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.