Monday, May 21, 2007

All Planned Out?: afterthoughts

I struggle with planning policy. I know it’s important. I can often see the absurdities inherent in the system. I think it could be reformed. But what to do exactly? That’s where I struggle.

Up until recently, I was an avowed supporter of the tear-it-all-up school of anarchist planning. There was, I figured, no shortage of land, we weren’t about to concrete over the entire countryside and the world would be a much fairer and better place if people were allowed to do what they wanted on their own land. In fact, I devised a system whereby someone wanting to bring forward a new development would have to pay compensation directly to the neighbours, instead of having to apply for planning permission. I thought that, by so doing, I had unlocked the NIMBY problem.

Maybe I had, but then all this Urban Taskforce stuff came out about the importance of density, and unlocking the formula for successful walking towns. You have to cram lots of things into a small area to make them tick, without having to drive endless miles to samey shopping malls a l’Americana. Yeah, it made sense, but it was all at odds with being able to build just anywhere you wanted to. And of course not everyone wants to live in a 21st century Italian hill town. Some people like gardens and cars and space.

Next, the whole carbon debate loomed. In its purest sense, it suggests that we abandon new development altogether and just concentrate on improving what already exists. However green you manage to make it, new development places strain and stress on the existing environment, be it roads, trains, schools, water or just carbon emissions. If we are to sort out our little problem with carbon emissions, it’s hard to see how we can do it when the economy is still expanding.

And then there is another nasty, intractable little issue to do with building new homes in a country where jobs are plentiful. Just as new roads tend to fill up with traffic, so new homes fill up with people. And in a country with very porous borders, these people will pour in from all over the world. So you are not really addressing the problem which new housebuilding is meant to address, which is to make housing generally more affordable by making more of it. As the Irish example has shown, even a huge housebuilding boom doesn’t necessarily make houses any cheaper. In which case, why bother to build new homes at all?

Ah, we are told, we have more households now due to us a) living longer and b) living separately or at least in smaller and smaller groupings. Therefore we must build more to meet these needs. But are they really needs? Or are they just another consumer want? Sure, we all aspire to having our own home but maybe that’s becoming an anti-social aspiration, just like everyone owning their own car (or two). Maybe we have to learn to share more, just like we have to learn to catch the bus sometimes.

And bear in mind another problem with new housebuilding. New housing is an incredibly inefficient way of housing people. How come? Because we live in a service-led economy, every new home dweller brings with them the demands for a huge amount of services, be they schooling, shopping, health care, repairs, you name it. So for every ten new homes you build, you create about eight new jobs just servicing the people living in these new homes. Thus if you build a new town of 10,000 homes, you instantly create 8,000 new service jobs, and you’ve immediately filled three quarters of the new homes without expanding the supply of housing. This wouldn’t matter if the population as a whole was static, but it’s not, it’s very elastic. So the one problem which new housebuilding is meant to address — i.e. a shortage of housing — it does so in a most cumbersome manner. It’s little wonder that houses don’t get any cheaper when you build more of them.

Most of this stuff got an airing at the All Planned Out? conference last week. Did it come to any conclusions? Of course it didn’t. Planning debates never do. Audacity, the event organisers, want lots of new homes everywhere. Others wanted more factory-built homes. Some want density of Tuscan proportions. Some want a return to suburbia. Or even exurbia, a phrase I hadn’t heard before, and am still struggling to comprehend. Some wanted more rural development, maybe a re-awakening of the 1930s plotlands movement. Simon Fairlie put in a compelling plea for sustainable rural homes in order to revitalise the countryside. Even the stuffy tweed jackets of the CPRE don’t oppose new building – they just want it all crammed into urban extensions on brownfield sites.

But the one thing everybody wanted was new homes of some sort or another. Nobody questioned the logic of development per se. But then if you put a bunch of housebuilding professionals together in a building called the Building Centre, what do you expect?

As I said, I find all this planning policy stuff deeply confusing…



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