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.


Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...

Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:


Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

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

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*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.