Infrastructure

Turning the current planning model on its head

Alex Morton Alex Morton, Policy Exchange’s Head of Housing, Planning and Urban Policy, called for a reversal of the plan-led system with more emphasis on localism and private initiative. Morton’s research focuses on urban development in England.

Alex Morton, a planning analyst with the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, gave delegates tremendous food for thought when he outlined a vision for the future which is the antithesis of the centralised approach to plan-led development – a model that is followed in many countries including Ireland.

Policy Exchange’s mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which will foster a free society, based on strong communities, personal freedom, limited government, national self-confidence and an enterprise culture. Alex Morton is the author of the 2010 report ‘Making Housing Affordable’, which won Prospect magazine’s Think Tank Publication of the Year award and highlighted the cost of housing policies in the UK.

He told the seminar that urban areas can be beautiful, green and pleasant, and added: “It is about the opportunities we sacrifice by holding back our cities, and the economic and social costs of a failed and failing planning system.”

Morton commented: “Planning is largely about urban areas. The metropolitan regions that cover our great cities [in Britain] contain around a third of our population, and around half live in major or large urban areas. But the general trend is that the more urban the area, the greater the internal migration away from it.

“At the present time, only high levels of international immigration are supporting city populations. Outside their centres, our cities seem frozen, unable to regenerate, expand or develop on a large scale.

“Larger cities drive up worker productivity and wages, so the ability of a city to expand and change is a critical factor in economic growth. We must free our cities if we are to meet the challenge of Asia’s growing and increasingly competitive cities and raise quality of life.”

He continued: “Our planning system has failed in two ways. We haven’t built enough houses, and what we have built has too often been of mediocre or poor quality. Our centrally planned system fails to deliver what people want. It fails to compensate adequately those who are affected by development. What’s more, it creates pressure for what can only be described as ugly development.”

Green belt critique

Morton went on to claim that green belts hold back cities by protecting peripheral and low quality land, while forcing development into really rural areas and cramming more and more into packed cities.

“Under the latest planning reforms being considered by the UK Government, local plans remain the lynchpin of the system, and compensation for new homes will still go to councils, not those living nearby,” he commented.

The UK Government is responsible for planning and housing policy in England as it is devolved elsewhere.

“Neighbourhood plans are a good concept but are too limited to drive change. A controversial presumption in favour of sustainable development bows to local plans. Councils will continue to decide housing numbers, with central oversight, meaning that both too few homes will be built and legal struggles between central and local government are likely.”

In his view, the developers’ model is “bust” as the actual cost of building a house is “way below what it is sold for.” The gap, he says, is the result of land prices, which are inflated because “too little land is and has been released for development.” Due to the complexity of the plan-led system, developers have become land speculators.

Alex Morton believes that the time is now right for a fundamental overhaul of the British planning system.

“Local authority control has been the centre of the planning system for over 60 years. It must be stripped back and a presumption against interference be made central instead,” he stressed. “Local plans and planning should focus on genuinely strategic issues rather than attempting to micro-manage every last detail of development.”

In terms of moving the planning debate forward, the Policy Exchange representative believes that there should be a ‘blitz’ on brownfield bureaucracy. “Planning permission for these areas should generally be permitted unless more than half of those nearby object,” he stressed.

“This would allow many more homes, of higher quality, to be built. For greenfield development, a similar system allied to a statutory compensation scheme should be put in place for those affected by new homes.” Morton claims that such a scheme would reduce political opposition, while handing quality control to those near the development, rather than planning officials.

“To ensure cities can flourish, control over development in the green belt should be given to local people,” he emphasised. “Only three out of ten people disagree with the idea that there should be some development in the green belt. As part of wider reform, instead of blocking all development, a green belt levy on development should be created. Where development is allowed, this would pay for improvements to the green belt, like parks and open spaces.

“This would return to the original concept of the green belt as an amenity while allowing development on the green belt, if local people agree.”

120705 Aerial shoot over Olympic Park, London. Image showing a view looking south across the Parklands area towards Canary Wharf..Picture taken by Anthony Charlton New garden cities

Alex Morton also argues that we should start creating new urban areas again. He went on to point out that the regeneration around the site of the 2012 Olympic Park in London shows that large-scale developments are possible.

He concluded: “Most rapidly growing countries are creating new cities. I propose that where they can obtain local consent, new private sector garden cities should be allowed to proceed near existing urban areas. These would combine a high quality of life with the benefits of access to a major city.

“Single ownership replicates the model of London’s great aristocratic estates, which built beautiful areas, not just because they were planned but because the value of each building affected the value of its neighbours and vice versa. Garden cities would also pay for major transport upgrades and new public buildings at no cost to the Government, thereby achieving a double boost for growth.”

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