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Land-use Planning:

plundering property rights, or preserving them?


Chapter One: The British and Planning

Chapter Two: Policies, politics and principles

Chapter Three: Practicalities, Reforms



At first blush people who love the market should dislike the land-use planning system we Britons live with and under. Is not the whole premise of the free-market that it brings together so many real people making real and selfish choices that their will – the net will, if you like - of them all is expressed? And is it not the essence of the thing that liberty is maximised: an owner’s liberty to dispose of what is his as he likes, and the buyer’s to pay a price which is either fair or at the very least voluntary? Does it not produce wealth and distribute wealth, and produce goods and services to suit all tastes, better than any other approach? Do not curtailments on the market damage this vibrancy? Is not the state likely to be wrong when it predicts and commands and interferes?

Well, yes. Except that the market is not the enemy of good law, nor good law the enemy of the market. Indeed, the market cannot flourish without the rule of law – not least in the enforcement of the contracts which are the essence of market operations. Heroes of the free-market are the first to acknowledge and celebrate this. They identify failure of law as the main reason why the market cannot do its magic in much of the world. [DE SOTO]

And then there are the acknowledged difficulties of “externalities”: those elements and consequences of market activity which may dearly cost individuals and societies and which are not included in the market’s handling of the deals which are the market at work. As our great free market hero, Friedrich Hayek recognised, pollution is often one of these. [IEAa] Perhaps the future is (though a noble tradition represented by Wilfred Beckerman nobly disputes this).

Many land-use issues are similar. A development spoils a view. Society would like affordable housing even in high-dollar regions. We try to judge the competing claims of the convenience we might gain from a bypass and the aesthetic loss of the landscape it crosses. Such problems bedevil land use.

In short, the market has difficulties seeing beyond the millions of deals and the millions of deal-making people it mediates so brilliantly. If you are not a potential buyer or seller in any particular exchange, then the market is not always brilliant at spotting and valorising your interest in it.

These market failures bite very hard on the exchange and management of property and land, and the planning system has developed to address them.

What is more, it is perfectly possible to erect a case which sees the regulation of land-use as a core function of the state: the exercise of development rights affects so many people – so many bystanders – that it is hardly surprising that like rules of the road, or public behaviour, it is closely controlled. Or rather: we use the democratic system to exert our bit of influence. Few of us feel oppressed by the rules which govern planning. Many of us feel oppressed when they are not used to protect us, or what we take to be the public interest.

So we face a paradox. People with property or a busy sense of the public good are amongst the first to argue that development rights should be controlled. But are they necessarily giving in to statist and corporatist tendencies as they do so? Are they falling foul of heroes of libertarianism – the likes of Hayek or Bastiat? [IEAa; IEAb]

This is the tension which Mark Pennington has elegantly and painstakingly explored for the IEA. [IEAc] I am only a little less critical of what the planning system has achieved than he, and I agree with him that “the British planning system has never approximated a ‘centrally planned’ or fully comprehensive system in the sense of all decisions being taken by a ‘national bureau of land use’ or equivalent.” Pennington believes that there is something deeply flawed in the “nationalisation of development rights” which he thinks the planning system represents, but he does not seem to dissent from the view that in the final analysis the state does necessarily have the role of controller of last resort of development rights.

I, rather differently, stress that in the most important senses, development rights have not, actually, been nationalised. The value of “betterment” of land-use changes does not accrue to the state. A property-owner owns the present value of his land and gains a good deal if he can get permission to enhance it.

Nor am I sure that land-use planning is quite the sort of “planning” against which our libertarian heroes inveighed. So far as my understanding of the libertarian tradition goes, I think that “planning” was taken to mean the process of trying to predict economic outcomes and direct them by masses of controls, including the denial of private property rights.

The land-use planning system has aspects that look like this sort of control: especially “positive” planning which seeks to use the control of development rights to direct economic growth geographically. But much “negative” planning looks more like nuisance control. It might be argued, in line with Pennington, that common and contract law could handle such problems better than the planning system, but it is arguable whether the upshot would be less an imposition on our freedom.

In any case, even granted that the libertarian tradition is inclined to see “democratic” control as a crafty eulogism for “state” control, it does seem reasonable to see the British planning system as genuinely democratic, and perhaps too democratic. Pennington is inclined to argue that decentralisation would be a reform in itself, whilst I am inclined to the view that a powerful centre, with some powerful planning clout, is necessary to overcome the Not In My Backyard syndrome which abuses the very responsiveness of the planning system. “Undemocratic” Westminster may be more valuable to freedoms than “democracy in action” on the ground. But then I am a Burkean and like representative, national democracy.

Yet planning controls are an imposition of authority, and they should be challenged all the time and from every angle. The imposers of rules should know that they must defend them. Especially when support for them seems selfish rather than public-spirited – when they preserve not public but private values – they should be scrutinised with rigour and scepticism. Such scrutiny will fall to people who love the free-market. It is people who love the free market who jealously and zealously watch out for accretions of power, whether authoritarian or monopolistic, which fetter the public interests enshrined in the voluntary and monetary expression of private desires.

It is not sacrilegious or indecent to ask whether the planning system really works well. And it is apposite to ask if the market, or market-orientated ideas, help make it work better. Could the wider social good, or the interests of the poor, be represented better if the market had a greater bearing on land-use decisions? Can the market help good laws to work better as it brings its energetic magic to bear?

Can we not go beyond grudging respect of the market as it competes with regulation, but rather – more creatively – celebrate what it might achieve in tandem with regulation?

Why not go the whole hog?

At first glance, it should not be difficult to imagine a modern Britain without planning. It would be the Britain we inherited at the end of the Second World War plus whatever market forces and a certain amount of local authority manipulation might have produced. In some respects, we can easily imagine that it would have been a happier situation than the reality we have seen. It is possible that London’s Docklands might have been redeveloped earlier, for instance. It is almost certain that there would be a far greater housing stock, and with it lower prices for properties of every sort. There would be more roads (provided Parliament had passed compulsory purchase bills to iron out – crush – the local difficulty of the occasional recalcitrant landowner). Factories and offices would be more numerous, and cheaper. The property element in the entry price for entrepreneurs might be much lower. There might even be little north-south divide since those northerners who wanted to share southern affluence could up-sticks and be a part of it. After all, the absence of affluence in the north might be better solved by workers going to where there is growth than trying to get the growth to move to them. At the moment, they can’t because their northern properties can’t be traded in for southern ones and there is too little to rent down south.

It might be easier to have a decent house near a decent job and to move around the country in one’s car more easily. In short, without a planning system, we might have had much of what the planners wanted when they were in growth-encouragement mode.

Presumably, there would be very much development in places where developers wanted to go, and there would be rather less where development was wanted. That’s to say: we would have had a great deal of enterprise and housing and infrastructure in any region within easy reach of London, and much less anywhere else. At a fine grain of analysis, one would presumably have seen something akin to the Irish situation. In that country, farmers are allowed to build properties for themselves and their families. The result is that there is an extraordinary number of fields sporting a brand new, hacienda-style bungalows in the corner.

In the absence of planning controls, it can reasonably be assumed that huge numbers of British fields would now sport villas and small housing estates. In short, the trends of the 1920s and 1930s would have been continued, but with the additional impetus of a national wealth which has probably quadrupled since then. Development would not be limited to where mass transit is available. John Betjeman’s Metroland was suburbanisation on London’s fringe facilitated and limited by the coming of the Tube system. The mid-twentieth century produced something which might be called Mondeo-land, and if the planning system had not been there it might have been a very forceful movement wherever the car could reach. Presumably, also, most towns would have produced a sprawl of industrial and commercial development far greater even than that we now see.

In short, we would probably be richer. And perhaps the wealth would be better spread. I have said that one outcome of an absence of controls might have been the intensification of the “honeypot” of the south-east. But that might have led to real over-heating (a new ugliness, even worse congestion, for instance). That might have produced a drift of economic growth northward – and might have done so more speedily than any direction by planners.

But are we so sure that we would like the outcome of an unplanned Britain? We might perhaps hope that we were sufficiently rich to enjoy our well-housed, highly-mobile working lives in Britain and then leave it to live in France, Italy or the USA where for whatever reason there remained a better balance between affluence and attractiveness.

This paper explores the principles, practicalities and the politics of the planning system. It takes real cases when possible and imagines plausible cases. I make some recommendations which seem to me realistic as well as imaginative. This work thus seeks to be both loftily philosophical and rooted in the real world and real likelihoods.

I argue that the planning system grows out of an understanding that land-use is a proper matter for political control. And I argue that we should get the planning system off our backs in several ways, and that we would benefit from a far more adventurous approach, not least by a newly-empowered and invigorated planning profession.

Perhaps oddly, I think the founders of the planning system understood its merits better than we do. They were mostly socialists, or at least corporatists. Yet their expectations of the planning system can fit our own much more entrepreneurial times. They wanted to do things on a large scale, with ambition: that makes sense today.

Even when it is in bullying mode, the system can do good, not least by allowing the market better scope. The planning system could be used far more than it is to allow markets to flourish over the NIMBY-ism, the narrow self-interest, of the politically powerful and those who use politics to produce inertia.

The reason why the planning system is here to stay is that as well as preserving the old (in landscapes and townscapes), it creates and preserves the value of private property for millions and millions of people. Or rather: millions and millions of property-owners believe their wealth is looked after better by its workings than it would be in the free-for-all they imagine would take place in its absence. Thus, a preservationist instinct and rhetoric is reinforced by an assessment by millions of voters of where their self-interest lies.

These millions of people need to persuaded that there is a bigger goal – more affluence, more loveliness, more social inclusiveness – to be had by a twin-pronged, only apparently paradoxical – new approach to planning. On the one hand planners should be allowed to do more of what I shall call “positive” planning, somewhat as the old New Towns movement was once allowed to do. On the other: there should be more experimentation with letting individuals and firms do as they will with property, outwith the usual planning rules. They need to be freer of what I shall call “negative” planning.

Several people helped in the writing of this piece, and some were so usefully indiscreet that I must spare their blushes by not quoting them directly.

I should say that I have always loved the British planning system. Unlike the state health, education and welfare provision whose birth-dates it more or less shares, it seems to me to be an instrument of public will which would have to be invented if it did not exist. It seems to me to embody and to attempt to resolve very deep and pervasive tensions between the public and private, and between individuals, * and even within individuals.

Do we think the planning system is too intrusive and prescriptive about land-use? Sure. Do we think the “nationalising” development rights is inherently regrettable? By all means. But then, we regret the state as a necessary evil from the “off”. Now, let’s get on with the practical matter of making it work better.

CHAPTER ONE: The British and Planning

The British – beginning to live without the State…

The British people have accepted with surprising ease the idea that we should allow markets to do as much as possible and that the state should only do those things the market is bad at. A mark of the change is that nowadays it is a routine comment on phone-in radio shows that Britons should not longer tolerate living with a “Stalinist” National Health Service. This is not the majority view, probably, but that it is made at all is amazing in a country in which there was once an extraordinary consensus that we were blessed with a unique health system.

We are unwinding the incursions into our lives which were made by the state in the mid-20th Century. We have, for instance, denationalised steel, coal, rail, water, telecommunications and power generation. We have partially denationalised the penal and broadcasting systems. Unemployment benefit, pensions, education and medical services never did become the exclusive preserve of the state, but recent debate suggests they are likely to be much less so in the future. Even where there is state funding, there is increasing use of private firms for building and servicing infrastructure such as hospitals, roads and bridges. Housing for many people was a matter of state or local authority provision, much of that has now been abandoned or devolved to housing associations (though the state still funds a good deal of housing).

In short an ethic of personal responsibility has re-emerged and it is allied with a sense that people would rather be the customer of private firms than be the client of the state.

…but still in thrall to planners…

But there is one area in which the role of the state is hardly ever challenged and remains as strong as ever. The planning system presumes that the market in land doesn’t work. It needs to be controlled. This is, to be sure, not the same as saying that land is nationalised, or the price at which it is exchanged is subject to controls. The state’s intervention is rather subtler than that. The state insists, in effect, on owning the right to control the changes of use of nearly every aspect of the physical environment. Its influence is thus huge. If a person is free to own land, but not free to do as he or she wants with it, in what sense is he or she free? How come, then, that we were so willing to give away this valuable freedom?

A little history of planning in Britain…

The planning system was the creation of war-time thinking about a rational society. William Beveridge was the embodiment of this vision, with his importation of German ideas about health and welfare. There were several enormous failings in his prescription. It created a dependency on the state, which emotionally crippled swathes of society. It demanded high taxation which dampened enterprise. It starved the emerging mutual and commercial insurance businesses which might have funded much wider access to a vibrant private sector of welfare-provision.

It also created a myth: namely, that State provision of health and pensions would be through a National Insurance scheme. Arguably, the nation could have developed models which would have provided welfare without dependency, and done so with schemes which were much more genuinely run on insurance lines than the fraud the National Insurance scheme actually was.

The country was not in the mood for that sort of blunt speaking, and was determined that the state should organise an improved life for the poor, and do so in a hands-on way. It was readily accepted by many people of all classes that there should be massive housing provision by the state and that industry should be rebuilt with a good deal of central direction. In some important ways, this was a major change.

The look of Britain – its high streets and pastures, its industrial works and its mansions - had largely been determined by the owners of capital. The uses of land – large or small in scale – had been determined by landowners and their ambitions or lack of ambition for the terrain they owned. In that sense, it was importantly voluntary – a matter for the market, with all its opportunities and brutalities. Insofar as there was state involvement – compulsion - it consisted in landowners getting parliamentary approval to compulsorily purchase the land which might be necessary for, say, a canal or railway, and which ordinary inducements wouldn’t bring to the market. And there was a certain amount of town planning by local authorities. But mostly, land and property owners, large and small, could do what they willed with what was theirs.

One effect is little noted: that everything we see now as “historical” – hedges, high streets, mansions, cottages, roads, canals – was usually an expression of a contemporary taste (modern, aggressive, triumphalist, vulgar, whatever) which in its day was an imposition and insertion on an older pattern. We are the first really squeamish generation. This change in feeling may be valid – but it is new.

The Town and Country Planning Act of 1949 changed the habits of hundreds of lifetimes. It introduced a new statism – or a new democracy – in control. It mightily constrained the rights of landowners. It nationalised almost all development rights. In many small things, from a shopkeeper’s awning to a householder’s conservatory – the state decreed that unless a property maintained its ordained appearance and function, the owner was likely to be breaking the law when any substantial changes were made. In time, any substantial tree, any fairly handsome bit of architecture (and some ugly ones) would be subject to conservation rules of one sort or another. In larger things, any landowner was very severely limited as to what he could do.

The rationale behind the new thinking and laws seemed sensible to most people. The war had turned the country into a planned economy. But it had also created a new dream of a state-planned society which would honour the contribution the working classes had made to saving the nation, and enshrine the new closeness many middle class officers felt to the working class men they had led.

People had grown used to central direction of a war economy, and could easily imagine that a modern industrial economy would need well-organised infrastructure. To some extent, this thinking reflected the orderliness of factories, with work flowing through them on production lines. The whole country was like a large production line, and if the state sought to improve the efficiency of production it should surely seek to influence – or even dictate - where things were made and how they were moved. So the concept of land-use planning made sense industrially. It would suggest where things ought to be done, and forbid them to be done elsewhere.

The workmanlike urban scene could be rationalised and the idealised rural scene preserved.

British sentimental pastoralism…

The British think they live in a crowded island and had by the mid-Twentieth Century taken seriously the protection of the green spaces that history had left untouched. Indeed, pastoralism is deep in the English psyche. The first society on earth to urbanise, it was also the first society to develop yeoman agriculture, and thus rid itself of peasants. The majority of British citizens lived in towns and romanticised the countryside. British urbanites seldom had rural cousins or other ties to specific regions or parts of the countryside whence their grandfathers and earlier forebears had migrated to cities.

This ignorance of the working life of the countryside is important. The British were educated to use the countryside as a touchstone of elegiac beauty. Their art and poetry and hymns all led them to idealise rural life. They were natural Romantics as well as natural scions of the Enlightenment. The Continent breeds people for whom urban life was the epitome of cosmopolitanism and bourgeois culture, but who have a real contact through close relatives with the countryside and region from which they sprang. This spirit infused rather few British people, for whom the city was often a necessary evil or an exciting interlude. One escaped from the city to an estate or suburban villa whenever work or affluence allowed. The English aristocratic ideal of a rural estate was translated for the middle classes into a more normal aspiration for at least a detached or semi-detached house surrounded by garden and in a leafy street. These tendencies add up to a high demand for land – especially rural and nearly-rural land - for housing.

It was argued by mid-Twentieth Century conservationists such as Peter Scott that British young people actually had the British countryside in mind as they sought imagery with which to clothe the patriotism which drove them to fight Nazism. It was natural that the generation which fought the Second World War should be energised to build the better Britain which the generation which had fought the First World War had promised itself. There should be Homes Fit for Heroes, schemes to allow soldiers to become smallholders, and a fairer society. We would look after our countryside better, and somehow provide all these new homes without the development free-for-all which had seen ribbon development suburbanise most of our roads. There would be a renewed passion for the wild scene, enshrined in the National Parks Act.

And the effect of “heritage”…

Something else was happening. During the nineteenth century there was a huge growth in interest in the nation’s history. What had once been a minority study by a few educated people was transformed into a national preoccupation. The modern way of discussing one element of this was to say that the popularisation of history took the form of the invention of the idea of “heritage”. This at first took the form of an interest in the nation’s heroes (Nelson, Wellington), and then took the form of interest in the progress that the British had made toward democracy and world power. This was the “Whig History” of *MacAulay and others and it produced the effect that the ordinary people of the country were made to feel that they owned the entirety of the national story. This means that the country house (previously an aristocratic preserve), the farmscape (previously the preserve of yeoman and aristocratic owners) and the urban scene (previously the preserve of all those individuals who owned property) had become part of what the people now felt was their heritage. It was a national inheritance in which each of us had a legitimate interest. We had been taught to like it, and we had been taught that it was in some sense ours. Granted that we – the people – now had total power, through Parliament, it was inevitable that the people would be given a stake in controlling development henceforth. In politics, the 18th Century view that only taxpayers were stakeholders had given way to adult suffrage on human rights grounds. In planning, likewise, people had now to be given influence on the basis of being affected, without necessarily being financially interested.

Two obvious possibilities flow from this new understanding and state of affairs. One was that the rights of ownership would be diluted and the other was that if the nation was in the grip of sentimentality, nostalgia, or luddism, then any change to the built environment was likely to seem to be an erosion of this new, treasured commodity – heritage. This is, broadly, what has happened.

The twentieth Century consensus on planning…..

In the climate of the post-War years, the planning system must have seemed eminently sensible. It promised to find a balance between modernising a war- torn, war-weary, class-ridden country and conserving rural loveliness. There should be new housing but without sprawl. With luck, there might be rather few casualties of the process.

There was a large housing stock for those who could manage a mortgage, and there were huge building programmes by national and local authorities to provide low rental flats and houses for the rest, mostly in towns and cities. There was little dissent by locals when a new town, a road, power station (whether coal or nuclear), port or shopping centre was proposed and built. To be a planner then meant to be someone who worked with democratically-elected authorities to develop new, or redevelop old, schemes within a shared vision of what the future might hold.

The planner drew maps which showed how the future would unfold on the bulldozed terrain of the failed past. Development “pressure” was pressure for modernisation and improvement and on the whole to be welcomed. In short, the inherent bossiness of the planner was not unwelcome. Importantly, the planner was a professional whose job was to make the future happen. His work was creative, even though he achieved much of his work by telling people what they could not do with their property.

The planner was an official who directed land-use, and did it partly through the use of development control. The planning system forbad development which did not match the land-use strategy which it also outlined. The system could encourage development firstly by saying where it would be welcome, and sometimes (where the market was unenergetic) by marrying it to development funds, or even by the use of compulsory purchase.

From the start, there was what might be called “positive” planning, which was a matter of making things happen (economic growth in blighted areas, land for housing where it was needed), and there was, rather separately, “negative” planning, which tended to be a matter of conservation of landscape and the urban scene through development control. Historically, the first seemed to be what most planners did or wanted to do; in the modern scene, the latter is what most do, most of the time.

What is more, the mostly rather socialist purposes of the planning system have over time been transformed into – or are perceived to have become – a matter of preserving and enhancing the economic and aesthetic values of the affluent against the claims of the “housing-poor”, or the economically poor, to be given access to homes and jobs. Alan Barber, a former member of a quango charged with developing policy on urban green spaces expressed one criticism succinctly: “…British planning is simply an elaborate administration for the allocation of land, often in ways which makes a few rich people even richer.” That is the charge against much development control.

By the 1970s it was perceived that something was not working. Britain had tried to modernise and yet it was prone to economic stagnation. It had attempted to build “Homes for Heroes” and yet there were new slums and youthful malcontents. It had made a countryside more loved, but less lovely, than it inherited. This was most usually the failing of “positive” planning. Again Alan Barber reports the charges well: “…where the planning system has been most active, the results are often the worst, most characterless landscapes”. [PLANNING, 16 August 2002]

What went wrong?

From the mid 1970s onward, the planning system accumulated a large number of enemies. Planners had seemed to do more damage than Hitler’s Luftwaffe in many industrial cities, such as Birmingham and Newcastle. In some cities (usually Labour-controlled, and in Newcastle especially) there were famous scandals around the corrupt granting and promoting of planning permissions. An important tranche of opinion – it ran from aesthetes like John Betjeman through to the journalist (and scourge of bureaucracy) Christopher Booker – complained about the sum-clearance and the skyscrapers which replaced them on the grounds that they were ugly in appearance and mechanistic in intention. It would be years before the architectural and planning professions could seriously generate a case for rehabilitating – recreating, refurbishing - the street scene (tightly compressed, low-rise) which the previous generation had knocked down. Not until the children of working class slum dwellers (now middle class) paid good money for the chance to gentrify the slum streets did the penny really drop.

Planners took the flak. They had sanctioned mediocre office blocks and shopping centres where once there had been medieval muddle or Victorian vigour. The most powerful architects of the day – men like the very unbohemian Richard Seifert – produced in the 1960s and 1970s buildings which seemed dull and intrusive, but which had been brilliantly designed to satisfy planners, and to optimise the old gain of profit with the new one of compliance. Actually, Seifert’s buildings (such as Centre Point, at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street in central London) have aged quite well: they have a certain quiet confidence which is appealing after the Post-Modern tricksiness and showiness of the work of the 1980s – but they had little support from aesthetes twenty years ago.

Planners had erased the low-rise slums and replaced them with high-rise slums. They had wanted to import some sort of dream from le Corbusier, as though only the French could understand urban living (whilst actually the French high-rise suburbs would become by-words of alienation). They had tolerated or promoted loathed nuclear stations. They had continued to propose and promote motorways which seemed to attract traffic whilst spoiling huge views. In the 1970s anti-motorway campaigners were middle-aged policy-wonks who brilliantly upstaged and outflanked planning inquiries in a new guerrilla war. They were bureaucratic swampies who dug themselves into filing cabinets, not trenches.

Planners had not demurred as farmers made significant changes in the agricultural landscape. But planners quibbled (they still do) over the signboards over Asian newsagent shops and restaurants. They had encouraged out-of-town supermarkets which had sucked the life out of many a high street. They had stifled enterprise by seeking to direct it wherever fancy took their zoning pencils and they had imposed rows of dreary houses in what had been picturesque villages.

Indeed, it was in housing that pressures seemed to combine and become disturbingly real. House building firms were enraged at how difficult it was to get building land; people seeking houses were fuming at the expense of plots (or the land element in buying a house); socialists were furious that farmers could make windfall profits if their land was zoned for housing; the poor (and not so poor) were furious that new housing was almost always beyond their reach.

Not all these charges are fair, and not all are the fault of planners.

The real charge sheet…

Not everything is dire.

Not every land-use change has been poorly-managed. Docklands has some dramatic groups of buildings, Paddington is going to get some. There are some thrilling factory buildings. Many supermarkets and some hotels are striking. Many new housing estates – though unambitious in scale or in layout - now make decent nods to the vernacular which surrounds them. Some of these successes ought to be credited to planners. Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow are amongst cities which have sloughed off a sense of decay or nastiness to provide vigour at their centre. However, modern successes have often arisen as today’s planners have got out of the way as enterprise has been allowed to demolish the work of a previous generation of planners.

There is a huge amount of pretty attractive, hard-working countryside in the British Isles. It could certainly be made more attractive, if farmers in greater numbers wanted – could afford - to put aesthetics rather higher up their list of priorities, but even in its relatively impoverished state in remains one of the glories of man’s stewardship of his planet. In any case, the planners are not to blame, except in sofar as they did not allow more farmers to turn farm buildings into factories. Only to that extent did they keep farmers farming. The way farmers operated had much more to do with EU subsidies than with land-use controls.

At the biggest possible scale, we are tempted to believe that the big vision of “positive” planning has not been delivered. The conundrum of encouraging and directing economic growth whilst preserving or creating an aesthetic environment has not really been resolved. We did not direct economic activity to the places we wanted it and we did not preserve or create an aesthetically pleasing use of land and property as we attempted, and largely failed, to use planning to create or direct growth. Insofar as planning was ever conceived as a way of directing economic growth, its failure to do so is hardly surprising to people suspicious of all such statist exercises.

It was not planning but bribery which was attempted here, anyway. Billions of pounds have been spent on urban and regional regeneration and the evidence as to its usefulness is largely anecdotal and a matter of opinion. Any conference on urban regeneration will produce tales of money spent and gain not seen. A few triumphs are trumpeted – an estate here or there which has been returned to citizenly vigour by a residents’ association working well with a housing office – but there are as many examples of misery surviving energetic and costly good intentions. Aid to impoverished regions at home bears some resemblance to aid to “underdeveloped” countries abroad. Where poverty persists was the aid misconceived or too slight? Where poverty has been reduced, was the aid the main catalyst?

Some UK regions – south Wales, and the North-east, for instance – have attracted inward investment. But what was the contribution of bribes to firms to go there? Is that planning at all? Did swift rail and road communication to important centres matter more? Or the right labour availability? Or the right housing for the incoming managers? Some regions have not become manufacturing centres in spite of inducements to manufacturers: was the aid inadequate, or were other factors too antagonistic to growth for any amount of aid to help? In want sense, anyway, did it need a plan to suggest that south Wales was ripe for development? Or any other “poor” region for that matter?

It is much clearer that both “ positive” and “negative” planning have failed to provide the circumstances in which housing can happen. There has been very little large scale provision of private housing in recent decades, and such as there has been *is relatively unambitious architecturally. NIMBYism has ensured this failure by crushing any shoots of imagination which local or national governments might have aspired to. And, of course, NIMBYism has ensured that “negative” planning has found hundreds of different ways of saying “no” to developers.

It is a tad disingenuous to say, as house-building interests do, that these restrictions have been bad for business. The house-building trade, like the quarrying and waste-disposal trades, have become fields in which the possession of the right land and the right permissions is the key to wealth-creation. Playing the system – working the in-built scarcities – has become richly profitable to those who understand the game, and have the resources to play it very long. What is more, many individuals are richly conflicted when they bemoan the price of housing. House-owners love scarcity: they love the house-price inflation which scarcity creates and which ensures that they earn more from property than from their jobs.

Only recently has the scarcity become so severe that house-owners are questioning the process which has enriched them. “The Culture of Objection”, as it has been called, loses some of its appeal. Housing-rich parents see their housing-poor offspring in difficulties. The middle class in affluent cities sense that the service industries which enhance their lives may become starved of labour if there is not a mix of housing. Such mechanisms begin to bite and produce a political will to change.

We see the effects. The Treasury begins to unleash more funding for social housing and the remediation of Brownfield sites. The Green Belt – much of it unattractive land ideal for development – begins to lose its status as political sacred cow. Bodies as diverse as the TCPA , the Greater London Group and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors are now lined up top challenge aspects, sometimes fundamental aspects, of the Green Belt and the protectionism which rules across much of our often rather undistinguished countryside. [ES, FTa] And this was the one subject which no developer or politically-savvy group dared to challenge a decade ago. It is in the light of these developments that this paper can propose further experiments: they no longer look extreme or unworldly. Politics as well as the market is going their way.

CHAPTER TWO: Policies, politics and principles

What is the planning system?

The planning system may have rather few friends, but any proposal for its abolition would be likely to produce for it a sudden large fan club. Huge numbers of people have investments in land and property and they rightly perceive that the planning system is the deeply conservative force which has created and maintains much of this value. That is what makes the planning system a political animal of some force.

What is this system which is so unpopular and yet likely to prove so resilient?

In England, it works broadly in the following way. There is a pyramidal system. At its apex is a secretary of state, always a cabinet minister, and a small central government department which provides him with advice. He runs a nationwide network of inspectors who are notionally rather independent of him. He is the planner of last resort, and appeals from lower in the system filter through to him. The last step before him is a planning inquiry , which in some very *big schemes is obligatory (and chaired by some heavy-weight planning lawyer) and in others are convened by the secretary of state to resolve disputes lower down in the chain (these are chaired by his inspectors).

Then there are regional forums (which may become mini-parliaments, but have until now consisted of representatives from elected authorities). It is widely assumed that they should be more powerful and could more easily ensure local support for locally-painful decisions. [TCPAa]. I am less clear that there is a large “democratic deficit” now, or that there is much evidence that localising power will produce more people prepared to work hard in its exercise.

Below the regions are counties (in the course of being weakened and in some cases abolished) and metropolitan boroughs (often more or less co-terminous with a city and its hinterland). Below that are what used to be called district and borough councils, and these have been regrouped (often with the weakening of a county council) into “unitary” authorities. Below them are parishes.

These tiers of authority were in effect a two way street. Down from the top come the secretary of state’s wishes and demands, with the sanction of Parliament to back him up. Up from the bottom come howls of protest as locals, counties, and regions all resist different bits of the secretary of state’s dictats.

At present, the role of every tier in this process is in the melting-pot, as the Labour government seeks reform intended to speed up the planning system.

There have been several shifts of the planning role within existing departments, and now it has been lodged with the new Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (an office held by the same John Prescott who had been in charge of the system in a previous incarnation).

Interestingly, New Labour is accused of pandering to business as it stresses the need for swiftness as well as fairness, and for less stress on the “Culture of Objection”. But business does not take a neanderthal line on planning. The Confederation of British Industry has since the early 90s taken a close interest in planning reform, and in 1992 noted that its members both registered irritation at unwonted delays and incoherence of purpose, and expressed an appreciation of the horrendous balancing act which the planning system must maintain. [CBI]

The government wanted the system to be less restrictive of enterprise and to be less dominated by the interests of anti-development NGOs such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England and Friends of the Earth. It has seemed to attempt this by enshrining the rights of local people in a not very clearly defined consultative role. It has been argued that the planning system is at present precisely a machinery that excludes participation and creates a sense of alienation as it tends to increase economic inequality. [TCPAa]. The cry for “more consultation” is a modern mantra, made tedious by constant repetition by the great and the good and any quango, task force or commission the Government consults. [RCEP] I prefer to stress that there is indeed wide support for the idea that our inherited representative democracy at every level is alienating, but I am much more doubtful that there are cleverer, quicker or fairer routes to democratic inclusiveness.

But behind the government’s rhetoric may be a sensible craftiness. Whitehall and Westminster may rather sensibly attempting to dethrone the NGOs, those self-appointed guardians of the public good, and instead to empower “real” voters. However, this approach risks undermining local democracy. Which already has a good claim to authenticity. Indeed, all too often, local politics does express local views: and they are too often anti-development. The Government’s planning green paper issued in 2001 proposed increasing Parliament’s powers over major projects, and weakening NGO power. Under pressure from a House of Commons select committee and the NGOs, in July 2002, a climb-down was announced. [PLANNING, 26 July 2002] The outcome is likely to be much more a new nomenclature than any very profound shifts in the location of real power.

Notionally, the centre only has a broad strategy, and it is up to the local authorities to work the system and decide a good deal of what happens on their patch. At each level below the Secretary of State, the authorities must produce plans which accommodate the centre’s general wishes whilst expressing locally-determined preferences. This tends to be a case of the centre expressing the national economic “need” (economic growth, affordable housing, quarries), and the lower tiers’ greater or lesser resistance on NIMBY grounds.

However, there are various rather important elements to the Secretary of State’s power. He is in charge of writing Guidance Notes, and they can be very detailed indeed. These amount to guidelines, organised into over 50 subjects, each of which is constantly evolving. Thus, the Secretary of State says he is keen on out-of-town supermarkets, or cooling toward them. He indicates that he is keen on “Sustainable Development” – which might lead him (it does) to say that he prefers development which relies on public transport, for instance. He outlines how he foresees noise, quarries and dozens of other issues being handled.

In this, the British polity shares elements with the Papacy of the Roman Catholic church. The church has always said it likes “subsidiarity” – an approach which boasts of its sensitivity to local preferences and realities. The Catholic Church has always believed that all decisions should be taken by a tier of authority as close to the people affected by the decision as possible. It is this ideal which has been imported into the language of the new Voluntary Empire, the European Union. But the church has also evolved a system of Papal infallibility in which the expressly stated view of the Pope on any matter is definitive. These views are expressed by “Encyclical Letters” in which each Pope addresses social and religious matters he considers important. The British planning Secretary of State’s guidance notes are very like such letters.

Of course, the Secretary of State’s power is not arbitrary, since he is democratically accountable. Nor need his power be very prescriptive: he could write permissive guidance notes. Moreover, he normally seeks to exert power as obliquely as possible. For instance, his guidance notes are not legally binding. But because they will guide those decisions that he must take, or decides that he wants to take, as the final arbiter in matters of dispute or where he feels a lower tier of decision-making has got it wrong, they are very powerful.

Similarly, the SoS does not simply tell the lower tiers what he wants, as a matter of dictat. Rather, he tells them what he would like to see happen, and then can refuse to give legal authority to the plans produced by lower tiers of government until they are in accord with his wishes.

The centre vs the locality

The centre might (does actually) insist that Hampshire, for instance, ought to provide a higher percentage of the perceived need for housing than, say, Sutherland because whilst Sutherland is huge and few people need to or can work there, Hampshire is where many people want to live and is crucial to the South-East’s being a national powerhouse.

The politics of the policy is fairly easily seen. Political parties differ rather little in proposing that they want to see more land made available for housing (people without decent housing will vote for that) but that they will be very protective of Green Belts, and the existing landscape (most existing house-owners will vote for that). If this sort of political platform is hardly adventurous, it is hardly surprising.

Unadventurous as it is, it has always conflicted with the much more “preservationist” attitudes of most constituents of the county and district authorities. Naturally, Hampshire tends to complain that there is no chance that it could accommodate the huge numbers of houses the Secretary of State proposed for it. The huge majority of Hampshire’s voters have a lot to gain by keeping its roads, trains and town centres from getting no more crowded than they already were, whilst those who are likely to be condemned to overlook new houses instead of fields are particularly vociferous. Since most housing in Hampshire would be on Greenfield sites and since most greenfields sites have some sort of wildlife in them, it is easy to use the green wildcard.

The policy whereby the Secretary of State runs what is known as a “predict and provide” system is widely regarded as ridiculous since his chance of predicting anything correctly is remote. Critics of the system attack either the demographic predictions on which it is based or the merits of such “positive” planning according, usually, to their self-interest. The difficulty, however, in getting rid of “predict and provide” (as Mr Prescott recently found when he tried it) is that there is a huge amount of resistance in the system to new housing and every other development, and only mighty shoves from above make it happen. Mr Prescott found himself enunciating a new policy of predicting, monitoring and managing demand: but it was quickly exposed as sham, at least insofar as it claimed to have found an alternative to pro-development pressure from the centre. With so many forces demanding stasis only a powerful direction from the centre would ever get things moving.

The role of the lower authorities

At county level there are “structure plans”, more written than drawn, which suggest that the broad area needs (or does not need) more supermarkets, more waste dumps, or incinerators, or more quarries. In principle, if this level accepts its responsibility toward, say, dealing with its own waste and makes the unpopular decisions about where to site facilities, it will have few difficulties with the centre. More often, there is a genuine reluctance at local level to provide facilities and a genuine political pressure on the centre to make them happen.

Once the county level has negotiated how many houses it will “accept” (or quarries, or anything else), it then looks to the districts to incorporate such things in their plans. At this point, though the system resists the word, there are the kinds of zoning maps which the public would understand to be plans: that is to say, there are maps with different land uses coloured in on them.

A good deal of politics has happened to make all these stages materialise. County councillors and district councillors have scrapped over what should be written and drawn in plans. Below them, the parishes where the action is to take place have yelped as they discover that they are to be dug up or concreted over. Powerful NGOs have ensured that the public distaste for change is loudly heard.

It is seldom noted, but ought to be, that this is an extraordinarily democratic and open process. The Secretary of State’s predictions of the nation’s need for housing, quarries, and so on, is done with parliamentary scrutiny. At every stage, as he exerts pressure down through the system, democratically-mandated councillors at every level seek to resist the Secretary of State’s wishes.

In very large measure, then, the paralysis which is so often observed in the planning system reflects a very real dilemma, a very real ambivalence amongst the British people. We have seemed for many years to have tolerated a situation in which, for instance, new housing is hard to come by.

How democratic is that?

We live in a mature and functioning democracy. None better, famously. None more under attack, arguably. One of the things we should notice about it is that Parliament works because MPs embody the opinion of every level of society. Their constituents matter one by one because cumulatively they contribute to the majority which takes the MP to Westminster. But the national interest matters too because the party which the MP represents has to embody its vision of the national interest in order to produce a platform. Thus, in principle, Parliament can handle and does enshrine the individual, the local and the individual.

There are some extraordinary features of the British parliament. One is that it has never been much prone to pork-barrel politics. That is to say, the constituency MP has seldom been able to “sell” his vote on a national issue in order to get some advantage for his constituents. This is because it is understood and accepted that the MP has validity at three separate points: he is an interesting individual, he represents a place and he represents a party. If he overplays any of these elements at the expense of others, he’s finished. Because no-one in British politics is free of these constraints and opportunities, whether he is the Prime Minister or the youngest new-intake MP, everyone understands how the system works.

Imagine the system at work in a crunch issue. An MP wants state aid for a factory in his area. Or perhaps he is resisting the arrival of a municipal waste incinerator, or wants a port. He is free to demand or resist these things, and it is understood that he must and should. But if he overdoes it and starts to fly in the face of his party’s interests as he does so, it is understood and accepted that the party leadership can publicly declare that this person has now overstepped the mark and should agree to his party’s position or consider his position. Perhaps he does so, and continues *his lone action. He may get a reputation as wonderful constituency MP, with no future nationally. Or he may go down as a wonderful maverick, with a shaky position in both his constituency and his party, and as someone who is relying on his personal popularity to see him through.

It is worth remembering that the British do not have a federal system of government, and that is why we have less horse-trading than is usual in such systems. Perhaps because we became a nation state so early in our history, and because we were small enough for the writ of the centre to run fairly well, and perhaps also because at least historically the regions could run their own affairs with little reference to parliament, there has been little need or opportunity for the regions to work out ways of bullying the centre. Anyway, we have avoided the system in which US states (or EU states) and their representatives have sometimes been awkward on national matters much more because of the leverage on some local issue such recalcitrance brings than because of the principle ostensibly involved.

Those of us who love the British representative parliamentary democracy are apt to eulogise it as the embodiment of a system in which the national parliament can capture not just the “will of the people”, but a properly nuanced, conflicted, multi-faceted balance between all the competing wills of the many interests represented rather haphazardly by “the People”. The People are not a monolith, but a *fissiparious tribe of people who self-centred and community-minded by turns, who are autarchs but also whingers, who must be governed.

In the case of planning (as in many others, but especially in this), what “we” want is fractured and complex. There is the narrow interest of the parties to a property deal or land-use change, and then there are wider interests. But the wider interests are conflicted: as a piece of land changes hands and a developer seeks to build on it, there are vastly, tensely different views amongst the wider world as to what should be preferred. And then, granted that it is difficult to work out what is to be preferred in principle, there is the even more difficult matter of resolving what will be allowed in practice

It’s a complex business, the matter of discovering what the democratic will actually is, and what the rights of the opinionated should be over those of the financially interested. But there is a modern – perhaps even a Post-Modern, feature – of modern life which makes things very much more difficult.

Our contemporary problem is that we are re-inventing the relations between the personal and the institutional, and that makes democratic life very difficult. We are “privileging” (as the neologistic verb has it) the personal. Broadly, the trouble is this. For about a hundred and fifty years (from let’s say the 1830s until 1980s) it was broadly accepted that Britain’s institutions had tremendous rights over our personal lives. The British people used a rhetoric of freedom, and it had been hard-earned. But there was a respect for authority. Parents believed that their children should be sent out to the world ready to obey church, school and police, indeed adults in general, let alone authority figures. Adults were largely not merely law-abiding, but willingly so and also fearfully so. We might gripe about what was happening, but we broadly accepted that authority had rights, and that as individuals we had surrendered some of ours to it. Granted that this was so, it was important that the authorities had democratic legitimacy, and this was increasingly assured.

However, as the democratic legitimacy of institutions was increased, the people’s trust in them did not continue to increase and indeed from the 1970’s onwards it was increasingly eroded. The bonds of trust and acceptance between the person and the state were eroded. This did not mean that the state relinquished power, and in many matters the centre – Parliament, Whitehall – gained power.

The limits to the centre’s power

We have seen that it is largely a fiction that the British local authorities have much power in the planning system. They must obey national guidelines, or find their decisions over-ruled. We have seen that their representatives have little leverage in parliament when they dispute some central planning policy. So we should see a situation in which centrally-decreed growth happens easily and smoothly. But actually, nothing could be further from the case.

The reason, broadly, is that the British planning system is held to ransom by the noisiest citizens . Sometimes, citizens can stop things outright. More often they can make for astonishing delays.

The people of Britain campaign and vote for a situation in which it is very hard to plan anything and very hard to get any development at all. They have voted for the current muddle, and should not complain about that. The current muddle is one in which developments of many kinds are regarded as necessary, and are part of party manifestos, and the status quo of land-use is – contrariwise – given a hallowed status.

The people speak...

It is very often said that a very high percentage of the planning applications which are made, get allowed. This may be because most applications are trivial, and are made after decades of experience in judging what is allowed and what would merely be a waste of time to propose. In any case, the major proposals come forward after negotiations with planning officials, so that it is clear what is worth proposing and what is not.

In fact, it is difficult and expensive to get anything developed in Britain. We need to unpick the difficulty. This is because there really are strongly competing forces at work.

Is there a philosophy of planning – or not planning?

One of the best reasons for supposing that it is not likely that one could dismantle the planning system altogether is that a very serious and committed attempt to follow the idea to something like a logical conclusion did not conclude that it could be done. Mark Pennington’s work for the IEA is elegant and useful, and in effect concludes that there is something about development which requires regulation. The market cannot satisfactorily distribute this particular good. This is of course a matter of regret to those of us who love the market and like to see its vigour at work wherever possible. We love its ability to produce developments and deals which produce goods and services in a range of qualities and prices to suit as many of us as possible.

In the case of bringing land- and property-use to market, the essence of the problem is that there are benefits and disbenefits which the market is not good at dealing with. The market is brilliant at finding a rational price for goods and services. It is especially good at producing the price at which a supply of a desirable is forthcoming. In short, the market is one of the legs (with fungible money, property rights and contractual law) which has produced capitalism.

We should not be surprised that the market by itself does not distribute development rights very well. That is it so say it can and does find the right prices for exchange of property well enough. But it cannot capture all the “externalities” of changes to that property which the public also demands be considered and rationalised. This would be the case to some extent even if land were not a finite resource: neighbours would have disputes about land use changes in the largest and emptiest countries. But these matters are of intense interest when people live close together and when they do not feel that moving house is an easy thing to do.

A further problem is that people are assumed to have a right to accommodation, quietness, access to roads, even an unchanging view and many other rights whether or not they can afford to pay for them at the price the market would deliver them (if it could deliver them at all). Restrictions on people’s freedom – rules of one sort or other – would certainly arise.

Many things are in finite supply – Rembrandt’s paintings, for instance – and the market deals with their distribution pretty well. It finds out how much people are prepared to pay. But all is changed if it is sensed or decided that everyone has a right to a Rembrandt painting. If it were once determined that all of us had a right to own or at least see a Rembrandt painting, then the market would be unlikely to do the trick, since it could not cut up the Rembrandt and preserve its value, nor ensure that the person able and willing to pay for the great master would also be prepared to display it.

But these are not the killer reasons why the market is bad at distributing development rights. The real difficulty is this: whatever one does with land or buildings has implications well beyond the interests of the owner, or the buyer and seller, of the property. In short: everything done in this sphere at the very least produces an effect which is public. I cannot build a house on my land (or remove a tree, or erect a factory, or let my palace deteriorate) without affecting the view – or affronting the values - of the people who overlook it or feel they have an “interest” in it.. There is quite a useful analogy here: visual impact is just another sort of pollution. They are alike not least in the way that the market is not easily able to charge a price for many sorts of pollution, or find anyone to pay, the costs of these “externalities”.

In the case of smoke pollution, say, it is possible to see ways in which the wider public’s dislike of this externality of, say, soap production might feed back to the market price of the goods involved, perhaps by the choice of consumers as they boycott the polluting product. Or one might posit that the smoke would produce illness and that might produce litigation and that might impact the market or other factors working directing on the well-being of the firm producing the soap. In many cases, free-market people are likely to be able to argue that these mechanisms are actually cheaper and easier ways to discipline the anti-social than regulation would be. It is important to spot that even these market-orientated mechanisms depend on regulation, or at least the law of nuisance and personal damage.

The case of development rights is more difficult. At its simplest, the people with a direct financial interest in a development are usually very small in number whilst there is a huge potential number of people with an interest in the matter. These bystanders may include any number who believe they stand to gain from the development, and any number who believe they stand to lose. Sometimes their interest is financial, sometimes it is emotional. It will often be vociferous.

So land and property could indeed be bought and sold and the sellers and vendors be perfectly content that development potential had been included in the price to the parties’ satisfaction, but any of these transactions might attract huge public opprobrium. It is giving the appropriate power to the opprobrium – neither too much nor too little – which is the essence of the regulatory and legislative nightmare which is planning.

The tragedy of the commons

Since the biologist (and misanthrope) Garrett Hardin first proposed the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” it has often been used in discussing the problem of the treatment of “public goods”. His analysis concerned the reasons why a commonly-owned grazing land would tend to be over-grazed by herdsmen. The reason was this: any one herdsman would have an interest in seeing his cattle graze as well as possible. It was obvious that he would prefer this to watching his neighbours’ cattle graze better than his own. What was less obvious was that he would be rational to prefer that his cattle over-graze the pasture (and that the pasture be less productive for the future of his or anyone’s cattle). The reason for this was that he knew any of his neighbours might behave similarly and it was better for him to be the first to destroy the pasture, rather than to be one of those herdsmen who had to graze on a pasture which had already been destroyed. Now, this account of what herdsmen do has been disputed. But its broad outline seems to carry pretty well into the situation of fishermen working stocks of fish, and it works well too with the exploitation of forests.

There are solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons. One is better government: the herdsmen ought to gather together to produce a system of regulation. The other is to see whether private ownership of property or rights can do better. Suppose people were made to pay for a portion of grazing land or for the right to a certain amount of animals and grazing time per animal anywhere on the communal land. That might help, but even so would involve more regulation than the prior, primitive situation. This is often the case: for the market to work, there needs to be the rule of law, and often quite few new laws.

In the case of forestry, sustained use of a tropical rainforest is entirely possible, but several “goods” – including a future crop - may be damaged if current users over-exploit the resource. One method of making the market come to the rescue of this situation involves the state issuing longer licences to fee-paying logging firms so that they are either incentivised or forced to do their current logging is such a way that there is the prospect of sufficient renewal for there to be a good prospect of a further crop in fifty years time.

When we come to development rights we can see that the tragedy of commons is also relevant. Any development (and absence of development) produces effects which can put individual interests at odds with common interests. One problem of land use change is that it produces a sort of reverse tragedy of the commons: there is often a common benefit to be had from development, but it can often be hard to win over those who feel themselves to be individually damaged by the changes involved.

Isn’t democracy a market anyway?

A democratic nation so manages its political economy – the politics of its economy – that the state can reasonably claim to enshrine the idea and even the fact that the individual’s vote and his share in the commonweal means that each is a stakeholder – a monetised stakeholder, at that – in the nation’s wellbeing. In other words, when one exercises one’s vote, one is also opening (or closing) one’s wallet. Indeed, one is often volunteering to be put under the yoke of being more generous than one might be if the same effect was to be achieved by a succession of smaller, more obviously voluntary steps. Something like this is happening when affluent people vote for a socialist government or a high-taxation conservative one: they believe they should be generous to the poor. They also seem to believe they are more likely to be generous in the rare, excited, traumatic and climacteric moment of a General Election when they make a decision which will last for four years. They do not trust themselves to remember to be generous in the many ways and on the many days that a more purely voluntary system of generosity through charity would demand.

People are familiar with the idea that when people making choices they are “voting with their wallet”. When they choose which way to vote they are also choosing how to spend their money, or how they see their monetary advantage.

What is more, as voters choose how to spend their tax-dollar, various parties (rather like firms) compete for their vote (and in effect for the right to their dollar).

In these ways, democracy is very like a market. The wishes of a population are mediated, and many human wishes are expressed in cash terms. Of course in one crucial way a democracy differs from a market. Not merely are non-financial values enshrined, but people with little money are accorded the same power as those with lots of it. And yet democracy and the market ride along well together because in both what large numbers of people really want are discerned and allowed to compete.

Planning principles – and polluting them

There are several unspoken principles in the British planning system. They are deliciously noble, fit for a Roman republic. They demand that citizens be stoical and serious. The principles are these.

1) Property rights are important.

An owner may do whatever he likes with what is his, except those things which are forbidden for reasons of clear public good. Actually, nearly everything is now forbidden unless permission is granted. Perhaps unexpectedly, I have little complaint about the way this principle has been thoroughly subverted. Most decisions by planners on things like gates, windows, hedges, commercial uses of private property and the rest, seem fairly sensible. Not all, but most, seem useful. Those that are absurd (or which I think are wrong) can simply be corrected, without disturbing the general principle.

2) Citizens should not be bribed

Locals should not be cash-incentived to accept decisions which have been made in the public good. There is value in this principle – but all the same, we could improve our economy and our environment by more often finding the real price of people’s objections to developments, and quite often paying it. We are beginning to be far more honest about bribing communities and individuals as the general will proposes development against local opposition. In a “People Power” age, this may be the only way of getting Parliament’s writ to run with anything like ease.

3) A scheme should be judged on its own environmental merits.

Assessment of environmental benefits and damage should confined to those which are local to the development. There is merit in this case, but we should accept that often we might well allow damage in one place, and that we can often “make up for it” elsewhere.

4) A scheme’s merits should be judged on its own local merits.

One shouldn’t judge a scheme by some supposed effects far distant elsewhere. This is not the same as saying that the planning system cannot be used to encourage economic growth or anything else in a region. But it does suppose that any particular development should be allowed if there is a local case for it, without a hidden agenda – for instance about “keeping the lid” on developments in the South East, the better to encourage growth in the North East. This principle is hard to square with a policy which seeks to encourage growth in “disadvantaged” regions, but we should aim toward an understanding that growth is probably not “fungible” – it does not necessarily flow away from places where it is barred and into others where it is desired.

5) Parliament’s will is supreme.

It is the glory of our democracy that it captures the national interest which will by definition reign over the interests of individual or lesser authority. There is much strength in this proposition, and it argues for a strong, nationally-directed planning system, impervious to local quibble. Unfortunately, modern “inclusive” rhetoric risks undermining this old-fashioned wisdom.

CHAPTER THREE: Practicalities, Reforms

A free-market politician meets the planners....

When we vote for a central planning system, we are in part voting for the idea that representative democracy is the machine whereby our larger interests are mediated against our narrower interests. Many of us are house-owners, but we vote for a system whereby houses are built near us inspite of ourselves. We do so partly because we reluctantly accept that our fellows need housing, and we do so partly because we accept that economic growth requires development. We don’t want it near us, usually, but we don’t want it not to happen. The planning system in principle produces the least worst effect: an element of predictability and a degree of rationality as development is shoe-horned into our country.

It is thoughts of this kind which led one of our most thoughtful planning supremos to modify his thinking.

Nicholas Ridley, Secretary of State for the Environment in the Conservative government of the late 1980s, was keen on the free market, and might reasonably have been expected to dislike planners. Actually, though, on some of these matters he rather reasonably took positions which one might not expect. Trivially, he was discovered not to despise NIMBYism in private quite as much as he affected to in public. He did what he could to campaign against a development near his own home. Actually, this merely reminds us that NIMBYism is rational and necessary: the important thing is that authority needs to be able to overcome it. Some of his other enlightening changes of mind will emerge as we discuss some changes in attitude which are needed.

I propose four main ways in which we can improve the planning system. They are:

1) Exceptionism – getting round the system

2) Money compensation – paying people to reject NIMBYism

3) “Values” compensation – restoring beauty

4) Proprietorialism – letting owners be voters

5) Redefine economic welfare

6) Improve respect for Parliament

7) Abandon “redirection” aspirations

1) Exceptionism

It often seems that planners fail when they are successful and are most successful when they fail. That’s to say: when they get their way (1960s inner cities) they do damage and when they fail to get their way (their rules are waived in regeneration zones) the growth they desire happens.

One of the factors which have helped planners regenerate some regions is that they have been allowed to scrap their own rules – the rules which shackle them? - as they seek to encourage growth. In other words, owners of land have been given greater freedom to act, and have used it to the full, and to the benefit of society at large, and of the environment too. People were prepared to consider huge schemes - and all the ups and downs any such scheme will inevitably suffer – provided they have a relatively free hand. Indeed, planning for growth looks remarkably like getting the planning system out of the way. New towns, enterprise and business zones have all been the scenes of development, and have achieved their work by allowing large areas to be excluded from the normal planning system. They have happened by letting “positive” planning by enterprise and idealists to over-rule “negative” planning by bureaucrats. We should be careful: the planning profession working for enterprise (doing “positive” planning for it) is still planning, and necessary, and potentially highly creative.

Where bureaucratic planners stayed firmly on the case, they have little to boast about. Most of us complain about the state of our built environment. Mostly we feel that the post-war generation inherited from previous ages an urban scene which was quaintly or gloriously attractive and that we have generally failed when we added our own touches. We mostly feel that we have failed at micro and macro levels. Individually the majority of our new factories, offices and houses have not been lovely. On the larger canvas – at the level of streets, estates (whether industrial or domestic) we are inclined to feel that we have a huge amount of scruffy decay (in our industrial and commercial heartlands, for instance) whilst the developments we have made have not often been exciting.

Some of the country’s most cherished “preservationist” policies have contributed perversely to rising land costs and housing scarcity outside their own areas. Thus, the desire to preserve the character of the rural and urban scene has produced local plans which are overly restrictive. One way of overcoming this effect is to propose that for “special” cases, development should be allowed “outside the envelope”. We explore this in Recommendation 1) below.

The Green Belts and National Parks have produced high housing costs not merely within their areas, but in neighbouring areas. It is assumed that these are places of great aesthetic value. But they are not all by any means equally beautiful or for any other reason unsuitable for housing. We should be challenging the guardians of these “special” areas to come up with “special” housing which would be suitably excellent in some way for such special places. An example is at Recommendation 2) below.


1) The solution here is for villages to embrace the idea that the planning rules have been drawn so tightly that whilst the village is almost over-protected environmentally, it has lost the opportunity to accommodate the kind of housing that might be affordable by low-earners. The answer is to exploit a little known loophole. This is the system which allows planners to sanction development “outside the envelope” (namely outside the areas zoned for housing in the local plan), provided it is for social housing.

The biggest advantage of this approach is that it allows a developer (usually a housing association) to work with a local authority (often a Parish chairman) to identify a piece of land (usually farmland on the edge of a village) whose owner (usually a farmer) would be willing to sell at well below the normal for land zoned for housing “within the envelope”. The farmer knows that he has only one buyer (the housing association), and that the price will be far lower than it would have been if his land had been within the envelope. Indeed, it might be a fifth or even a tenth of what it

would have been. But it night be well over twice its agricultural value.

This is not an ideal situation. Yet alternatives to it might be much worse. The current planning system is restrictive and works with market forces to price poorer people out of housing. One should often argue that the planners ought to be less restrictive – but that would often lead to even more provision of expensive houses. To be so much less restrictive that land for housing was very cheap might mean that large areas of the countryside became ugly. It would be a political non-starter.

So this curious hybrid of a compromise may be the best we have. It at least has the merit of bringing deals to the market which would otherwise be stifled.

This case is now explicitly accepted and it one of the instruments we should be promoting hard.

Providing lower cost land for social housing in rural areas has for years depended on allowing building “outside the envelope”: that is, allowing developers to strike deals with landowners on land which would not get permission for market housing, but on which development for cheaper housing is allowed. This is called “rural exceptionism” and it is very important for its tacit acceptance of one of the bad things about planning. This is that it has so stifled the flow of land from agricultural use into housing use that houses in the country are now too expensive for low or middle income people. It is of course a neat trick to empower developers to negotiate low prices for new land for housing, wrung from farmers who understand that such “exceptionalism” allows them to sell land at prices well below its worth as designated housing land but well above agricultural values.

What is more, such policies confront conservationist, NIMBY political prejudices head-on: resist “rural exceptionism” on a field adjacent to the village, and one is condemning the sons and daughters of the local “indigenous” rural people to living. Thus, incomers are shamed into allowing that the “natives” have rights.

Exceptionism has been proved to work in many rural areas. There is a now decent head of steam for its extension into urban areas. Cambridge University’s centre for planning and research has suggested in its “Fiscal Policy Instruments to Promote Affordable Housing” that “urban exceptions” ought to be allowed to imitate the existing rural success. [PLANNING, 23 August, 2002]

Recommendation 2)

The government or house building firm should announce a competition with a substantial prize. It would be on offer to any school within a National Park or Green Belt. The challenge would be to produce a plan for a New Town or towns accommodating 10,000 people within the park or Green Belt. The idea is this. The current generation of grey-beards who run regional and local politics will not see the adventure in concreting over a part of such places. The idea is a non-starter. But if we engage a younger generation in the competing issues surrounding National Parks and Green belts they will see the merit of reinvigorating the rural scene with schemes whose benefit might be low cost or high quality or both.

2) Money compensation – paying people to reject NIMBYism

The commonest problem in planning is that people want development, but not in their own backyard. This is the well-known NIMBY problem. The obvious thing to seek to do about the dislike of local developments is to valorise and monetise it. That is to say: if we could find ways of making sure the wider public shared the monetary benefit of development, they might be less inclined to oppose it. As they benefited from development, so they might the detriments they sense be lessened. By such means one might bring market mechanisms to bear on planning matters which are currently made difficult by dissent, noise and votes.

The difficulty is that there is merit in the principle that if a development is democratically determined at a national level to be a good thing, then local objectors should just accept that they are beneficiaries of the larger good, and should not expect to be able to halt progress. In some cases, if they are very directly and very severely affected - are subjected to real inconvenience and worse - they can be compensated. But it was important not to allow the principle to be eroded to the point where people could be compensated for allowing something just on the grounds that they didn’t much like it, or some slight nuisance. The country had to progress, all of us had to accept some of the strain – and so on. In short, we were expected to be a little robust.

A scheme was supposed to be judged on its merits. The developer was presumed to have a right to develop his property, and if there were not powerful objections, then the things should go ahead. Gradually, and in defiance of this rather grand principle, developers grew increasing used (under what were called Section 106 agreements, after the section in a planning Act which allowed the practice) to being invited to add on to their scheme various components which were designed to ameliorate its impact on the surrounding community. For instance, a new road to a supermarket, or a roundabout connecting a spur road to a main road, might be negotiated onto the original scheme. Purists still wanted these enhancements to be directly related to limiting the impact of the scheme itself.

But what if a new housing development would produce a need for a new school? Should the developer pay for this? Nicholas Ridley, a purist, thought at first that this was wrong, in principle. The developer of houses was in the housing business, and he and his customers (who would be paying in the end) had a right not to be fined for moving into a new area. They should not have to pay for the right to do what it had been determined was in the national good. The new houses brought new people into the region, and they come with the same rights (which their taxes pay for) as existing inhabitants. Why should they be charged through their house purchase for a new school when the Treasury had already budgeted for their schooling on Budget Day.

The “right” could see the force of this conclusion. The essence of seeking more from developers is that as capitalists they were seen by the thoughtless or the left as profiteering villains who ought to be fined – charged anyway – as much as possible to do business. To the free market mind such activity was state rent-seeking. The state would become a corporatised highwayman exacting a toll on honest business, and thereby – in the jargon – increasing transaction costs.

This principle was noble, and seems market-friendly. It seeks to let the market work without bribery. And yet, it is can also be seen as inimical to the market.

One way of helping development projects to the market is to help local people gain from the profits which the project will generate. If there are local objections and they are likely to stop the deal, then why should not the deal-makers find out the price which is required to make the locals feel better – tolerant – of the project? Of course, it would be offensive if local people were to manufacture spurious objections in the hopes of being bought-off, and that would always be the risk of any system designed to put money their way. And yet, the market would be at work in such systems. If developers had to factor into their sums not merely the development, but also a sort of community tax on the development, then as they assessed various sites and various options they might steer away from some greedy communities, which might find they had priced themselves out of the development game.

But this complacency may be misplaced. Let us suppose the public interest is that land should come to market as cheaply as possible, the better to produce (say) cheap housing on it. It would help our cause to find that one way of overcoming local objection is to load extra costs onto the project in the form of bribes.

Put this the other way. If it is just to get developers to pay a community tax for the right to develop, why would it not be equally right to pay developers to leave their right to develop unused? Would it not be regarded as intolerable that a poor community should pay heavily to be free of an unwanted factory proposal? Why – then – should it be right to make a project which might benefit poor people pay a penalty?

These sorts of arguments have merit and bear inspection. And yet, a government anxious to see the public interest expressed – anxious to develop a new airport runway, a supermarket, an incinerator – might simply find irresistible the practical possibility of dangling a carrot in front of reluctant communities. To do so would seem to have a market-orientation. Here is a level of objection: let us try to monetise it and incorporate it in the monetary calculus of the deal. Nicholas Ridley, faced with the difficulty of getting almost anything major through the English planning system moved toward that thinking. So should we.

Quite often, of course, locals object to new schemes as a sort of insurance. Take an area which is likely to see an expansion of an airport. Stansted in Essex, for instance. Here, there is a real “threat” of more aircraft noise, but also a rise in house prices as, presumably, the former rural backwater is seen as the gateway to a busy wider world. Existing house-owners sense that the increase in activity has brought them greater wealth, and that they have little to gain from further noise, and something to risk. They are in “enough is enough” mode. But they put at a discount the likelihood that the increase in activity which brought increased value may well be worth continuing, and that great value will ensue. Don’t they perhaps feel that they need no further risk (even if the likelihood is that more wealth will follow more nuisance)? Don’t they perhaps feel that their councils may wring further concessions if their rather phoney dissidence escalates? Why should they not cash-in their existing profits and allow other, less risk averse, owners to take over?

Interestingly, the present Government has recently proposed a scheme which might well produce the worst of all possible worlds. Anxious about the appearance of a sort of corruption as developers negotiate with cash their way past local objectors, Mr Prescott has proposed a “tariff” – an automatic impost on all developments to cover wider disbenefits. Mike Haslam of the RTPI suggested this payment of tax to the local community might produce more planning permissions, but fewer cheap houses: hardly the outcome sought. [FT] The process would institutionalise the “corruption” of the current system whilst robbing of the one benefit it has: an understanding that this developer of this scheme has come to terms with this community. It is [September, 2002] likely to be dropped.


We should be far more robust about the seriousness of people’s grievances. One approach is to challenge objectors with the question: “what did you know abut the nuisance-qualities of this place whenever it was you bought in to it?” Most people have chosen to pay high prices to live in places close to, say, an airport which long pre-existed their owning property nearby. If they find new nuisance unacceptable, they can simply leave. We should compensate only those who can prove they have been unwittingly infringed upon and have lost value because of a development.

Compensation schemes ought to be encouraged, but be so arranged that they find the cheapest price at which this or that community or individual will withdraw objection to a new development. In effect, communities should be bidding against each other to get the compensation which might go with new schemes.

3) “Values” compensation

Imagine a proposal for a by-pass. Those opposing the development will have the loud, effective and unequivocal support of Transport 2000 (and anti-car, pro-public transport campaign supported by public transport workers’ unions), Friends of the Earth, Reclaim the Streets. These bodies will usually argue (often wrongly) that new roads create congestion by encouraging more traffic than they accommodate.

But the greatest objection will be that roads eat landscape. FOE, the county naturalist trust movement, The Council for the Protection of Rural England, and quite possibly the birds, trees and plants campaigners will all weigh in. Freelance, grunge campaigners will dig themselves into an unpromising piece of woodland whose antiquity and scarcity they will exaggerate. English Nature and the Countryside Agency (statutory bodies charged with defending the natural environment and the landscape respectively) will add their more muted support.

Because these are crowded islands, most routes chosen will cause the destruction of wildlife, or a view.

The wildlife argument is bedevilled by a problem which is peculiarly acute. We now value “biological biodiversity”, but we refuse to be tied down as to what this means. If we assessed biological diversity at a national level, we could easily argue that hardly any roads damage it. The nation, in this view, is a repository of “x” number of species. That’s to say: unless a road killed off the only representative of a particular species, then it couldn’t be said to have damaged the sum total of biodiversity. This is the species diversity argument, and it would have only a fairly weak power to scupper development.

But there is a refinement of the biodiversity argument which argues not that rarity matters, but that generality matters. This view supposes that every bit of the nation should seek to maximise its biodiversity. It is attractive and important in the sense that it emphasises that it is the ease with which any of us might come across, say, a bluebell wood which matters. Taken to its extreme, every farm and every garden and every wild place should be so managed as to hold as many species as possible. That would be possible, but it might mean, for instance, reforesting the moorlands of Britain so they held more species than they do now.

In any case, this habitat-orientated view is now prayed in aid of resisting almost all developments. Any rarity of species, but also every habitat however common, is taken as making a site important, and of course it tends to make every site equally important.


There is a way out of this problem. Most developments destroy something which someone will argue is valuable. When they claim it has “value in its own right” we should aim to upstage them. The answer is to remind people that we live in islands so knocked about by man’s activity that we are spoiled for choice when it comes to improvable habitat. We should be able to propose that for every acre of habitat which is damaged or destroyed by any particular development, the developer or the state will go to work on ten times as much habitat elsewhere to compensate “Mother Earth” for the destruction wrought. When an ancient site is threatened, we can offer to do excellent archaeology somewhere else. When a valuable building is to be lost, we can offer to restore something valuable elsewhere.

There are objections to this approach. One is that it is just another form of bribery. Those people who kick up a fuss on a particular subject should not be bribed into silence. They should listened to, and over-ruled if necessary. Thus, if we want a stretch of road more than we want the tatty bit of woodland it replaces, then that’s for democracy to decide, and those who don’t like the balance we strike should be silent about it once their case has been heard.

But it will be wiser and cheaper for us to spike their guns. They are arguing for the inviolable importance of a particular bit of woodland. We are reminding them that nature is fungible. We can “swap” their bit of nature for a much better one elsewhere. We can create, encourage and manipulate naturalness almost wherever we like. We might, indeed, take a lofty view, a view as lofty as the objectors. We might say that our national obligation is to have a lot of nature, and if we lose a bit in the south-east, then we must remember to make much more of it somewhere – anywhere – in the realm. Mother Nature will look out on her British assets and see a larger amount of nature than she had before, and be pleased.

But this will be poor politics. We should be saying to local objectors that we regret the diminution of naturalness in their area. Mindful of it, we will enter into management agreements with the farmers all around that area and pay them a sum sufficient to ensure that the area is farmed with greater environmental sensitivity. That is to say: we accept that every and all depradations on naturalness are regrettable in themselves, and diminish local people’s pleasure, and will ensure that the damage done on their patch is compensated for on their patch.

One great merit of this approach is that it would go so some way to finding out which part of local nature-lovers’ complaint was about nature and which was a casuistical NIMBYism. It would also be cheap, because in truth developments seldom do much harm to nature, and naturalness is quite cheap to come by.

4) Proprietorialism

The British have not dared to create a new town or city since Milton Keynes was conceived and built in the Garden City tradition. More recently, most new housing was conceived on too small a scale, with too little architectural ambition. Sometimes, substantial swathes of housing have been built, but without the sense of purpose which might have increased the density of occupation and the likelihood for an urban scene to develop. This is little remarked in the housing debate: yet it is what irritates many thoughtful people the most. These are the people who remain faithful to the Garden City movement, that curious amalgam of the romantically anarchist, the capitalist, the ruralist, the socialist and the Utopian. They are inclined to overstate the possibility that a few new large cities or towns may very greatly relieve the pressure on the rural scene. But their fundamental insight remains sound: it is possible to think big in planning. The result need not be social engineering so much as the creation in one fell swoop of an environment large numbers of people choose. It is surely right to sympathise with Lord (Richard) Rogers and Professor Sir Peter Hall, both luminaries of the Government-sponsored Urban Task Force, who argue that a good deal of London’s notorious shortfall in housing could be addressed by adventurous planning in some London’s easterly boroughs – the Thames gateway. [PLANNING, July 19, 2002]

Yet the difficulties are manifest. The Town and Country Planning Association runs a competition which reviews proposals for new settlements. The interesting entries tend not be realistic and the viable ones tend not to be interesting. [TCPAb]

Taking “Prettyville” towards the market…a fantasy

“Prettyville” is a fiction of my imagination. It is a town of 10,000 souls with two potential site for new housing. One site is a wildflower meadow owned by a poor farmer and the other is an unremarkable field owned by a rich farmer. The people of Prettyville are aware that the town’s young people (the indigenes who are sons and daughters of the soil) cannot afford to buy property in its environs. The majority of the people would rather that nothing was built, because either site would impact on their views and, they believe, marginally reduce the value of their houses.

Suppose that there was no planning system of any kind, and that the poor farmer was very willing to sell his aesthetically pleasing meadow whilst the rich farmer did not want to sell his boring one (it is not the best view in the village, but it is his view).

In that scenario, the flower-rich meadow would be lost and the boring meadow would survive. It would be a matter of luck whether the new housing development included low-cost housing. But this situation would be very often replicated, and sometimes the boring meadow would be the one which was developed. Housing would probably be much more available than it is now, and cheaper. The government’s objective about rural housing would probably be more nearly met. There would be fewer wild flower meadows.

In this scenario, had the local people cared about the meadow, they should have voted for their local council to buy it. Indeed, their best hope would be to own a good deal of land and then they could control its sale and use. They could sell it with covenants as to what sort of development should be allowed.

The odd effect of this however is that the only serious solution from the community’s point of view would involve if not the nationalisation of land then something a little like it (the “communitisation” of land). What is more, the locals might well decide to stitch things up so as to allow no more housing development. Against that possibility one would have to consider an alternative outcome: the profits from development could be ploughed into the community and that might powerfully influence it toward development.

Certainly, government direction would be out of the picture, and so would planning in the sense that we mean it now.

But these ideas would involve every townsperson accepting the extraordinary idea that the town shell out probably large sums for land, and it is hardly probable that there would be unanimity on such a scheme. Would townspeople be given a vote according to their share of the progressive taxation which might have produced the purchase? Possible, but problematic.

There are one or two other options that still might be compatible with dismantling the planning system, though it would only be abandonment of a sort. One might abolish all development control but maintain a system of landscape protection. Supposing one repealed the Town and Country Planning Act but maintained the rules by which various vistas and wildlife habitats are protected to greater or lesser degree from development. This would produce an effect remarkably like the present one except that on unexceptional sites there would be an unplanned free-for-all. Of course, the business of defining the “off-limits” areas would become even more politicised than it is now, because there would be even more local and campaigning pressure to zone even more areas as off-limits. Communities would feel themselves to be under great pressure to buy up tracts of un-zoned land in order to control its development. Still, this might be a relatively attractive option, at least from a free market point of view.

But could it ever happen? What would be the incentive for a nation of property owners to risk embarking on a course which would almost certainly entail large numbers of people spending large sums of money if they wanted to secure the continuance of a presumption that development will be rule-bound which they currently get for free?

Large scale proprietorialism – nearly realistic

So let’s suppose that existing property-owners within a local authority would have little incentive to vote for such a change in the rules, even if the house-poor and the economy might gain.

There is something to be said for such a move toward “proprietorialism” in new developments. Let’s imagine a scheme devised by a firm to buy a large aristocratic estate (or an abandoned mental hospital and its estate – which has arisen). A standard commercial option would be to produce a scheme in which there is a “gated community” in which each proprietor buys a property with various rules attached.

These rules might consist in behavioural clauses about noise or washing lines or lawn-mowers or whatever. Such a proposition is interesting but hardly novel. It is commonly available now, in America, the UK and in France. A purchaser would want to know what was likely to happen to the land around his or her house, and around the clutch of houses which constitute the rest of the development, and could then make up their own mind about the conditions. Affluent and socially unadventurous would be the most clamorous for this sort of scheme for its very predictability (its dullness).

But suppose the people buying the estate were more adventurous. They might as co-owners buy into the estate as an entire business project on the basis that half of it was to be developed for the co-owners’ houses and the other half was to be developed later, by common agreement amongst the many co-owners of the estate. They would have an incentive to gang together to ensure precisely that at least their estate was indeed planned – the way they like it. A halfway house, not impossible to imagine, might have the planning system to say that the estate was large enough and discrete enough for it to be a matter of indifference to the wider community what went on there. It might be deemed to have planning consent for any activity – industrial, housing, agricultural, forestry – that its co-owners envisaged.

This last position is of course interesting for our purposes because it reveals a major problem with planning – and suggests a way through it. This “proprietory community” model allows the market to mediate the planning dilemmas that otherwise must be done politically. Everyone who stands to gain and everyone who stands to lose within this system can see most of what they lose and gain in money terms as well as in aesthetic preference terms. They might not like to see their view damaged by a factory, but also accept that they would be so enriched by the sale of the land to the factory’s owners as to overcome their reluctance. A co-owner might hate the factory but love the fact that the proposed factory’s managers are incomers who constitute a market for the co-owner’s house whose sale can fund a retreat to a factory-free area.

But the problem remains, actually. A co-owner buying into the estate has to make a judgement as to whether his co-owners will make the right decisions, as he or she sees them. One might, after all, bank on one’s co-owners doing such and such a thing, and then watch appalled as they do the opposite. One might end up monetarily richer but visually poorer (or vice versa), and that might not be the preferred option if one had banked on one’s co-owners opting for an undeveloped idyll (or a money-making industrial estate).

Of course, this model could be refined by covenants and so on so that one could be sure that one’s co-owners actually had limited opportunities to take the estate in directions one did not like. Those covenants would be voluntary, contractual and to that extent not political. They might satisfy a free-market purist because they did not involve the state. They might feel just as restrictive, however.

Indeed what is striking is that this scheme, especially in its more imaginative versions, is that it would become remarkably “political” as its stakeholders manoevred, lobbied and plotted for the outcome which suited them. In short, though it would be market-orientated, and though it would not involve a communally-held asset, and while one’s stake in it would be sellable, all the same its most remarkable feature would be the degree to which it felt like a commune.


We should be experimenting in large scale corporate town-building. We should be encouraging a few local authorities to cede much of their planning power to firms which would risk owning large tracts of ground and offering long leases or covenanted sales to house-purchasers. Such thinking is around already: the Co-operative Wholesale Society (admittedly an idealistic firm) has explored such a scheme on one of its large landholdings. [TCPAb] It would be fascinating to see an urban authority grant in-principle planning permission to a tract of land on which they would like to see landscaped high-rise housing built.

In country or town, they could specify the housing density they seek. Authorities at every level would have to spell out the infrastructure support they would offer, and it would be even more interesting if this was in cash terms. That way, the firm could decide much of the form in which they wanted to offer in terms of schools, hospitals, and so on.

This adventure would incur the same wrath that a conventional New Town would, but it would have the attraction of being an inspiring and modern approach, with none of the dullness which attaches to the statist idealism, or the municipal idealism, of the older New Towns movement.

There may might well be a presumption that the result would be a Disneyfication, or a Princes Charlesification of our land, as McTowns sprang up. But why should this be true? It is just as likely that Virgin and Marks & Spencer and Time Out might agree to take on different neighbourhoods of such a new town or urban unit and “theme” them in very different ways. Or one developer might cede different streets or zones to different designers, ranging from the Georgian Society to Richard Rogers and Wayne Hemmings (who already “themes” for a housebuilder). The FT interviewed Tony Pidgley, the scion of the Berkeley Homes empire, who believes he can take risks on low priced land and create much more interesting housing options than the industry conventionally accepts as inevitable. [FTb]

5) Redefine economic and aesthetic welfare

Why are roads so difficult to build…?

Road development is hated by very powerful campaigners and their media allies and that any proposed scheme attracts very vociferous local objection. This means that the government’s road building programme is highly politicised. At any one time it consists of a list of a few dozen proposed roads. It is a list which will grow or shrink, and look more likely or less likely to be built according to the government’s reading of its ability to pay for schemes and its reading of the state of play between the pro’s and anti’s. Because the programme is compiled and funded centrally, even quite local schemes (such as bypasses for towns) become national issues. Larger schemes, such as motorways or links between motorways are necessarily argued over at a national level.

To an extraordinary degree, the business of political acceptance for road-building is a matter of perception. Each of us carries a mental picture of the British geography. To an important extent, many of us believe that it is being concreted-over and that each new road is an insult to our rural tradition. This is peculiar: any domestic flight over our country will show an enormous amount of farmland with a ribbon or two of road stretching across it. A few more incursions of road into that scene will seldom matter, though it will almost always provoke huge debate. And then there is the difficulty that new roads are proposed on the basis that they will be good for the economy and they will be opposed on the grounds that they are bad for our aesthetic life. Thus, for instance, it was argued that Hastings needed a bypass to revive its economy and it was counter-argued that the countryside round Hastings was a natural resource of great value. That is to say, economics was counter-posed – as so often – against aesthetics. Now whilst Hastings’ might indeed be a rural idyll of value, it is too often forgotten that had a bypass brought affluence of Hastings, and relieved pressure on the coast road which divides the town from its foreshore, then that too would have been an aesthetic gain. Few people would find it more attractive to live in an ugly failing town than in a vigorous successful one.

Besides, it could be argued that a road through beautiful countryside is a blight to those who see it, but a great visual asset to those who travel on it. That’s to say: the view from the road will be a new view of loveliness to those who use it, just as it is a new blight to those who overlook it. Yet you will seldom hear the positive side of that equation. It was, for instance, odd that most people agreed the road past Stonehenge should, of course, be buried so that the view from the monument should not be spoiled. What was not remarked was that a glimpse of the stones was one of the glories of driving in the area, and the means by which many hundreds of thousands of people saw them. Indeed, by seeing them fleetingly and freely, many of them were presumably freed from the desire to stop and visit the stones, and thus their road-view contributed to relieving visitor-pressure, which was the main problem the site faced.

It is one of the perversities of the anti-roads campaign that it cannot believe that all those motorists are in some sense and in some degree (often a very great one) exercising their own rational and heartfelt choices when they travel by car. Making money, visiting granny, conducting a love affair – these are all the kinds of things which get people into their cars. It might for various reasons be preferable if people were in trains, or not travelling, and it might be legitimate for governments to seek to influence these life-patterns. But it is importantly true to say that in doing so they are manipulating the freely-expressed, hard fought-for, expensively-bought choices of their adult citizens. When the government argues for roads, it is arguing for the often-expressed wishes of its citizens. When it bows to pressure not to build roads, it is often giving into noisy pressure which is more influential than it is truly democratic.


We should challenge the NGO perception of the aesthetic and spiritual values on which they claim to have the high ground and on which they actually present rather an impoverished, nervously middle-class view.

6) Improve respect for representative democracy

We have stressed that the Secretary of State enshrines a national interest whilst locals stick up for their own interests. It is sometimes suggested that local people ought be allowed more power relative to his.

One might, for instance, abandon “predict and provide” in housing matters. The South East might continue to attract business development. But there would be even less housing for managers and staff. This situation would arise because, absent the SoS’s bullying, local authorities would have more of their own way. They would say they had no room for housing. In short, one might have all the restrictiveness of the present planning system, but none of the centrally-dictated insistence that planners allow development which presently applies.

The state would be off your back, locals would be getting what they want, and much good would it do them. Arguably, because without homes there will be little economic growth, the nation would suffer. Perhaps the businesses which would have come to Hampshire would go to Scotland or Wales, instead. Perhaps they would go abroad. It’s hard to predict. Would these outcomes be bad? Would they have added to the sum of human happiness?

What is surprising, surely, is that the state’s central intervention might come to be thought fairly benign: local objections are overcome, but not in a shocking incursion upon freedom, whilst new jobs and houses have been found. Indeed, the curious thing about the Secretary of State’s bullying is that he is in effect insisting that there be more development opportunities put in front of the market.

We more often think of this effect in the field of housing. Actually, though, similar issues arise in the provision of municipal waste plants and quarries, let alone the much rarer cases of nuclear power plants, or additional runways or terminals at airports, or treatment centres for paedophiles. The romantic notion that we should allow as much power as possible to reside locally looks very flawed when one tries to imagine how much harder it would be to get anything – or any market activity - done in anyone’s back yard if local power ruled.


We should argue much more forcefully than we do that national politicians and national institutions are responsive, responsible and serious. Scapegoating and denigrating them is for immature commentators and NGOs.

7) Abandon “redirection” aspirations

Planning is a necessary evil, and it should not be expected or allowed to direct market activity more than absolutely necessary. The free choices of individuals is a better guide to the national well-being than a centrally-directed dictates.

On this view, one should decide whether to allow more housing in the South-east according to whether the South-east can reasonably accommodate the growth. Unless the new developments were hideously intrusive, damaging to wildlife, and so on, then the freely-expressed cash-backed desires of house-buyers and the cash-hungry greed of the landowners and developers should be allowed to do their business.

This was view held by much of Westminster and Whitehall. It was originally the view of Nicholas Ridley’s when he was SoS. But he came to rather enjoy going along with the NIMBYism of the South East’s voters. If he believed that if he maintained strict development control in the South East large numbers of Conservative voters would be happy, and what’s more – and more principled, perhaps – was the thought that if growth was constrained in the South East, then to the cheapness of property in Ridley’s beloved North-east would be added the further advantage that all sorts of economic activity would be looking for somewhere to go. The North-east could attract the activity that had been displaced from the South-east. This was activity that the North-east badly needed, and he was prepared to stretch a point to make it happen.

Is growth mobile? Is it directable?

Is growth mobile? If it isn’t, has it been silly to try to “force” development northward by keeping a lid on development in the South East?

The paradox is this. Growth was easy in the south, not least because of the constraints on growth represented by the planning system. By keeping the South gorgeous, more firms find it prestigious to be there. Senior managers are happy to work there. True, good staff are in short supply, but the supply is of good staff.

So it is not certain that had there been no planning system, the market would have expressed itself much more vigorously in producing growth in the south. Growth might have produced an increasingly and haphazard urban environment, and the south might have started to be the victim of its own success rather sooner than it did whilst planners had some power. The unplanned urbanisation of the south might have made it less popular as a venue for foot-loose, globalised entrepreneurs. Some of these might have decamped up north. Others might have given the UK a miss and gone to the Paris or Amsterdam or Frankfurt hinterlands.

It is moot point whether planning controls or their absence would have worked sooner to restrain the South East’s growth, or redirected growth northwards.

Had the South East “overheated” in the absence of planning, perhaps manufacturers might have gone north. Yet more might have followed those that spotted that Herefordshire and Gloucestershire combined opportunity, relative cheapness, and loveliness. True, they did so at the expense of being further from London than Croydon. But they were lovelier, too.

So there are many reasons why the north might not benefit from planning constraint in the south.

But that does not make the case for abandoning the planning system. The greatest beneficiary of tight planning controls in the south might be the south and the nation (including the north, through geographical redistribution of some of the taxpayer’s wealth, if it is the case that planning tended to its increase).

Would “wrecking” the south improve the north?

In the absence of a planning system we might have seen such intensification of use in the south and such virtual dereliction in the north that there might have been a reaction in favour of locating in the north, where there were empty roads and great scenery. But could one be sure? One of the problems in attracting development to the north has been that though there is labour, it is of the wrong kind; though there are cheap sites, many are contaminated; and whilst there is much open space, much of it is National Park, and affluent retirees are more likely to find it attractive than are executives or their workers. In short, the North was cheap, but only in some places, and in places no-one found it easy or obviously desirable to develop.

That’s to say: the south might remain – whether constrained or overheated - an extraordinary magnet because it has all the economic advantages of a critical mass of entrepreneurs, skills and professions, plus access to the main UK airport and proximity to the commercial centres of the Continent. It also has the inestimable virtue of cachet. It is not all clear that even if it were allowed to become spoiled by development, or overpriced because of planning controls, that there would be a commensurate rush northward.

Recommendation: We should be rather robust in asserting that it is unlikely that growth is fungible or mobile. One cannot easily “direct” it to an undesirable place by “locking” it out of a desirable place. One may attract development to an otherwise undesirable place by reducing the price of land, or improving some aspect of its amenities, but that is not at all the same thing and is difficult enough. Tight planning controls in place “A” ought to arise out of the needs of place “A” and without a subtext of interest in place “B”.

Our reasoning here is partly a matter of principle. We are suspicious of “positive” planning where it is the exercise of authority to overcome market reluctances. And that – just to make it clear – is not because one does not seek to influence events on the ground – say, to improve place “B” in some way. It arises more from a perception that to restrict the freedom of individuals in place “A” to do as they want (whether through the market or democracy) in order to work miracles in place “B” is a classic case of the kind of state plunder our tradition worries about.

Ends essay copy


CBI: CBI Planning Task Force, “Shaping the nation”, Confederation of British Industry, London,

DE SOTO: De Soto, Hernando, The Mystery of Capital, basic Books, New York, 2000

ES: Tony Travers, director Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, “Is it time to think the unthinkable on the Green Belt?”, page 11, Evening Standard, 9 July 2002

FTa: Mike Haslam, Weekend, p6, the Financial Times, 18/19 May 2002

FTb: Anne Spackman, A whi-kid vision you can afford, FT Property, the Financial Times, May18/19, 2002

IEAa: Hayek, Frederich A, The Road to Serfdom (Reader’s Digest condensed version, 1945), IEA, 2001

IEAb: Bastiat, Claude F, The Law (1850), IEA, 2001

IEAc: Pennington, Mark, Liberating the Land, IEA, 2002

PLANNING: weekly journal with close links to the Royal Town Planning Institute, Haymarket Publications, www.planning.haynet.com

RCEP: Royal Commission on Environmental Polluttion, 23rd report, Environmental Planning, HMSO, Cm 5459, March 2002

TCPAa: Town and Country Planning Association, Inquiry into the Future of Planning, “Your Place and Mine”, TCPA, London,1999

TCPAb: Town and Country Planning Association, Tomorrow’s New Communities, TCPAc: London, undated

TCPAd: Policy Statement, “Green Belts”’ London, May 2002

Ends all


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