The universal nostrum offered by libertarians, for almost any social or political ill, is property rights. This is never more so in the UK than in relation to the UK planning system, for which they have nothing good to say. This is of course an understandable libertarian perspective, since the planning system is probably the greatest single intervention by the state in property matters. The roots of planning in the UK are however not a desire to control how land is used, but a concern for public health. On that basic concern, the present enormous superstructure has been erected.
A key date was 1947, with the passage of the Town and Country Planning Act. The Act, in effect, nationalised the right to develop land. It required all proposals for development, with a few exclusions, to secure planning permission from the local authority, with provision to appeal against refusal. That system essentially prevails now, although with much change in terminology and despite much windy rhetoric from both major parties about its damaging effects.
As part of my occasional series on controlling the growth of the state, in this post I intended to look at the claimed objectives for the planning system, to consider if those objectives are indeed valid and if valid to look at what alternatives might be possible, based on the principles of localism and minimal state intervention.
Trying to find a succinct summary of objectives is however rather harder than I expected. The former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, when it was responsible for planning, had this rather 'Janet and John' explanation:
Planning is about how we plan for, and make decisions about, the future of our cities, towns and countryside. Planning has a long history, even thousands of years ago people will have discussed where to build homes and shelters!
Over the centuries, a more formal way of making these decisions was set up. So when we want to build a new house or someone wants to develop a new shopping centre, your local planning authority is responsible for deciding whether it should go ahead. 'Local planning authority' usually means the district or borough council, not the parish or town council.
Without a planning system, everyone could construct buildings anywhere, or use land in any way they wanted, no matter what effect this would have on other people who live or work in their area.
This is why we have a planning system.
So, Planning is about Planning...
Similarly, this document, titled "The Planning System:General Principles" jumps straight into describing the structure of planning, without a principle, general or otherwise, in sight.
1. In England there is a hierarchical structure of guidance and plans covering national,
regional and local planning which includes:
• National Planning and Minerals Policy Statements and Guidance Notes.
• Regional Spatial Strategies.
• Local Development Frameworks.
So, Planning is about Plan Making...
Finally we have "Planning Policy Statement 1: Delivering Sustainable Development" in which we find:
5. Planning should facilitate and promote sustainable and inclusive patterns of urban and rural development by:
– making suitable land available for development in line with economic, social and environmental objectives to improve people’s quality of life;
– contributing to sustainable economic development;
– protecting and enhancing the natural and historic environment, the quality and character of the countryside, and existing communities;
– ensuring high quality development through good and inclusive design, and the efficient use of resources; and,
– ensuring that development supports existing communities and contributes to the creation of safe, sustainable, liveable and mixed communities with good access to jobs and key services for all members of the community.
This, while more explicit about what planning does, still leaves a lot of questions begged.
What are 'economic, social and environmental objectives to improve people’s quality of life' ? How should planning 'protect and enhance...existing communities? How do you define 'community' anyway in this context? How do you know when development is 'high quality', what is 'good and inclusive design'? What is the difference between 'protecting and enhancing...existing communities' and 'ensuring that development supports existing communities'?
It is easy I know to pick holes in government pronouncements on policy. Most after all are designed to be vague, appealing to as many people as possible, without putting others off. In this case though PPS1 is meant to be a piece of solid working guidance to be applied by trained professional planners and elected politicians when considering applications for planning permission. (Actually there are many other more detailed Policy Statements on specific topics, but textual analysis usually shows the extra detail to be illusory.)
In summary therefore, whatever its practitioners think they are, the political objectives of the UK planning system seem vague, ill defined and largely unhelpful to any citizen seeking enlightenment about why the state takes such enormous powers over private property. I say this as a former practitioner!
I'll come back to this in a future post, with a more pragmatic take on why planning exists and a look at possible alternative ways of trying to achieve those same ends.
In case you are wondering about the title, it comes from thinking about the vast range of activities considered to be 'development', which therefore fall within the ambit of the planning system and require planning permission from the local council.