of farmland, and only 6% of the country is actually built on. So we aren’t running out of land any time in, oh, the next several centuries!

Land use is a choice. But it’s a choice we aren’t allowed to make as a society, because it’s been hived off to a group of anonymous, over-powerful ‘planners’. The public are treated like patronised children, being told what’s good for them. Hardly surprising then, that people act accordingly and kick off when it feels like things are being done to them, not with them. There are people from across the political spectrum fighting to stop new homes. We call them NIMBYs, rather patronisingly. But surely these are just reasonable people not liking the concreting over of the precious countryside?

What a mess. So now for the seemingly counterintuitive leap: The best way to get better results – that benefit the whole community – is to abolish the planning system as we know it. Huh?

We need more affordable homes (of all tenures). We need better built, more energy efficient homes. We need better use of existing buildings. We need a resurgence of smaller developers to bring choice to the market and drive innovation. And we need to protect and enhance the environment.

What prevents that happening? Land use restrictions. By preventing the productive use of something we have in vast abundance, we do nothing other than make our society poorer (house price inflation is a mirage). Instead, we would rather blame the big builders for being ‘too successful’, than acknowledge how the current planning system distorts the market. If land is ‘scarce’ and therefore expensive, there’s obviously less money for environmental improvements/ bigger rooms/ better built homes.

So let’s try a different tack: Let’s abolish planning. (Specifically, the post war planning system, and all its evolutions – yes, including the green belt). But wouldn’t scrapping the planning system produce some sort of mass free for all? Actually no –

because there are numerous essential protections and provisions in place that wouldn’t disappear.

First, you need some guiding principles. So how about the Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 1, Protection of Property (humour me)*:

“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”

Or, in other words if it’s my land, I should have the right to do whatever I want with it – the ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of my property, providing it doesn’t affect my neighbours’ ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of their property.

From that, you can set (the smallest necessary number of) questions which developers need to answer. And if the answers are right, then there’s nothing to stop you getting building.   Or is there? Actually there’s rather a lot. We need answers to questions like:

  1. Could the highway network handle the extra traffic?
  2. Can the local electricity supply cope with the extra demand? (Especially with electric cars and heat pumps coming in etc)
  3. Does the land flood? Could this be overcome?
  4. Can the water supply and sewer systems cope?
  5. Will every home be ‘net zero’ carbon?
  6. What about local school places? The local GP? Biodiversity?

But hang on – it can’t just be as simple and easy as that can it? If I can successfully answer everything positively, then I can just build? No site identification in the takes-forever-local-plan? No months and years spent on a subsequent, expensive application process? Yes, it really is that simple, with one condition – that additional question I mentioned: 

7. ‘Does the scheme meet the local design code?’

One of former Housing Minister Robert Jenrick’s most interesting reform proposal of 2021 was the idea of local codes, written by residents to recognise what makes their communities great. New housing boss Michael Gove has taken this on by proposing street by street design code referendums.For me, these are a logical extension of neighbourhood plans which, if done right, encourage the voices of the vast majority who don’t get involved in the current system.

Where I live, our village plan process involved a huge number of local people making positive contributions. That included identifying potential sites, along with the type and quality of homes that should be built there. There are now 700 homes under construction, and all the developers embraced the village’s requirements in their designs with minimum fuss.

Is it really so wrong so say we should trust local people to know what’s best for their communities? Most people are capable of weighing up competing priorities to arrive at a sensible, democratic outcome that benefits everyone. Or would we rather continue the ‘who shouts the loudest’ moanathon as the balance to the anonymous planners, who think they know best for your community?

Instead, let’s replace the centralised planning system with….. you and me: Human beings who want the best for their children and their community. Hopelessly optimistic?

Well it happened in Tottenham just recently. The council’s role? To facilitate the development of a design code that local people wanted and needed – and to then get out of the way and let them get on with it. Why wouldn’t you want that where you live too?

(PS: I started writing this when Housing Minister Robert Jenrick was proposing some highly sensible reforms to the planning process. I finished it with Michael Gove fundamentally abandoning the zoning model – while the House of Lords says we need action to support smaller developers and build more homes. And we wonder why nothing ever gets done around here!)

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Martin Valentine</span></strong>
Martin Valentine

Martin is the Managing Director of Positive Homes.

2 replies on “Let’s Improve Planning, Let’s Abolish It!”

We may differ on whether Jenrick’s reforms were sensible. This sort of regulation would do for housing what fire regulation did for Grenfell, in my view.

Great article, drastic but interesting solution to abandon planning laws but successive Governments don’t have a solution. So maybe an option. I thought Princess Anne’s idea from some time ago was excellent. The ghist of it from what I remember was that all smallish villages should build a few houses, so no big developments, maybe a half dozen here and a few more depending of the village size. It would help the local area, keep the villages alive and provide houses for those who want to live and/or work nearby. It would also provide work for small building contractors.

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