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Planning for the people Gordon Brown is pushing planning up the political agenda but will society suffer from Labour's commitment to competition?

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The modernisation of Britain depends on the modernisation of the economy. This was the key message of Gordon Brown's pre-budget statement. 'The reforms reflect our resolve that Britain must leave behind the sterile, century-old conflict between enterprise and fairness. Only by pursuing enterprise and fairness together - enterprise and fairness for all - can we equip Britain for our future and secure rising living standards for all. Indeed, living standards can continue to rise only if Britain continues modernising. We must build a pro-investment, pro-competition, pro-enterprise Britain to meet our first ambition to raise our productivity to the world's best', he said.

He went on to announce that regulators and regulation would be scrutinised to ensure that they are promoting new entrants into markets and competitive forces, rather than impeding them. Gordon Brown's example was one of interest to all architects and planners: 'For the first time, the planning system will be required to promote competition'.

The same day John Prescott announced that planning guidance would be changed to permit high-tech clusters in industry. Writing in the current issue of Planning in London1 (January 2000), Richard Lambert, a director of the British Property Federation, asks: 'Was this the first response to the Urban Task Force's call for a positive, proactive planning system, which saw its role as being to make things happen, rather than prevent them, or the sacrifice of environmental and social goals before the altar of economic productivity and competitiveness?' Lambert observes that the tension between the economic ministries and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (detr) over the ultimate purpose of the planning system has become increasingly ill-concealed in the past year.

Peter Mandelson's competitiveness white paper first trailed the clusters proposal at the end of 1998. It was followed by the McKinsey report which concluded that the planning system in the uk prevented the development of businesses with American-style economies of scale. It singled out several sectors such as hotels and retailing where it deduced that uncompetitive practices were protected or even a direct result of the planning system and that the gdp might be as much as 10 per cent lower as a result.

The detr fought back with its own research report, which concluded that business rarely thought about planning and property issues until they became crucial. Then in September came the row over WalMart after its purchase of asda and the speculation that a secret deal had been struck to relax planning regulations for it.

Lambert comments that a government which is committed to social inclusion and extending the benefits of economic prosperity to all, cannot but be tempted to encourage a retailer who will use market strength to reduce prices, and so help the poorest in society. If regulation prevents that retailer entering the market because it makes the retailer's strategy to achieve these reductions untenable in the market that results, then it could be argued as preventing a public benefit. 'But before we cry 'market forces' and let slip the dogs of untrammelled capitalism,' he says. 'we should remember that competition and planning regulations are social policies as much as economic. Every enterprise aspires to a monopoly position from which it can dictate to the market: if the price-cutting retailer puts its competitors out of business, rather than just forcing their prices down, the public are placed in a vulnerable position. Similarly, it may be economically desirable to build superstores, but is it socially desirable, given the effect they may have on the environment and local infrastructure, not to mention the social impacts in competing local centres?'

Planning goes way beyond simple land-use decisions. The economic, social and environmental consequences of those decisions require choices to be made and the conflicts to be reconciled as we grope our way towards 'sustainability'. The obvious clash within the definition of sustainability is between the environmental and economic objectives. But the need to ensure continuing social progress for all is the most intangible to define and most essential to ensure popular support.

People's environmental commitment wanes if it diminishes the comfort and convenience that late twentieth century Western prosperity affords. Equally, history shows that the philanthropy of businessmen is inadequate as the fount of social justice. Sustainable development should be just what it says it is: development which can be sustained in the short, medium and long-term to give everyone the opportunity to share in improving economic prosperity and a better general quality of life.

Architects are familiar with these conflicts; such tensions arise in many individual building projects, but the planning and land-use aspects are increasingly in the political spotlight and will filter into the long- awaited urban and rural white papers, then to trickle down into circulars and eventually into local development plans. There have been projects absolutely blocked by planning policies where an appeal to the economic development officer has led to an opening of doors at the council. We should be aware that this will be an increasingly productive route for appropriate projects. Ultimately, Lambert concludes that the meaning of these terms and the conflicts which flow from them can only be resolved by politicians taking the decision based on their understanding of the electorate. 'The choice will not satisfy everyone, but then political choices never do,' he says. This will be as true for the local planning authority as for the Cabinet.

1. Planning in London, January 2000 on subscription from 0207 834 9471.

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555, e-mail brian@bwcp.demon.co.uk.

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