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Planning bids

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A variety of American-style zones, designed to simplify the planning process, will not work without financial inducements Attempts at deregulation are most likely to be effective when they deal with the underlying problems, rather than their symptoms. As an antidote to the highly regulated planning system, the Planning Green Paper proposes to introduce the BPZ (Business Planning Zone). The idea is to allow local authorities to create a zone where no planning consent will be necessary, provided that the building accords with tightly defined parameters. This is the norm for American run-of-the-mill development.

While superficially attractive, in particular for the presently fashionable knowledge-based industries, it is unclear how this idea will add to the existing unsuccessful statutory arrangements for Simplified Planning Zones.Unlike the very successful Enterprise Zones which launched the regeneration of London's Docklands, neither of these comes with any fiscal incentives and so they look unlikely either to proceed or to succeed.

There is a greater prospect of success for BIDs (Business Improvement Districts). The model is American and the pressure for them comes from commerce. The government response is last December's local government White Paper (Strong Local Leadership - Quality Public Services). The aim of a BID is to provide business funding for improvements to the public realm:

such things as extra policing, CCTV cameras, street furniture and enhancement of the public realm, both physically and in its management. In London, six such schemes are already in the pipeline.

Business democracy Under the government's proposals, businesses in an area to be covered by a BID would vote on whether or not it should be introduced. The rules for the vote will be covered by legislation but most other aspects are to be settled between local authorities and the local businesses affected. They may even extend their scope to the provision of local training and employment schemes, or to funding a better rural bus service. A BID may focus on a very small area, such as a high street, or might cover a whole district council.

In an obvious way, the British BID is a response to the nationalisation of the local business rate and the removal from local business of any local democratic influence. This contrasts greatly with the way in which business in America influences, funds and identifies with local community needs. The British version might be billed as a 'Public Private Partnership initiative' but, in reality, it is being facilitated by a government which sees it as a vehicle for voluntary additional taxation.

It would be much enhanced if a proportion of the local business rate for the area were to be returned to the BID, and if the local businesses involved were to be given a vote alongside council tax payers. In this way, a BID would retrace some of the retrograde steps taken by governments in their imperative to centralise controls and would as a result be more widely supported and so provide even more resources for the public realm.

The need to address the cause rather than the symptom has a parallel in housing.Many architects today find themselves and their clients struggling inordinately with processes relating to affordable housing as they affect indi vidual planning applications.

The present ever-shifting basis o policy, the inconsistency of its appli cation by different authorities and th national shortage of housing corpo ration funds to allow registered socia landlords to pay for the construction of the subsidised housing, are al causing uncertainty - from concep tion, to brief, to viability - of many housing and mixed-use schemes.

Costa packet The Green Paper's proposals fo tariff payments, which will extend th burden of affordable housing contri butions to commercial develop ments, will make these complexitie even more pervasive. It is not surpris ing then that last year, a year of boom in the housing market, the lowes number of new homes were buil since 1924. The constraints of th planning system are, of course, part o the story, but the way in which th planning system is now distorting th housing market is equally significan in inhibiting supply.

Bernard Hunt of HTA Architect and chairman of the RIBA Housing Group has often suggested that th seed of the problem is the attempt to subsidise the houses rather than th people who need them. Interestingly they do so in Spain, where hom ownership is enjoyed by an even higher proportion of the population than it is in the UK.

If a family needs assistance, it i provided with a subsidised mortgag so as to make the property it need affordable. Conditions attaching to the loan result in some of the subsidy being reimbursed when the property is eventually sold at a profit.

As a result, families in need can afford a home where they need it they get onto the housing 'ladder', th subsidy by the taxpayer is often returned and recycled and, above all the market which provides the home is not distorted or the subject of socia engineering. Is this really too difficul for us to adopt?

Brian Waters is principal of the Boiso Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555, e-mail brian@bwcp. co. uk web www. bwcp. co. uk

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