Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Housing – A Planning Officer’s View

One of the things about being a local activist group is that you get to know some of the local planning officers, except they’ve now all gone and we have to start again from scratch. But we are still in contact with some of our ex-pats - from a local authority not too far away … and quite relevant in the context of the upcoming London Mayor and Assembly elections.

A restless local government officer writes:

“As a local government planner I have to work without favour to any political party interest, only in the public interest, so if governments go off track I have to button up or hope someone will speak up by proxy. However, legislation seems less and less to be aimed at addressing real social needs, particularly in housing, then as a public sector planner one starts to question what the work can achieve.

Starter homes and unaffordable affordable homes are just going to be the latest round of tinkering with the planning system that delays building activity (as landowners / developers work out whether to revisit existing permissions for better returns rather than implement them) and of course only undermines further provisions for those who really need low cost housing.


I am not completely depressed, partly because at a local level there is still determination (officers, members, Design Panels etc.) to produce good places in spite of the Government’s impression that the one thing that isn’t needed is effective local government planning.

The housing estates initiative is clever politics given that there has already been a lot of this going on and it fits with the ideology of the current government that such estates represent the inevitable failure of state planning. However David Cameron mocked Jeremy Corbyn with an interesting line in Parliament last week which rather gave away gaps in his own knowledge of housing history

….…”stay stuck in your sink estates, have nothing better than what labour gave you after the war ” !

As housing scholars will know, there was much determination and political competition to produce large amounts of housing after the war, and the most successful government in history to produce large numbers of social housing was the Conservative government of 1951 – 1964. They boasted of it too. Credit where its due…a Conservative government built many of Mr Cameron’s hated sink estates. It won votes and got them re-elected, but given the outcomes and long term costs it shows the danger of politicians demanding numbers at the expense of everything else. (Ref: Conservative Home)

Does the Prime Minister blame Labour for the estates because he can only believe dogmatically that they were the inevitable failure of State Planning? Who knows. That period showed at least that with political will a lot of houses can be built…however it was reduced to a numbers game, and Conservatives and Labour were in competition as to who would see the most homes built, which lead to compromises on quality and cost cutting. There were other factors too such as architectural modernism, unfamiliar technologies, lack of public engagement etc . The planning profession in a way has never fully recovered its own or public confidence. It remains a soft target and punch bag for ministers, the “enemies of enterprise” have their uses.

The fact that a lot of the 1950’s building was so poor in the long run was conveniently blamed on the architects and planners caught up in this, but their political masters were absolved. The fear is that a distorted focus on numbers (which is mainly what we are getting from political parties now) will lead to similar costly mistakes and poor quality environments that won’t endure…. also that it takes more than current market mechanisms to get building.

Is it too late to influence the Housing and Planning Bill ? I hope it gets all the scrutiny and dissection it deserves in the Lords because there was precious little in the Commons. Is this the reality of EVEL (English votes for English Laws)? I hope we stop rubbishing the role of local government (predominantly Conservative run in any event) and allow it to lead actively in the building of low cost housing, by acquiring land, cleaning it up, establishing a public conversation , creating high quality planning / urban design strategies and then overseeing the build out of partnership schemes. Locally, I witness many schemes taking a decade to build out from first permission …..the poorly housed and the really poor can’t wait that long. With financial uncertainty ahead the housebuilding industry may soon have to shut up shop again for a while anyway.”

This article first appeared on Urban Design Group

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