Urban Studies

Our interdisciplinary Urban Studies list examines how the built environment shapes behaviour and how to address complex problems like urban poverty, gentrification, climate change and educational inequality.

Subjects covered include urban planning, urban geography, urban policy, local governance and community-based participation, to offer a broad understanding of how urban dynamics shape both global interdependence and local spaces.

Urban Studies

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This chapter spotlights the cyclical interest, at a governmental level in England, in design governance, characterised by discrete periods of strong public oversight and relative market freedom. The chapter analyses the failure to deliver a consistent approach to place and housing quality over the last decade – a period in which the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment’s role in design scrutiny was ended while greater ‘market freedoms’ arrived in the form of an extension of permitted development rights. It notes that while permitted development rights are producing the ‘slums of the future’, a conservative ‘beauty’ ethic that will affect future planned development has been re-rooted in the Office for Place, marking the standard cyclical return to design oversight, though one that leans heavily on traditional urbanism. The chapter argues that the return of oversight, albeit in a very different form, might be cautiously welcomed if it can be evolved to correct at least some of the failings of design governance that have become apparent in the last decade.

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The conclusion reviews the findings of the other chapters and returns to a question set up in the introduction, asking whether the issues in planning in England reflect: failings of the planning system, profession and ‘discipline’; failings of the state within which planning has to operate (which then uses planning as a scapegoat for its own failure to deliver); or a combination of both state and planning failure. The conclusion then identifies four cross-cutting themes that recur in the preceding chapters, those of rhetoric, rapidity (of reform), resourcing (or the lack of) and regressive outcomes. Across these four themes, the conclusion summarises how UK government (in)action has caused or exacerbated problems with the operation of the English planning system, and represents an unprecedented failure of that government to design and implement a functioning planning system.

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It is widely reported that since the latter decades of the 20th century, there has been an annual shortfall in the number of new homes constructed relative to housing demand. The planning system has often been accused of being the primary cause of this shortage by governments of different political complexions. It is blamed for restricting housing supply and increasing house prices, and for acting as a drag on the free market delivering housing. Yet, it is not clear that planning is the root cause of these problems, and planning is rarely celebrated for its achievements in enabling the nation’s housing. We frame changes in planning policy that have occurred since 2010 in light of longer-term housing trends in England to ask whether state planning for housing has failed.

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This chapter introduces the book by first reviewing how a narrative of planning ‘failing to deliver’ has been constructed over recent decades on the island of Britain particularly in England. It reviews the manner in which planning has been critiqued and scapegoated since the 1970s by rightist and liberal critics, the ideas that ostensibly underpin their positions, and the resultant episodes of attempted deregulation of planning. The recrudescence of such critiques over the ‘long 2010s’, including surrounding the ‘radical’ reforms of planning proposed in 2020, is also explored. The discussion then moves to consider the book’s central question of whether many of the issues that the planning system and profession have had to contend with in fact reflect central state ‘failings’, such as endless and accelerating cycles of reform, policy churn, and tinkering by governments, which have rarely allowed one set of planning reforms to bed down before new policy reforms and initiatives have been launched. Finally, the contents and structure of the rest of the book are outlined.

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Launched with much fanfare as a new scale and alternative to the regional planning structures established in England under the New Labour governments of the 1990s and 2000s, localism’s most tangible effect on planning has been the rights conferred on local communities and businesses to prepare neighbourhood plans. With the current government agenda for planning veering away from localism and back towards centralism, the chapter reflects on the legacies and lessons of almost a decade of experience of neighbourhood planning and its future prospects. It concludes that poorer areas have been much less likely to produce neighbourhood plans, highlights the regressive consequences of that inequality and suggests that fundamental changes are needed to make it work effectively.

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The extension of permitted development rights to make the conversion of buildings to residential use easier presents a typical example of the faith in deregulation as a pathway towards aligning development with demand. But what have been the impacts of this experimentation? Has it resulted in good-quality housing? And what might be the impacts of any extension of such rights on residential quality? This chapter explores the impact of permitted development, with a particular focus on neighbourhood health, providing new evidence of the problematic assumption that housing should be allowed regardless of local amenities and the built environment context of existing buildings.

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This chapter examines how reforms to the planning system in England since 2010 have affected the capacity of the system to deal effectively with environmental problems. The period 2010 to 2016 witnessed a progressive diminution of the environmental role of planning, legitimised by ideological desires to deregulate development and exacerbated by public sector austerity. Until the Brexit vote of 2016, however, there remained the stabilising framework of European Union environmental policy, which offered a system of bedrock protections. Since then, the planning–environment interface has been buffeted not only by planning reforms but also by the repercussions of Brexit for environmental policy. On the one side have been ministers exploring the new freedoms Brexit has given them to pursue opportunities for regulatory flexibility and streamlining. Set against these pressures, the implications of climate change, the nature crisis and the emergence of a new domestic environmental governance regime all push in the direction of firmer, long-term, goal-driven frameworks for planning. Should the latter prevail, the need to address ‘state failure’ on the environment could help to reverse decades of ‘planning failure’, but this outcome is far from guaranteed.

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Since 2010 and the abolition of the regional scale of planning in England, there have been different initiatives that have sought to address the ‘larger than local’ scale. Initially, under the 2010–15 Coalition government, an economically focused and partnership governance model was privileged through the establishment of local enterprise partnerships with an economic development remit and weak ties to statutory planning (arrangements in other parts of the present UK remained largely the same). In England, however, the 2010s saw a gradual ‘hardening’ of sub-regional governance arrangements in some places, with the emergence of combined authorities that initially focused on city-regional areas. In some instances, these have embarked on strategic planning processes under different powers and models, seen by some commentators as heralding a return to strategic planning reflection and capacity. However, more recent reforms have little further to say on the strategic scale of planning. This chapter explores some of these issues based on the experience of the past decade and the current prospects for planning at the ‘larger than local’ scale.

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Reforming Spatial Governance in England

This topical, edited collection analyses the state of the planning system in England and offers a robust, evidence-based review of over a decade of change since the Conservatives came into power. With a critique of ongoing planning reforms by the UK government, the book argues that the planning system is often blamed for a range of issues caused by ineffective policymaking by government.

Including chapters on housing, localism, design, zoning, and the consequences of Brexit for environmental planning, the contributors unpick a complicated set of recent reforms and counter the claims of the think-tank-led assault on democratic planning.

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The chapter focuses on the planning challenges associated with High Speed Two, the future high-speed rail in England, which was expected to facilitate ‘Rebalancing Britain’ but has been through a decade of debates and ongoing controversies. Planning policy reforms and changes occurring over the decade from 2010 to the latest development in 2022 are examined. Three major difficulties are highlighted: wavering national commitments; neglected spatial equity in places with weak economic performance; and fragmented and counterproductive institutional capacity for spatial governance and capacity building. These difficulties have resulted in changing plans during the implementation process, especially under enormous pressures to balance a number of conflicting circumstances, such as addressing regional inequality through new investment in rail capacity as a major sustainable transport mode against the broader trend of climate change while the costs escalate in an era of austerity measures. This chapter argues that to achieve the ambitious High Speed Two policy goals, inadequately addressed intra-regional inequality should be rectified through new and continual reforms in institutional capacity (power and funding), appraisal criteria beyond cost–benefit analyses, and a long-term commitment that could overcome obstacles regardless of this approach of muddling through, that is, an incremental and pragmatic approach to strategic planning and its effects.

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