This is why the UK planning system needs the Agent of Change principle

New build flats in Nine Elms, south London. Image: Getty.

Last month, the government issued a press release outlining that it would support Labour MP John Spellar’s planning bill to adopt the ‘Agent of Change’ principle in UK planning law.

The term refers to the responsibility a new development has to mitigate the risks of its construction on its neighbours: new homes being built next to an existing music venue, say, or a development next to a working farm. In both cases, it’s the new development’s responsibility to build in such a way to guarantee peaceful coexistence. And if a risk is posed by the existing use on the new use, than it’s the developer’s responsibility to ensure that risk is managed – for example, through soundproofing.

This change is now part of the guidance in National Planning Portfolio Framework (NPPF), and the government is hopeful it will become law by the summer. The news has been reported in the press as a victory for music venues, and the music industry, with Sir Paul McCartney and UK Music’s CEO Michael Dugher, himself a former Labour MP, are leading the charge.

But this is about more than music venues. And this win is much more significant than most realise. This is an example of global leadership in recognising that, to improve our towns and cities, we need to reimagine how they are planned, from the earliest possible stage.

Here’s why it matters. Once enshrined in law, this will be one of the most significant changes to UK’s planning framework in years. It mandates that what happens inside a building is equally important to the value of the land it sits on. It also outlines – in policy terms – an understanding that, for there to be sustainable neighbourhoods, the amenities already catering to existing residents and visitors must be valued. This marks a sea change in how we envisage the role of planning in our lives – and it does so for the better.

Few of us understand the role the planning sector has in everything we do as humans moving from place-to-place in an urban environment. Decisions made now across the UK in planning hearings and committee meetings have a lasting impact. And the majority of decisions governing how our cities, towns and places develop have de-prioritised culture in place of viability. This is due to the introduction of Permitted Development Rights in 2010, and the ability to change use classes, from office to residential, for example. Viability – another word for profit – was the most important caveat to satisfy: culture, and affordability, were often trade-offs to prove a site’s particular viability. This takes land as an investment, rather than a shared space for human interaction, be it social, commercial or both.


Those who own land, be they housebuilders or pension funds, should earn a return from their investment. But Permitted Development Rights created a situation in which decisions were rushed to favour short-term gain – and only one definition of viability was accepted. The role of culture on increasing long-term gain didn’t have a chance, because, especially in the short-term, the financial value of a block of flats vastly outweighs the economic value of a cultural space. Yet fast forward five, 10 or 15 years, and without such cultural amenities, these homes become siloed. We are building places to live, but surrounding them with little to live for.

The introduction of Agent of Change gives us an opportunity to change this equation and the thinking behind it. One building, in and of itself, is not sustainable without being interconnected to what is around it. It must connect to our water pipes and electricity lines, sewers, roads and internet cables.

This is intrinsic; when a housing development is built, it is connected to mains. It is attached to the grid. It becomes a node in a system larger than itself, a system it relies on to increase its viability.

But at the same time, there’s a cultural grid that exists alongside the physical one. And through permitted development, we lost sight of this. This includes our schools and hospitals, but also our music venues, art spaces, public squares and cafes. Understanding the role of each development in our cultural grid was deprioritised. Now, buildings can be infrastructurally connected but unconnected to what lies around them. This is what Agent of Change can address.

This will take time. Planning requires patience; but it also requires understanding what is already there and its importance. Now, in cases where an existing use is threatened by a new development, we can welcome the development while protecting the existing use. Recognising and mapping this cultural connectivity – the social pipes and wires that sustain who we are – must be recognised before conversion takes place, or a shovel hits the ground. Doing so will, over time, demonstrate the value that culture of all kinds has in enhancing and yielding return on land. Culture is how we will design our cities.

In addition, this change is world-leading – welcome at a time when the UK needs good news stories. No country has adopted Agent of Change in its national planning framework thus far. We are the first. This is significant.

Soon, those moving next to a working farm won’t be able to complain about the smell. Noise complaints against church bells will be ignored. Noise making factories won’t be displaced. And at the same time, we can still build the homes we need for the future.

I hope that this not only emboldens the development sector to build more homes, but ensures that those homes are more connected – not just to the mains, but to the stories, histories and shared values within each of our neighbourhoods and communities.

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Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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