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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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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