Here are four reforms the British planning system needs to support growth

A man gazes at pictures of houses he will never, ever be able to afford. Image: Getty.

What is the point of urban planning? To answer this question we need to look at why people cluster in the small parts of the country in which land is scarce and expensive.

Cities account for 54 per cent of the UK’s population and 60 per cent of it jobs, but only 8 per cent of its land. As a result, the decisions we make about how to use valuable land in cities – and how we make those decisions – have an outsized effect on national productivity and the economy.

Planning, therefore, has an important role to play in coordinating economic activity in cities and ensuring city land is used efficiently. This thinking was at the core of the Centre for Cities’ response to the government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

In it, we stressed four reforms the government should make to bring planning back into balance in cities – that is, to ensure it meets the commercial, residential, and environmental and transport needs of urban areas:

  • Offer clear guidance on the role of planning for urban economies;
  • Release land for “button development” of housing near train stations;
  • Grade green belt in terms of suitability for new homes;
  • Explore alternatives to our permission-planning system.

In combination with our recommendations, these changes would result in a planning system that is much more focused on supporting economic growth within places.

Here’s some more detail on each of the recommendations.

Offer clear guidance on the role of planning for urban economies – and giving cities the powers to act

The NPPF clearly states that planning should help to drive local productivity by aiming to create conditions for the growth of businesses and the local economy.

But while it includes a long section on how planning should recognise the needs of the rural economy, an equivalent for cities is absent. This is a missed opportunity because the failure of planning to release enough land for development is most acute in cities.

To tackle this, we’ve argued that the government should issue specific guidance in the NPPF on how planning can assist economic growth in cities. That means, for example, ensuring high knowledge business services have the space they need in city centres to capture the benefits from agglomeration economies.

The economic growth of cities should be central to any national planning framework.

Cities themselves have also changed since the last NPPF was finalised in 2012, most notably with the creation of metro mayors in seven city regions across England (eight including the North of Tyne). However, only some of them have spatial planning powers – and the mayors of Tees Valley, West Midlands, and the forthcoming North of Tyne authority all lack the ability to lead on planning within their city.

These spatial plan powers should be devolved to the remaining metro mayors as soon as possible. But this is also an opportunity for the government to think about the future of devolution and these new institutions. Ideally, the largest cities with devolved institutions should have full control over their planning policy through documents such as the London Plan and the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, rather than sharing power with the NPPF.

Instead of writing planning policy for cities, the government should set the terms within which cities can write their own planning policy framework. In particular, the government should represent people who want to move to or between cities. Plan-making at present goes to great lengths to involve local residents, but struggles to capture the interests of people who may choose to live there in future. Giving cities the freedom to plan, while ensuring that they provide for new residents, would maximise devolution’s ability to drive local economic growth.

Release land for ‘button development’ of housing near train stations

Although the NPPF proposes minimum densities around “transport hubs” – which remain undefined – the government should go further by stipulating that all land within a 1km radius of train stations should have minimum densities for new housing.

That doesn’t mean Hong Kong-style high rises. But it could mean old-town style neighbourhoods with narrow streets, or the kinds of six-storey flats we see in Maida Vale (the densest neighbourhood in the UK). These “button developments” would create walkable communities with minimal new infrastructure, in contrast to “ribbon developments” along roadsides. The amount of land given over to cars (both for parking and on roads) should be minimised so that the new housing can support public transport and vice versa.

In addition to more homes, dense housing near train stations has an extra benefit for the environment. Building homes near stations makes commuting by rail or metro easy, reducing journeys by car and carbon emissions. More dense housing near public transport is essential for the UK to meet its legal target of a 57 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 while sustaining economic growth in cities.

Grade the green belt in terms of suitability for new homes

Releasing land for “button development around stations will require reform of the green belt, which is why we’re supporting the cross party coalition pushing for green belt reform around train stations led by Siobhain McDonagh MP. But a wider review of green belt land is needed to ascertain other sites which may be suitable for housing.

In the draft NPPF, the government said that brownfield land on the green belt was in certain cases suitable for development, agreeing that not all green belt should be equally protected.

Given that the green belt is a major obstacle to supplying more homes around high demand cities, this is a welcome recognition – but needs to be developed further. The uniformity and inflexibility of the green belt’s restrictions is the central problem with the policy because the suitability of green belt land for new housing varies so widely.

Recent housing stock growth by local authority, in and around London.

The government should, therefore, conduct a strategic review of green belt land to assess whether designations first applied over 50 years ago are still appropriate today. This review should grade green belt land according to the suitability for new homes, prioritising land near train stations for ‘button development’ as outlined above.

This would this improve the evidence available on the quality of green belt land. It would also enhance protection for our most precious countryside and landscapes, and help local communities develop consensuses on sites for new housing.

The Centre for Cities also argues that the current definition of the purpose of the green belt is too sweeping and rigid: at the moment, all English countryside could be said to service at least one intended purpose of the green belt. A more focused and effective green belt could be achieved by instead defining its purpose along the lines of:

  • Checking unrestricted sprawl and encourage a strategic approach to growth in keeping with the needs of local economies;
  • Assisting urban regeneration and the densification of cities and towns by encouraging the reuse of viable brownfield land;
  • Protecting environmentally valuable and beautiful countryside;
  • Achieving local and national climate goals of reducing commuting distances by car.

This would allow planning to more effectively balance the different interests within cities as part of planning’s role to coordinate economic activity than the current inflexible green belt definition. After all, belts are supposed to be loosened if they become too tight.

Scrap planning permissions, and move towards a rules-based planning system

One drawback of the NPPF is that it doesn’t tackle systemic problems in English planning – for example, the fact that each new development requires discrete planning permission.  

This increases opportunities for local Nimbys to oppose new housing and reduce supply. As almost nobody ever lobbies their local councils calling for more housing – although Yimby groups are starting to change that - a system of planning permissions ratchets the supply of housing downwards.

That’s why planning permissions should be replaced with a rules-based system, by which local authorities work with communities to create a plan stipulating where and how housing can be built by developers (in other words, zoning). This would ensure that housing decisions are still democratically agreed by the community, while reducing uncertainty, delays, and therefore costs to building more houses.

The reforms we’ve proposed would complement some of the changes to the planning system which already feature in the draft NPPF. These include the new method of calculating housing need based on local affordability, removing powers to block new housing from local authorities that don’t supply enough homes, and the push for more Build-to-Rent housing.

If the government acts on our recommendations in combination with the improvements that the draft NPFF set out, these changes could lead to a planning system which is much more focused on supporting economic growth within cities.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.

Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.

As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and