The Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre think tank, has been incredibly influential in helping to shape thinking in the current UK Government. Nowhere more so than on the ‘beauty agenda’ which they began to engage with about five years ago when the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission was just a twinkle in a Ministerial eye. At the heart of these effort are two propositions, sometimes conflated, that:
- Planning is a bureaucratic process that is better placed in the hands of citizens and developers than in those of their elected representatives (e.g. the Tomorrows Places report)
- Traditional development is beautiful and building in such a style can overcome NIMBYism as a break on house building (e.g. their Building More, Building Beautiful report)
Political Think Tank reports are often filled with interesting analysis and coming from the left field (or perhaps, as in this case, the right field) are valuable in raising issues and challenging conventional thinking. Unfortunately, they often come to the wrong conclusions, perhaps because they are typically based on opinion rather than real evidence.
Over this and the next blog, two examples are explored relating to the first and second propositions above. Both confirm that, as a nation, we run a great risk if we seek to plan by think tank.
Strong Suburbs, a report from 2021, is focussed on getting around planning regulation through the mechanism of Street votes. The starting point is the seemingly reasonable analysis that we need to build more homes and furthermore at least some of that additional capacity can come from an intensification of existing often unsustainable suburban areas. This means re-building them higher and denser.
The argument in the report goes that property owners should be able to come together to agree on coordinated re-development scenarios for suburban streets, and if this is ratified through a street vote, then planning permission should not be required. The promise held out, as depicted on the cover, is that somehow our sprawling suburban streets will transform into bits of Georgian London as part of a utopian world where: all agree on the proposition, all benefit from the execution, and the market delivers up the perfect solution to our housing crisis – new more dense and beautiful development.
Unfortunately, in this utopian world, key issues that represent the everyday meat and drink of local authority development management are not being considered:
- not all residents of streets are homeowners;
- minority views may need protecting (e.g. elderly residents who don’t wish to redevelop or live on a building site for years);
- densification will necessitate new infrastructure and how and where will that be provided without a systematic planning process;
- negative externalities from development extend further than the homes either side (e.g. the impact on neighbouring streets not covered by the vote);
- the model of Georgian streets, of the type depicted, relied for their coherence upon a powerful Freeholder to develop a vision and coordinate the actions of individual builders and to retain a stake in the street in the long-run (not to sell on to make a quick profit); and
- development is likely to be incremental, with a perpetual gap tooth appearance being the most likely result.
Is it needed?
Faced with the sort of proposition included in this report, one would expect that the first thing Government asked was, is it needed, or can we get to the same outcomes already? My observations are that we can, and far more easily and without the same potential for negative side-effects. Moreover it can be done by working inside the existing flawed but ultimately democratic planning system.
Take the town of Nuneaton, a largely suburban Warwickshire town, and a town I know well as it is where my in-laws live. Nuneaton is largely made up of the sorts of low-density suburban streets that the Strong Suburbs report targets. But look carefully, and one can recognise that, where the opportunity presents itself (typically where plots are larger), a process of ‘going large’, or what the Americans call building McMansions, is underway. In these circumstances, smaller suburban homes are being demolished to make way for larger and higher buildings that typically extend across more of the plot and often deeper into the garden space. This replicates what academics like myself would regard as the natural and incremental processes of morphological change. Critically, it is happening without having to bypass the normal checks and balances provided by the planning process and is delivering a form of densification of the type proposed without harm (albeit not very beautifully!)
Despite the obvious downsides to street votes already listed, the idea caught the eyes of Ministers at a time when they were thrashing about for something to fill the hole left by the abandoning of ideas for a more radical shake up of planning in England. Streets Votes has now made it into the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill currently making its way through Parliament.
My prediction, however, is that these new provisions will be little used given that these processes are already prevalent, and even if they are used, they will rarely result in anything that we might regard as beautiful, let alone to Georgian terraces of great distinction. Instead, we are likely to see a sub-standard version of the sorts of processes already described and underway. I stand to be corrected.
For now, my conclusion is that street votes are largely a distraction. Far better to concentrate on what really matters, building a properly resourced and properly skilled planning system focussed on enabling the delivery of the “high quality, beautiful and sustainable building and places” that national policy (and with no small help from the Policy Exchange) now aspires to deliver. Which brings us to a second more recent report focussing on the critical issue of skills, and specifically to a proposal for a new School of Place. This idea is discussed in the next blog.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL