Planning for housing: from the straight jacket to the earthquake approach

by Cecilia Wong, Professor of Spatial Planning, Executive Director of the Centre for Urban Policy Studies

The Localism Bill published before Christmas 2010 was and is still beyond belief to many planning professionals. Many ideas in the document are at best half baked (e.g. the use of neighbourhood plans to increase housing supply) if not totally dodgy (e.g. auctioning local government land with planning permission). DCLG seems reasonably happy to make things up as it goes along, so the amendments to the Bill in May are thicker than the original version. While Ministers urge local government to get on with their Local Development Framework, the reality is that no one is certain whether the dust has settled down yet to avoid wasting the already dwindling human resources. The atmosphere of very shaky policy changes, funding cuts and job losses in the planning community is deadly but also surreal, just like the aftermath of a Richter scale 8 earthquake.

In the early-mid 1990s, British planning was slowly re-emerging from the market-oriented legacy of the Thatcher era and regional planning was back on the agenda. Local concerns over the perceived inexorable spread of new housing development to greenfield land and the consequent impacts on the environment had increased pressure on central government to move away from the ad hoc market-led approach of planning. Such concerns were mirrored by growing numbers of developers who were also worried that the absence of more strategic, regional strategy-making would lead to insufficient provision of land required for future development because local authorities were increasingly subject to the growing pressure of local NIMBYism. The Blair-Brown Labour government saw various experiments to uplift regional and sub-regional spatial strategy-making into a more prominent position, but after a decade’s experiment, the outcome is rather patchy.

Reflecting back over the last decade, both planning and regeneration were preoccupied with brownfield housing redevelopment policy by stipulating the national target of 60% of new housing to be built on previously developed land (PDL) to curb urban sprawl and foster the urban renaissance agenda. The government adopted a straight jacket approach of using targets and performance measures to establish policy frameworks and manage local and regional delivery. While the Government’s brownfield housing target has been met consistently since 2000, the actual amount of brownfield land used for residential purposes during 2000-06 (2774 ha per annum) was only marginally higher than that achieved throughout the period 1989-98 (2644 ha per annum). The meeting of the brownfield target was ironically a function of a parallel decrease in the use of greenfield land as well as a rapid increase in housing density (from 25 dwellings/ha in 1996 to 45 in 2007). However, our research for the Homes and Communities Agency and Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that there has been an increase in the proportion of brownfield land used for housing in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Indeed, housing reuse increased most rapidly in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in England, even in areas with long term vacant and derelict land. The market for flats in particular has grown since the mid 2000s.

Brownfield reuse policy has helped to bring residents back into the most deprived neighbourhoods, injecting dynamics into the housing market, and reducing the relative ranking of economic deprivation in these areas. However, this new housing has also altered the socio-economic dynamics of these neighbourhoods. Signs of policy success can also be interpreted as a function of how the housing market interacts with more general policy frameworks, with developers choosing areas with more favourable development potential for major brownfield reuse activities. The vice of including gardens as PDL has the unexpected outcome of garden grabbing as well as major rebuild in millionaire locations such as Prestbury. Driving around the beautiful wooded lanes around Prestbury, there is either a crane inside the plot or a wacking new great mansion already standing in it.

One does need to question whether a blanket national brownfield target, with a very broad brush definition, continues to be a meaningful policy instrument. There is also a need for more nuanced and contextualised approaches to take into account local circumstances. More importantly, we need to find out who are those new residents moving into the new high rise apartments (hopefully, 2011 Census data will keep us busy) and how they change the dynamics of those areas. In theory, the emphasis on localism is a good thing because it strips away the top-down bureaucracy and devolves power, resources and knowledge. In reality, the Localism Bill simply crossed out the words of ‘strategic’, ‘regions’ and ‘targets’; what’s left are ‘spatial’ and ‘landuse’ and, following the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework, ‘spatial’ seems to vanish as well – this begs the question of who is doing the coordination and management of planning for housing. The answer announced is the ‘neighbourhood plans’. However, this was not well thought through and more and more different interpretations are dripping through over the last few months. The Coalition government forgets that the communities within these neighbourhoods are not in a single voice and democracy does not mean a consensual view and that a lack of coordination is not the same as innovation.

The prospect for planning for housing over the next few years is likely to be uncertain and patchy. The differential capacity of communities means that some will achieve success, but some will be vulnerable and subject to manipulation by those with major financial resources and knowledge. It may shake the confidence of investment as developers do not like uncertainty. More importantly, the whole idea undermines professional knowledge and input, though now the government argues that the local authority has to provide such inputs without thinking where the resources come from when a quarter of the planners have lost their jobs.

We used to have a jigsaw puzzle of nine regional pieces to do strategic planning. In order to heighten the challenge, the puzzle has been subject to an earthquake and was shattered into little pieces. Good luck and have fun in putting this puzzle back together – the likelihood is that we will have a very patchy picture with lots of gaps and uncertainty.

References

Wong, C and Schulze Baing, A (2010) Brownfield residential redevelopment in England: What happens to the most deprived neighbourhoods? Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Bristol: Policy Press

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