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.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.