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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How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.