The English planning system is in crisis, argue the authors of this provocative new book. Reflecting on controversial new Government reforms and deregulation, Kate Henderson and Hugh Ellis provide a comprehensive analysis of these reforms, assessing the implications and significance for the future.
They highlight why planning is so essential to quality of life and set out 10 evidence-based steps to rebuild the planning system in England. Drawing on policy and practice examples from across the UK and internationally, the book is a manifesto for change. It provides a direct and vigorous challenge to the current structure and policy of planning that should ignite a debate about the values that shape its future.
Britain faces extraordinary challenges, from climate change to growing inequality and global economics, but as a nation it has no plan for the future. This unique book asks a simple question: how can Britain organise itself, not just for survival but to build a fairer and sustainable society? The arguments refer to the high ambitions of those who pioneered the planning movement and campaigned for a clear set of progressive values, but whose drive for utopia has now been forgotten.
The book takes a distinctive approach to exploring the value to society of social town planning and offers a doorway for how planning, both morally and practically, can help to meet key challenges of the 21st century. It challenges the widely held view that it’s impossible to achieve a better future by suggesting that there is real choice in how society develops and pointing to contemporary examples of utopia.
This accessible book makes essential reading for students in the built environment and the wider social sciences who have an interest in UK and European examples of sustainable communities.
This book has two simple messages. Firstly, the rich utopian tradition that underpinned the town planning movement in England is dead. It now needs wholesale recreation. Secondly, if we are to achieve this renaissance we need positive and creative ideas that make a real difference to people’s lives.
This book is part manifesto for the future of England and part elegy for the wider western utopian tradition, a tradition we celebrate in 2016 with the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.1 With a kind of ironic symmetry we will mark this date in England with the abandonment of any commitment to the high ideals that drove so much progressive change over the last 150 years. In a debate marked by a rich mix of apathy and political hypocrisy, England will bury these utopian ideals just at the moment when we, and wider world, need them most. The external challenges intensify as fast as we destroy the tools we need to deal with them. From the historic agreement at the United Nations Paris Climate Conference2 in November 2015 to the severe flooding in Cumbria in December 2015,3 from the growing levels of homelessness in England to the greatest mass migration in Europe since 1945, we are unprepared and ill equipped.
The notion of sustainable development in town planning, the supposed foundation of the system, is now completely devalued, appearing at the table occasionally like Banquo’s ghost to remind planners of what they used to believe in. Planning has been subject to regulatory capture, with those whom it was meant to regulate now dictating its form, policy and implementation.
In this chapter we look at the decline of planning in England and set out the key reform measures introduced since 2015. The process of the decline of planning in England did not start in 2015 or in 2010, and the reasons why it came about are complicated. We recognise that the current government is not solely responsible for extinguishing the utopian values that once underpinned the town planning movement. One cannot honestly say, that for a generation, planning has always upheld beauty in design or social inclusion. Planning has not always secured the most basic infrastructure provision, such as enough school places or capacity on our overcrowded road and rail networks. However, planning did intervene to secure mixed-use developments and, through planning obligations, it helped secure a proportion of social and genuinely affordable homes. It has also continued to make a real contribution to the nation by, for example, protecting some of our most important landscapes, but these tend to be legacy issues resulting from designations, such as National Parks, made 70 years ago. Although there was a brief period of resurgence around spatial planning and sustainable development in the 2000s, it was very short lived. Strategic planning in England, for example, lasted from 2005 until 2010, which now looks like the blink of an eye.
Since 1970, when the last post-war New Town was designated, planning has been unable to deliver high-quality, large-scale new communities based on the garden city principles. Above all, town planning is no longer an active movement for visionary and holistic place-making, which was its core inspiration and primary function.
This chapter sets England’s current poor performance in the wider context of European experience of policy on the built environment, including in relation to the other nations of Britain. There are many examples of utopian thinking and no perfect model; however, an exploration of the diversity of international approaches to placemaking and to the values that underpin these approaches, not only starkly highlights how far England has fallen behind, but also some of the possible ways we can put the nation back on track.
England used to be at the forefront of utopian thought and, until relatively recently, the nation prided itself on being a world leader in a number of key areas. Let’s take the 2008 Climate Change Act as an example. It set the world’s first legally binding climate change target, requiring the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, as compared with 1990. Jim Watson highlights that one of the reasons why it was so successful and ambitious was because of the ‘level of cross-party support it received. It was enacted by the Labour government, under pressure to do more on climate change by opposition parties and NGOs.’1 The Climate Change Act demonstrated the power of cross-party consensus and the NGO community’s being unified around an important goal.
The Act established an independent Committee on Climate Change to advise the government on emissions targets and progress on other aspects of the Act. To set a pathway to 2050, the Committee on Climate Change proposed a series of five-year carbon budgets that were legislated for by Parliament.
In Part One of this book we set out how planning in England has been systematically dismantled and in Part Two we set out how to rebuild the planning system so that it meets the needs of society today and the needs of future generations.
In 2016 we no longer have a national or regional way of working out solutions to our problems such as housing need and regeneration or flooding and food production. More and more development is being approved in piecemeal locations, often through appeals, leading to development that is often poorly served by infrastructure such as roads, hospitals or schools. Relaxation of permitted development rights has led to tens of thousands of new homes being created without the requirement for planning permission (for example, through the conversion of commercial buildings into homes), and this means that little or no thought is given to the most basic issues, such as whether there are enough doctors’ surgeries in the area or where children will be able to play. We are producing fewer and fewer genuinely affordable and social homes, so homelessness and affordability are blighting people’s lives, and the new homes that are being built are often small and inaccessible because national minimum space or accessibility standards are no longer in place. While each one of these measures on its own may not have a considerable impact, the cumulative result risks creating a legacy of poorly serviced, badly designed places that don’t provide for those in greatest housing need.
At the beginning of this book we indicated we were not sure if we were writing a manifesto or an elegy. We are still not sure. Perhaps it’s best described as a message in a bottle. The message is in two parts. The first is a warning to the international community not to repeat the obvious mistakes of planning deregulation in England. The second is an invitation to all of us to start building the utopia that all of our children and our grandchildren deserve and for which we already have the technical know-how.
Thomas More’s Utopia was the catalyst for one of most extraordinary journeys in human history, a journey in search of the ideal community which became one of the great inspirations for the practical action delivered by the town planning and Garden Cities movements. This book has recorded the end of that journey by cataloguing a period of intense reform leading to the decline of the town planning legacy. Of course we should all have stood up for planning and place-making and the values of social justice and sustainable development, but we didn’t. This was partly because of a simple lack of courage, but it was also because the planning system was, by 2010, only a shadow of the ambitious creative force it was intended to be. So, what now?
We have in our hands the means of creating a sustainable future. This book and the countless other solutions that have been implemented across the world show the potential for change and how that change can make a real practical difference, not just to basic planetary survival but to the way we live our lives.
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. (Oscar Wilde, 1891)
This is a book with a simple question at its heart. How are we going to live?
During our grandparents’ lifetimes the question was not only asked, discussed and imagined but also acted on. Many of the institutions which now shape our lives are part of their legacy. Decent social housing replaced slum cities and health and education were made available to all. In the 1940s in the aftermath of a catastrophic war and as a bankrupt nation we managed to build over 30 new communities, which still house over 2.5 million people. We designated national parks and transformed our infrastructure. We offered people a better way of life and as a nation we shared a collective ambition to rebuild Britain.
This book is inspired by that passionate ambition. It is inspired by the pioneers of the planning movement, who did so much to reshape our society for the better. In the face of growing inequality and the threat of climate change, we need to once again ask the question, how are we going to live?
There is no doubt that we have lost the art of thinking about our future and understanding how it can be made better for ordinary people. We have abandoned any ambition for the ideals of utopia which used to be a mainstream part of our political debate.