A veritable army of worthy groups, made up of regiments from the likes of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust, Friends of the Earth, the Theatres Trust (why?) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and their well-heeled and erudite patrons and luminaries, is leading an attack on government planning proposals in the “National Planning Policy Framework” document.  One can only conclude that they love poor people so much that they wish there were far more of them.

Thirteen years ago, as a new and enthusiastic city councillor, I was clambering over colleagues to be appointed to Oxford’s then Planning Committee.  Indeed, I had more or less gained my council seat by promising to defend a whole section of my ward’s residents against an unwanted (by them) development of new housing (and a new high spec local school by way of quid pro quo).  One of my first acts as a councillor was to go buy a copy of the (rather expensive) Butterworths collection of Planning Policy Guidance and its attendant policy notes to find for myself reasons to object to the development.  This was all before “e-government” made such things freely accessible on the web – and besides, a sheaf of print outs didn’t look half as good in Planning Committee meetings as slamming the giant tome onto the table to give one the air of informed expert at meetings.

And I won.  At least to start with.  I persuaded my colleagues on the Planning Committee to reject the proposal, then had to defend it myself in the appeal (since officers had recommended permitting the proposal they were less than wholehearted in their defence of the committee’s ruling against their recommendation).  “We” did lose on appeal, and worse than that, the concessions that might have been wrung out of the developers in terms of cash for more affordable housing was slashed in the appeal too.  But I had done what I promised to do in my election campaign and the local residents did not hold me responsible for “their” loss I don’t think.

Nonetheless, they didn’t invite me back to serve them when my time was up in 2002, and in the years since I have been trying to develop the idea of Community Land Trusts in Oxfordshire – with the aim of developing affordable housing, free of state subsidy and control, in communities that recognised they needed some extra housing to cater for their own indigenous needs (such as new families emerging from existing local households but with no hope of remaining near their roots).  “Local housing for local people” as people used to rib me.  Nine years later, we are still sitting on a rather awkward plot on the outskirts of Oxford (a long story) without a foundation dug or brick laid.  But my attitude to planning has changed.  Utterly.

Whilst some of the criticisms aimed at the NPPF are plain daft (we already have a presumption in favour of development for instance – that this being England, and a man’s property is, in theory at least, his own to choose what to do with), the proposals themselves do not go nearly far enough.

Planning policy should be scrapped.  Completely.  Planning Promotes Poverty.

Poverty both for individuals who cannot afford a home, and for communities who on the one hand lose their next generation because there is nowhere for them to live or gain a whole load of new ones because they happen to be where the council decides it should “release” land for development or where the fewest people are well organised enough to object.

Poverty for tax payers in general who have to foot the enormous bill of subsidising housing for a whole group of people on an ever increasing range of incomes who cannot afford to get onto the ladder (perhaps ever at this rate).  And this in turn, as with Housing Benefit which I have previously denounced, makes paupers of us all, except for the bankers who make ever more money lending us ever larger sums and those who either have more than one home and rent the spares out to people (whether subsidised or not) or who have reached their “peak housing need” (their families have flown the ancestral nest) and are in the process of reaping those gains by trading downwards.

No doubt many of those leading this charge against the government’s pathetic, paltry, planning proposals fall into this latter group.  As ever with such armies, their rank and file members probably actually fall into the former category, of those directly or indirectly impoverished by the planning system but are too stupid to see it.  Well, the defence of “I was only following orders” will not mitigate their culpability.

Counterintuitively perhaps, sprawl is more the result of planning than is its control. Image courtesy of Bob Jagendorf at Flickr
Counterintuitively perhaps, sprawl is more the result of planning than is its control. Image courtesy of Bob Jagendorf at Flickr

Not only that, but planning promotes sprawl too.  These countryside (and theatre) campaign groups appear to be under the misapprehension that the planning regime that has been in force in some form or another since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act is all that stands between them and the much feared “concrete countryside” when in fact it is the centralising of the former local, structural and regional plan process and its successors that favours the creation of large developments of execrable “high density identikit housing” in big blotches with the choicest pickings and profits going to the most favoured special pleading interests every few years as planning authorities are asked to “make land available”.  The system is, quite literally, rife from top to bottom with rent seeking.

Planning shovels great dumper trucks of money away from people who have no home into the hands of these rent seekers because it creates an artificial scarcity – only releasing too little, too late preventing any natural decline in land or resulting property values and not promoting competition for quality.  In fact I’d go further: planning creates the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and is at the root of all poverty – one’s housing costs being, for the poor and the young at least, the largest slice of their incomes other than that grabbed by the government for transfer to other projects of privilege.

Planning sets, literally in concrete, social immobility.  It rewards the special pleading of vast vested interests and creates venal politicians and bureaucrats.  But it does give the Bill Brysons of this world and their sheep-like foot soldiers the unwarranted smug impression that it preserves somewhere to walk the dogs at the weekend I suppose, so that’s okay.

There are better solutions to all these groups’ concerns, that would substantially reduce housing costs and thus the pernicious pervasive poverty they create, make development more competitive and stop shovelling money to vested interests, to be found in a freed market in development.  But if you like poor people so much that you want to create more of them, you’ll want to continue the current pretence that is planning.

Planning Promotes Poverty
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