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Essay: Whipping boys for the planning aristocracy

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Ian Abley gives a potted history of UK housing provision, from the post-war nationalisation of development rights, through Thatcherism, to the current housing crisis

Until the mid-20th century, Britain’s aristocratic families had the freedom to develop their land as they wanted. After 1947, the Crown kept the privilege to decide where development would happen and what would be built when. But the aristocracy, like every other freeholding landowner, relinquished its development rights to the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee.

There was widespread support for the nationalisation of development rights in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Compensation was provided. Britain’s farmers required continuation of protected food prices through subsidies, and tenant farmers sought security of tenure. But the current system of planning began on the ‘appointed day’ of 1 July, 1948.

Ownership of land was not nationalised. That would have been communist. Social democratic capitalism would plan for the benefit of all. But who could be trusted to plan? The answer, from Aneurin Bevan, was to delegate state planning power to local authorities.

Initially Labour hoped to tax developers for their profits at 100 per cent. It was the Queen Mother’s favourite Hugh Dalton who realised that was not working. Winston Churchill’s Conservative Government regained power, and taxation was dropped – the success was not in tax receipts but in house-building. After Churchill’s Temporary Housing Programme the test was in planned New Towns, with increasing council and private house-building everywhere. 

There was cross-party consensus. An aristocracy of local planning authorities was expected to decide where development was to happen. Either committees of elected councillors – or their delegated planning officers – would consider applications. They would choose between those freeholders who applied to develop land supposedly on the merits of where, what and when development was proposed.

Councilhousing03 humphrey bolton

Councilhousing03 humphrey bolton

Source: Humphrey Bolton

Council housing in Rastrick, Calderdale, West Yorkshire

The planning process was meant to be a public service. The planning aristocracy was supposed to maintain standards of public service in a way the unelected landed aristocracy could not claim to.

By 1965 the first national Building Regulations addressed the matter of how developers were to act. But the why, where, what and when of development was decided on by those who had the power and the professionalism to plan, before the how was resolved. It was assumed the Building Regulations were sufficient for the construction industry, or were at least being improved upon in the public interest.

Under Thatcherism, instead of taking the lead, planners were now to let developers take the initiative

Public interest did not mean council housing. Owner occupation was encouraged. All parties allowed discounted public housing sell-offs, on a leasehold not a freehold basis. Local authorities retained the freehold. That happened under Harold Wilson’s Labour government even as the ‘housing numbers game’ peaked in 1968. That year, 413,000 homes were built, excluding Northern Ireland. Labour had promised 500,000. This was the year Ronan Point collapsed, prompting a review of Part A Structure of the Building Regulations.

The economy was faltering and housing production was declining. But it was not until 1974 that James Callaghan’s struggling Labour government more openly confronted the post-war consensus. Social house-building programmes were seen as fantasies by the Conservatives that ousted Edward Heath and backed Margaret Thatcher. Leasehold ‘Right to Buy’ turned into a vote winner. The electorate was understandably sceptical of failed Labour promises of a planned social democratic future.

Council house-building decreased, local authority architect departments closed, and the housing association sector took more of a publicly funded role on the assumption that private housebuilders would maintain a supply that met demand.

Yorkplaceflatswetherby mtaylor848

Yorkplaceflatswetherby mtaylor848

Source: mtaylor848

York Place, Wetherby

Thatcherism reasserted the idea that the public sector should serve the public by not frustrating the private sector. There was a different sense of service. Instead of taking the lead, planners were to let developers take the initiative on the who, why, where, what and when of development. No Conservative minister seriously suggested returning pre-1947 development rights to freeholders. The landed aristocracy did not want repeal of the power of the planning aristocracy.

Private housebuilders liked doing business with planning committees and officers. Initially the volume housebuilders did not like the policy of ‘brownfield first’ institutionalised by Conservative environment secretary John Gummer. He demanded that ‘we use every opportunity to protect green field sites.’ But by 1997, partnership thinking had come to replace the false notion of a separation of public and private sectors. 

Tony Blair’s Labour government similarly sought an ‘Urban Renaissance’, championed by Richard Rogers in 1999. The freehold interests of all urban landowners were to be advanced using the planning system. Town was to be privileged over country by the planning aristocracy, and the landed aristocracy loved that. They only worried that Conservatives would waver.

The planning aristocracy that wanted an urban renaissance had run out of patience

Sufficient house-building was not guaranteed by the public-private partnership approach. The value of housing in town inflated. Britain avoided the collapse of the housing market after 2008 thanks to the planning system of ‘containment’. But by 2015 Andrew Adonis was describing the greatest housing crisis since the aftermath of the Second World War. With Rogers as a contributor, Adonis published City Villages: More Homes, Better Communities through the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). This collection of essays argued that council estate redevelopment should be planned by local authorities as freeholders.

The planning aristocracy that wanted an urban renaissance had run out of patience. They required the forced clearance of tenants and leaseholders, followed by probable demolition and certain densification. The IPPR looked forward to a new generation of public masterplanners, radical innovation in design, a wholly new approach to land development, and new forms of partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors. But instrumental legislation was needed.

Members of Parliament worked in cross-party committee to bring in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Labour provided powers to the Conservatives in office. Some social democrats felt uneasy.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Leasehold and Commonhold Reform was pleased when Conservative communities secretary Sajid Javid announced he would stop the ‘racket’ of private developers selling leaseholds, packaging the freeholds as financial investments. Social democrats liked that much better.

Local authority freeholders are praised when they plan to maximise their financial returns from redevelopment. Housebuilders must wonder why they are being treated as the whipping boys for the planning aristocrats with whom they partner. Social democratic capitalism is not planning development for the benefit of all.

Neither can it be assumed after Grenfell Tower that the Building Regulations are sufficient for the construction industry. A review of Part B Fire Safety of the Building Regulations is now required, and that will affect many other parts in their subordination.

Ian Abley runs www.audacity.org, and is the author of Why is Construction So Backward? (Wiley, 2004)

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Ian Abley's sympathy for the volume house builders is misplaced. Far from being the "whipping boys for the planning aristocracy" as he terms it, rather the planning profession has been converted from a democratically accountable mechanism for defending the public interest, into mere facilitators for developers, negotiating land deals, in some cases for 10% of the site value. That the planning system is shot is illustrated by the fact that housing developments deliver a fraction (if any) of the affordable homes on which their consents was granted, arguing (at the government's invitation) that their commercial viability is threatened. Of course it is an absurd proposition to expect commercial companies, for whom their first duty is to deliver maximum returns to their share-holders, to provide social housing, or to "maintain supply to meet demand". They have a vested interest in scarcity, which results in price inflation.
    On what basis does Abley assert that Labour's planned democratic future failed, when the general populous fights desperately to retain what is left of the NHS after the depredation of all governments since Thatcher's election; when the cruelties of lack of proper care and maintenance & the disasters of right-to-buy (quickly transferring into buy-to-let) are increasingly impossible to ignore?

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  • An unfolding controversy outside Plymouth could be the latest chapter in the history of UK housing provision - and a further example of how the volume house builders can easily seen to be 'at it'.
    This 490 hectare greenfield site will provide 5,500 homes for 12,000 people, with 80,000 sq.m of retail and employment and retail space, one secondary and three primary schools.
    The idea for this joint initiative between the two authorities - Plymouth City (38 hectares) and South Hams District Council - was formulated by Devon County Council in 2003, with particular emphasis on the provision of desperately needed affordable housing and the avoidance of urban sprawl.
    Construction started 12 months ago (the first residents have arrived) and it will take 20 years to complete.
    25% of the 580 homes in phase 1 are claimed to be affordable compared with early estimates of between 45 and 20%, but even if only 25% is the overall percentage this seems to be giving the developers - Red Tree with a consortium of Bovis / Taylor Wimpey / Linden Homes - sufficient leverage to demand modifications to the design code.
    Drawn up in consultation with The Prince's Foundation for Building Community, the declared intent was to model Sherford on a typical Devon market town - but it now looks as if the only market in the developers' minds might be the optimum value of housing, from their point of view.
    Plymouth City Council has apparently refused to accede to their demands, but controls less than 8% of the land, and South Hams District council - mindful of the need to fulfill their government norm for housing provision - have surrendered to the demand in the face of warnings from the developer consortium that house completions would otherwise be delayed.

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