Coalition fails to shake-up UK’s antiquated planning rules

Allister Heath
IT was the government’s great opportunity to rip up red tape and make Britain an easier place in which to conduct business. For a while, the coalition had me convinced: I thought they would really do something about the UK’s obsolete planning rules, which were first dreamt up by the post-war socialist Clement Attlee government in the 1940s at a time when belief in central planning was at its zenith, and made worse in subsequent years by nimbyism and environmentalists.

I was too optimistic: yesterday’s planning “shake-up” is largely a missed opportunity. Sure, it does tear up quite a lot of red tape – in theory, the reduction is dramatic as the new framework condenses 1,300 pages of old rules into fewer than 100 – and is therefore not a total disaster, but it certainly won’t herald a revolution. Red tape cannot merely be assessed by looking at the number of pages it fills up.

Don’t get me wrong: I obviously don’t want to pave over the entirety of the UK countryside and build skyscrapers on every street corner. I respect and understand that neighbours don’t want their own property values ruined by crazed developments in their back garden. I don’t either. But we have gone too far. We have become a ridiculously anti-development and anti-growth society, and that is destroying jobs, contributing to inflated property valuations, forcing people to live in excessively small spaces, and depriving young people of the opportunity to own their own homes. Property rights have been excessively eroded, with homeowners and property owners having to beg for permission whenever they wish to do something to their own land; and it has become far too difficult to build new buildings and get things done in Britain. Airports and roads take decades to finish.

The government is saying its new (and, regrettably, now weakened) “presumption in favour of sustainable development” is based on the five “principles of sustainable development” the Labour government set out in 2005 (once again, this administration remains enslaved intellectually and practically to Brownonomics). These five criteria against which new projects will be judged are, unfortunately, nebulous beyond parody: Living within environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly. I’ve no idea what this means – and unless you are a lawyer, I somehow suspect that neither do you, dear reader. There is clearly an undertone of “human rights” legislation beneath all of this. None of this actually “clarifies” any rules.

I also fear that the extra time that local authorities will now have to bring up to date and adopt their local plans will merely create further delays. I doubt that the much-needed increase in house-building will now happen; it seems that local authorities will retain an incentive to ensure their targets remain well below demand for new housing. It will probably be easier to erect more wind-farms – but it is hard to see how homeowners desperate for more space will benefit (they could even lose out). One of the biggest problems is that there needs to be a simple but generous system to give cash compensation to those most affected by developments – this would allow the winners to buy out the losers from the process, and make sure everybody is satisfied.

The only real solution to the housing crisis – and to the UK’s ever growing population – is to allow developers to build new garden cities in the South East stuffed with spacious family homes, good facilities and linked to London. Is any of this going to happen as a result of yesterday’s announcement? I doubt it very much.
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath