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Build, but don’t throw the planning baby out with the bathwater

Paul Finch

Architects might express some gratitude for the lifeline thrown in their direction by the Prime Minister in his ‘Build, build, build’ speech, but Paul Finch is not holding his breath

Too many belly-achers I fear, will simply cast doubt on the motive, commitment, finance and carbon credentials of the PM’s proposals. I metaphorically vaccinate myself against these people by taking a dose of the Today programme on Radio 4 each morning. (About 10 minutes seems to do the trick, excluding the sports bulletin and Thought for the Day.)

A mature response to the Boris speech might be: ‘The planned construction boost is welcome, in terms of both infrastructure and buildings. We await further details on how planning deregulation will chime with the Climate Change Act and our carbon commitments.

‘As with almost anything involving the planning system, the devil will be in the detail. Changes to the Use Classes Order had a largely beneficial effect when Mrs Thatcher introduced them, and there is no reason why increased flexibility should not be equally beneficial this time around. Addressing the problem of vacant retail units via easy conversion to homes is a reasonable step in current circumstances. A cautious welcome is appropriate, especially given the boost to spending on much-needed public sector housing.’

It cannot be denied that the planning system as currently constituted is in something of a mess, headed by a man who behaves like a spiv and appears to have no proper understanding of his quasi-judicial role in the appeal system.

The appeal system itself is in disarray because of the inevitable backlog of cases as a result of Covid-19 – it seems that the inspectorate can currently handle only two live appeals at a time because of the limited number of their administrative officers who are allowed out of their home-working tasks.

I have much sympathy for planning officers and welcome the constructive possibilities that proactive plan-making should allow. But reviewing the system as a whole, it is apparent that the relationship between spatial planning, betterment, environmental requirements, building inspection and development control are out of kilter.

The system is designed to come up with multiple reasons why things should not happen

It seems that as soon as any significant development is proposed, the weight of the system is designed to come up with multiple reasons why things should not happen. It is not so much ‘ Yes, provided that…’ as ‘Absolutely not, unless…’

Crazy and dishonest taxation of housebuilders, by imposing on them the impossible task of building out a social programme, is aided and abetted by a planning system which requires its practitioners to be viability experts, carbon experts, an expert in predictive sociology and a whizz on aesthetic and construction detail.

This is, of course, impossible and has led to breeds of specialist consultants forever busy with cut-and-paste ‘evidence’ which ‘proves’ that such-and-such a scheme cannot possibly make money or that the applicant is pulling wool over the local authority’s eyes, depending on which side of the table they happen to be sitting that day.

The Boris strategy is to take the logic of Use Classes relaxation and permitted development rights up a notch – let people build what they want or what they think they can sell, subject to Building Regulations, not planning. A development control mentality will bridle at this automatically, a good example of professional self-interest trumping what people actually want.

The Prime Minister knows perfectly well that, given free rein, the property industry can do seriously horrible things

However, however, however … the Prime Minister knows perfectly well that, given free rein, the property industry can do seriously horrible things, as the scandal of some office-to-resi permitted development conversions has shown. Intrusive domestic extensions by regular voters, including multi-level basements, can be deeply anti-social as well as highly profitable. Planning is supposed to be about striking a balance, and this will still be necessary in a world of greater regulatory relaxation.

The message might be: OK, if you are going to allow more as-of-right development, at least make it subject to minimum requirements in respect of space standards – the sort of standards the PM introduced when he was Mayor of London. All conversions should meet reasonably exacting energy standards, bearing in mind that a disused shop converted to a home might mean one less home built – not such a bad carbon story.

Planning should be reformed, but as a result of tough love, not ideological dislike. Introduced to the UK 70 years ago, it may well be time for re-examination (although we have had plenty of that over the years). This does not mean it is time to dismantle it, any more than it is time to dismantle the NHS, founded at the same time.

Boris makes much of his ‘New Deal’, borrowed from FDR. The latter’s cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, an earlier US president, told voters he was going to give them a ‘Square Deal’. I like the great WC Fields’ mock presidential manifesto, satirising both, in which he promises ‘A Re-deal’. Maybe that’s what our built environment needs in the era of carbon responsibility.


Readers' comments (6)

  • Listening to a touch more than ten minutes of BBC R4 'Today' this morning, there was a point when Alok Sharma, being interrogated on Boris's great initiative, was asked (2.28 in) - in the context of change of use without planning permission to speed up provision of more housing - about the 'hundreds of thousands' of residential planning approvals issued but then for years not translated into houses.
    The response was woolly, but settled on the decision to extend the period of validity of planning approvals in response to the effects of the virus.

    To add to the question of whether the 'sat on' approvals are a significant element in the housing shortage, are there perhaps two types of housing in the eyes of developers, and purchasers - housing to provide homes for real people, and housing that is primarily an investment opportunity in a free market where it might well stay empty (or perhaps be used for the likes of airbnb). The statistics might be conveniently difficult to find.

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  • There is absolutely no sign in this annoucement (woolly as it is) to indicate any preference for refurb-first as opposed to further demolitions or encroachment on agricultural land.

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  • Refurb-first would surely require HM Treasury's capitulation on their long standing resistance to calls to abolish the discriminatory VAT that has caused so much avoidable destruction down the years.
    There's surely justification for reversing fiscal discrimination, in favour of repair and refurb over new-build, demolition and green-field destruction..

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  • Boris Johnson's "BUILD BUILD BUILD" mantra can be expected to lead to the following:

    - The wrong sort of infrastructure in all the wrong places.

    - Another nail in the coffin of many traditional high streets that allow people to do their shopping within walking distance of where they live.

    - A greater degree of national dependence (addition?) on Amazon for all shopping........but no significant tax revenues from Amazon in return.

    - Chaotic urban structures with inappropriate/ugly juxtapositions of commercial development and residential homes.

    - Erosion/destruction of public places to meet

    - New-built "Favelas" in UK's cities and suburbs without access to decent public transport.

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  • Phew!

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  • As Humphrey Littleton once said about the Today programme - Ten minutes of news and interviews packed into three hours.
    So it would be hard to find the right 10 minutes.

    PF says "given free rein, the property industry can do seriously horrible things"

    I think we can all think of gross examples such as windowless flats.

    The market is broken, with supply far outstripped by demand, so that whatever seriously horrible things are built, people will have to live/work in them.

    What a waste of the country's physical and imaginative resources.

    PF is right to say 'Phew!'. Pushing such a far-right unthinking agenda doesn't normally fit well with the architectural profession.

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