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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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.