By Kirby Swales
Whilst land use planning decisions often make local news, debates on planning policy rarely do, nor do those debates often make national headlines. This changed last weekend as the debate on the proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development came to the fore, and has intensified since. Greg Clark, George Osborne and Eric Pickles have all had to defend the policy in the face of opposition of National Trust, CPRE and others.
It is interesting to watch the terms of the debate – it is presented as housebuilders versus the protection of greenbelt land and about economic growth and meeting housing need. What seems to be missing from the debate are voices/organisations to represent cities and other urban areas, and discussions about quality.
The new simplified regime and presumption in favour of sustainable development could have equally large impacts on urban areas as on the countryside. Left to their own devices, developers and housebuilders could do great damage to the urban fabric in their pursuit of profit. In theory, the protections would remain through the adoption of local plans but in practice these could start to be whittled away without the back-up from other Planning Policy Statements. For example, a clear danger would be significant further employment land lost to residential schemes which in turn could hamper prospects for future economic growth (thereby defeating the proposed intentions of the changes). Equally, some Town Centre provision could be lost in an unmanaged way.
Neighbourhood planning may also be presented as a protection but this is still an uncertain area and they could take a long time to get adopted. Also, this is where higher level plans could present problems – what if a local neighbourhood decides it wants a different tenure balance to encourage a more mixed community? Most local plans in London contain blanket rule on requirements for affordable housing and, within that, the balance between social rent and shared ownership. Could neighbourhoods really override the density standards to get genuine family housing? The conformity requirements suggest not.
The other key issue is quality – national planning policy statements point to the need to deliver well designed buildings but it is left to local plans to provide the detail. Many do this but I wonder how successful the implementation is when many of the affordable housing developments in London seem to me to be poorly sited or poorly designed. This is in fact one of the dangers that Peter Hall warned about in his famous footnote of abstention in the Urban Task Forcereport
The other culprit is school building projects – often huge new investments and buildings not properly linked to their physical surroundings or effectively interacting with the local housing patterns.
CABE used to regularly assess new housing developments in the country and the majority were rated as average or poor. See here for a Northern example. The recent series Secret Life of Buildings was also a powerful argument in favour of raising the awareness and importance of design quality and putting users/residents at the heart of the planning and design process.
It is good to see more debate about the land use planning system, but what we really need is debate about what our cities and neighbourhoods should look like, and also how people can best be engaged in the process of creating them. I’d particularly like to hear more voices representing those who live and work in our urban neighbourhoods and social housing estates.