Opinion: the ongoing disaster of British land-use planning

Britain’s planning system is generally defended on environmental grounds. Yet far from keepingBritain“green and pleasant”, the Town and Country Planning Acts have led to the creation of dormitory towns, required the building of extensive infrastructure, and have increased urban density at the expense of urban green space.

In a new report released by the Adam Smith Institute, I argue that we need to do away with the old, top-down planning system. In this first article, I will lay out the indictment of the system. Tomorrow, I will make some proposals for how we can liberate the land and empower individuals and communities, allow the real values and priorities of people to be expressed, and ensures that those who lose out as a result of development are compensated, thus incentivising people to allow and welcome suitable development in their neighbourhood.

The policy of “urban containment” that underlies the regime has also put enormous pressure on urban green space. While we may like to think that preventing “urban sprawl” provides city-dwellers with access to the countryside, but the evidence does not support this. The number of visits to the countryside has been declining steadily for years. City-dwellers want urban green space, but this has come under intense pressure as governments – eager to prevent towns from expanding – have deliberately sought to increase urban density.

In fact, the quality of Green Belt land is extremely mixed: there are beautiful sites, but there are also railway and motorway embankments, old gravel pits, quarries and previously developed land. There are also vast swathes of farmland that city-dwellers may think of as a natural idyll, but which are in fact a man-made monoculture, sterilised by insecticides and herbicides, with far lower biodiversity than the average back garden, which are inaccessible to the general public.

The Green Belts have not in aggregate protected our countryside; they have merely displaced development. There is no environmental benefit in saving woodland near Croydon at the expense of rolling hills nearGuildford. Preventing urban expansion has resulted in the creation of dormitory towns, the net result of which is negative, as more roads and railways are built to connect them to places of work, and more Greenhouse Gasses are emitted by commuters.

Yet I have sat on a planning committee and seen councillors reject an application submitted by a lady who wanted to slightly expand her stable so that her horse had more room, because her stable was in Green Belt land and there were no “very special circumstances.” If stabling a horse isn’t rural enough for the Green Belt, just what is?

In addition to the environmental cost, the system has created a housing crisis: the supply of new housing has lagged behind demand for decades, as a result of which housing is absurdly expensive, first-time buyers are priced out of the market, individuals struggle to buy homes in the villages and towns where they grew up, and modern housing frequently resembles “rabbit hutches built on postage stamps”.

And the planning system is seen as a barrier by 98 per cent of businesses. It is stifling our economy.

Change to this system is desperately needed. The Government has made a good start, reducing 1,000 pages of planning regulations to a manageable, understandable 50 pages. But it remains a centralised system that is doing enormous damage. It is high time we liberated the land.

Tom Papworth is Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the London Borough of Bromley, and sits on two plans committees. The  views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, other Liberal Democrats, the party generally or the Bromley Council Group.

* Tom Papworth is a member of Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats

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  • I hope these views are not shared by Lib Dems. They are a recipe for urban sprawl and the notion of expecting that local people will protect open countryside is naive in the extreme. Without zoning it just ends up as a dreadful eyesore everywhere. Everyone is on the make and will exploit every loophole there is to extract whatever quick buck is to be made.

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 14th Mar '12 - 5:14pm

    What utter utilitarian nonsense!! Yet another policy that the party has got seriously wrong..

    Furthermore, the ‘message’ of this post has also been completely subsumed by the events/ debate of the last 9 months. Did you write this last July? Has it been stuffed under a copy of Milton Friedman in a dusty old drawer of yours?


    1. The default response to a planning application is “No”

    Government statistics show that for at least a decade more than 8 in 10 planning applications are granted. The figure for major commercial applications, critical for economic growth, is higher at around 90%.
    2. Planning is slow

    Councils as a whole meet or exceed the 8 or 13 week application targets set for them by the government. Only 0.7% of planning applications take longer than 12 months to reach a decision.
    3. Planning is costly

    Costs continue to fall. Application fees are very small in comparison to the potential profits of development.
    4. Planning is a drag on economic growth

    Planning significantly contributes to growth. The certainty provided by the planning system is essential in supporting business investment decisions.
    5. Planning forces house prices up

    The current slump in house building is the result of a lack of finance, both for homebuyers and house builders, prevalent since the “credit crunch”. The slow-down in planning permissions is the result of a lack of planning applications. There is not a lack of houses, premises to convert or sites to build on. In England, there are around 750,000 empty homes, nearly half of which have been empty for over 6 months, and developers have permission for around 300,000 homes they are not currently building.

    Have a look at the following: go on…..educate yourself!




  • Town and Country Planning Acts have led to the creation of dormitory towns, required the building of extensive infrastructure, and have increased urban density at the expense of urban green space.

    What utter rubbish in the very first paragraph – I lived in Harlow for many years – which while having a very high urban density also has many green areas which brilliantly counterbalances that high density – all down to careful planning, – not a free for all. Another ill thought through policy on the hoof initiative for the party to flounder about with methinks.

  • Foregone Conclusion 14th Mar '12 - 6:04pm

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree with Mr. Papworth’s methods – I would like to see the Green Belt reformed, not scrapped – but we have to look very, very carefully at whether the planning system serves our needs.

    I currently live in a medium-sized town in the south of England surrounded by countryside and a Green Belt, with a serious housing problem. People want to live here, and the jobs are certainly there, but there is a severe shortage of houses caused by the serious shortage of residential land. I can’t see it being possible for me to own my own house in the immediate future. Others are less fortunate than me – they can’t see the possibility of renting anywhere decent. Others can’t get anything at all. In summary, our current planning laws are causing real human misery.

    Of course, it is possible to temporarily relieve the housing shortage in my area, but it comes down to the simple arithmetic of supply versus demand. There is no doubt it my mind that we should save areas of outstanding natural beauty and not build on flood plains, but I think it is possible to balance this with the new housing that the country badly needs. It is true that there are areas with plentiful spare housing stock but no demand, and that rebalancing the national economy would reduce housing pressures in some areas by encourage people to move to areas of less demand. However, this is a long-term goal – it will probably not happen for decades, if it ever happens at all. That’s why I think that our planning laws need reform.

  • Rob’s stats are not relevant – they include the time councils take over tiny planning applications (e.g. for a loft conversion) which are not relevant for new dwellings. The CPRE (Cramming people in the remainder of England) should not be seen as neutral here.

    The facts are with Laura – we have too few houses, and that is why they are so expensive. Roll on Community Land Auctions!

  • Richard Dean 14th Mar '12 - 8:17pm

    The famous essay by G.Hardin entitled “The tragedy of the commons” seems relevant here. I’m given to understand that it represents much of the reasoning behind our approach to planning and the environment. The following websites contain the paper, Nicholas Corker’s description of the paper, and (in April or so) my severe criticism of it:

    The paper: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full
    Corker’s description: http://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/content/article/10.1680/ensu.2011.164.2.105
    Criticism (available April or so): http://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/content/serial/ensu

  • LondonLiberal 15th Mar '12 - 1:19pm

    I work in planing in local government and must disagree with Cllr Papworth.

    The TCPA was a direct result of the free-for-all planning system of the 1930s, which resulted in the swallowing up of 60,000 hectares of agricultural land each year for low density suburban housing. It resulted in a lot of cheap homes for working people (a good thing), but at a huge cost in terms of the environment, both in terms of the land used for development and in terms of CO2 emissions from lots of car-dependent communities (while car ownership was generally low then, homes were built for and around car use).

    The TCPA has not held back development – some 80% of planning applications are approved. The drop in housing was caused by the govt essentially stepping out of providing homes – 380,000 homes were built in a year at the peak of construction in the 1960s, but two thirds of that was byt he state. In fact the private sector has only ever built around 100-200,000 homes pa, and it was state council house building that kept house price inflation relatively low until the 1980s. It wasn’t the planing system at all, and Tom Papworth should really know that.

    Tom also compains that the green belt isn’t reallty green. well, it was never meant to preserve rural idylls. it was meant to stop unconstrained urban expansion, and in that has been incredibly successful. However, i would agree with him that keeping very low quality land open when you coudl build sensitively on parts of it and upgrade other parts to beautiful, usable land, should be looked at. but only on a very exceptional, site by site basis.

    As for supporting the horrific NPPF – words fail me. If tom was leader as opposed to opopsition leader, i doubt he’d be relish the vast legal costs about to be borne by Bromley as developers take advantage of an absent local plan there and get their applications decided by planning appeal courts rather than weakened planning comittees, whose power will be undermined hugely by a national policy that directs them to say yes to almost everything.

  • LondonLiberal 15th Mar '12 - 1:53pm

    @ Foregone conclusion

    You blame the planning system for a lack of homes. But the planning system can build lots of homes if your politicians want to do so. They can allocate as much area as local people want for housing . However, therein lies the rub – it is not in any poltican’s interets to sacrifice the votes of existing resident nimbys to create housing for people that may or may not vote for them once they move in. I wish we had braver politicians who would take that risk, but we don’t. So the direct cause of the very real problem you describe is democracy, not planning, i’m sorry to say.

  • LondonLiberal 15th Mar '12 - 5:48pm

    @ Tom papworth ” Instead, we get small, cramped houses squeezed onto tiny plots of land, selling for high prices because of the constraint put on supply. It’s a disgrace.”

    well, yes and no. the constraint on supply is as much to do with an oligopolistic construction industry as anything else. they are frankly not interested in building the numebr sof homes we need. Read their business plans – they universally say that their interest is in margin not volume – building a few high value homes rather than the numbers we need. And planning isn’t the problem – the netherlands has a very well-developed planing policy that allocates their scarce land just as we do, but yet builds bigger and better homes than us. You can in any event build high density and still build desirable homes – Notting Hill has something like 200 dwellings per hectare. Why don’t developers build that quality and density today? margin., profit. and lack of competition. Not planning.

    you are right that many counil homes were poor designs built to shoddy standards. that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have been built. The state must step in wher eth eprivate sector is unprepared to, and build lots of genuinely affordable homes. but they must be better designed than before. I think the lesson has been learnt, to be fair. But again, planning was not the problem.

    i’d be interested to know what academic literature blames high prices on the planning system. Given that prices in London tripled in fifteen years to 2008, with only a mildly rising population and no major change in the planning system (the 2004 Act didn’t have much of an impact between 2004-8 and regional strategies, if anything, sought higher levels of housebuilding), i don’t think you’re correct.

    NPPF- yes, readability and accessibility is great. so why not re-write every bill that goes through parlaiment to read liek amanifesto or newspaper articlke? becuase lawyers pour over every word, and even the placing of commas. you shoudl knwo how important clarity and detail are in planning, and, while some reform was necessary, the NPPF removes both tot ehgreat detriment of both your constiuents and to communities up and down the land. and by the way put power in the appeal courts’ hands, not yours, your ward colleagues, or your voters’.

    as for your suggestion that the TCPA was constricting supply because the private sector built 100-200,000 homes pa, i don’t see why that should be the case. as i say above, meetign demand is not high on housebuilders’ priorities, increasing margin is.

  • Jamie Flattery 15th Mar '12 - 5:55pm

    You, along with many others, claim the countryside is ‘sterile’ in places due to over use of pesticides & herbicides. Can you point to whichever source of peer reviewed research that underpins this argument? No because it is untrue, there are problems and we need much more research and work to protect our soils, (which are also a huge CO2 sink) and which the UK has a incredible reputation for protecting. I agree completely that ‘brownfield’ first if taken forward in its last definition (which led to garden grabbing and dreadful densification) is wrong – but the true brownfield, ex industrial contaminated sites are being forgotten about. Techniques to both develop and green these areas are available now – and this would be sustainable development.

    I just wish that the many commentators who saturate the internet would at least base their comments on scientific or academic facts or better still commission some research rather than just making things up to prove a point, that was just as good without the lie.

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 15th Mar '12 - 8:16pm

    @London Liberal

    With folks such as you still in the party then there is hope for it in the medium term.

    I’m afraid that the short term impact on the party of the next few May local elections and the next general election is going to be down to neoliberals such as Tom. For Tom and co read Tony and co in the Labour party circa 1980-1985.

    It all sounds so logical: but on closer inspection (and smelling) you know what they are offering you !

  • Yawn!

    Yet another politician who hasn’t understood the fundamental problem: the development pressures being seen in this country have largely been caused by excessive, prolonged and unsustainable levels of population growth combined with massive changes in the number of people per household.

  • Richard Dean 15th Mar '12 - 10:21pm


    Yet another commentator who hasn’t understood the fundamental problem: whatever got us into this mess, the issue now is how to sort it out.

  • LondonLiberal 16th Mar '12 - 9:59am

    @ Tom
    “@London Liberal: “The state must step in wher eth eprivate sector is unprepared to, and build lots of genuinely affordable homes” but the private sector is prepared to build lots of homes. They just can’t.”

    Ah yes, we all remember how the private sector provided wonderfully high quality flexible accommodation in the nIcol slum. And only a penny a night to lean on a piece of rope! Ahh, the golden days of no planning restrictions, or pesky environmental health officers getting in the way of good old fashioned free enterprise!

    Apologies for the sarcasm Tom, as I know you’re not advocting a return to the slums, but it was precise the failure of the private sector to adequately house the poorest that led to Peabody and others setting up trusts to fill the gap left by the private sector, a mantle taken up by the state from the end of the 19th century until Thatcher effectively ended it in the 1980s. In that time generations of people became well housed, which led directly to the reduction in health probelms for (what was) ther working class, the disappearance of ricketts and which aided the narrowing of income inequality in society. The presence of social housing in the mix since 1945 has nothing to do with an alleged acceptance of a failure of the planning system and everything to do with an actual acceptance of the fact that the private sector simply didn’t meet the human needs of the poorest in society. And i see no evidence that it would do so today.

    thanks for th eacademic literature links, i will have a look. I recognise some of the names and i have an idea of where they’re coming from, but it’s interetsing that you pray in aid of your assertiont hat planning is the problem kate Barker, whose report recommended regional planning mechanisms, more allocations for housing in local plans and planning gain supplement to capture added value – all interesting suggestions, but which do not suggest that it is planning per se that is the problem,

  • Jamie Flattery 16th Mar '12 - 2:09pm

    None of that research underpins what you say, but merely highlight a growing problem re biodiversity loss. And one factor you ignore completely in your report are soils, in this link you will find evidence which supports the fact that there is a serious gap between housing needs and soil sealing: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/soil/pdf/sealing/Soil%20sealing%20-%20Final%20Report.pdf
    There has to be discussion with regards soil as what is happening underground is far from sterile. And it is a discussion which will provide a middle line. If you have any other papers to hand which actually do provide evidence of sterility in the English countryside I would love to read them and we all need to see them! But evidence that some species are migrating towards gardens is not even close to the dangerous statement you make.

  • Jamie Flattery 16th Mar '12 - 2:31pm

    As for peer reviewed paper to counter your claim, as a first instance the UK NEA is worth dipping into: http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx
    You suggest using a valuation of biodiversity to counter any governmental costs in your paper – if the countryside is sterile – how can you can underpin funding measures using such an approach? If you want more let me know, although virtually every UK academic journal concerned with landscape, natural heritage, forestry, agriculture and soils is packed cover to cover with evidence against your ludicrous claim.

  • @Richard Dean

    An understanding of the fundamental factors that got us into ‘this mess’ will greatly help us to find a way out. The major factor is population growth, both that has occurred since WWII and is projected to occur in the next few decades assuming a continuation of the laissez-faire government policies relating to population growth. Tom in his article shows that he doesn’t understand the fundamentals:

    1. “the [planning] system has created a housing crisis” – sorry this is not supported by direct observation. In my area we have greenfield land adjacent to existing urban areas and infrastructure with planning permission for businesses and thousands of homes, yet there has been no construction activity since 2008. Additionally, the Structure Plans identify further areas to support future development as required by the government. From the comments here and elsewhere others can point to similar experiences in their area’s.

    2. The sacrifice of urban green space over the last 20 years I suggest has had more to do with government policy on ‘browfield development’ and encouraging councils to build on school playing fields and allotments than anything directly to do with the Town and Country Planning Acts.

    3. “modern housing frequently resembles “rabbit hutches built on postage stamps”.” This has practically nothing to do with the Town and Country Planning Acts, this is down to: Building regulations which for private development do not specify minimum room, house or plot sizes etc. Government increasing the permitted density of housing which encouraging builders to further reduce the size of plots. Attempts by builders to mitigate increasing construction costs.

    4. “The Green Belts have not in aggregate protected our countryside.” that is because it’s primary purpose is to prevent urban spawl. Additionally, it is ‘open’ land not ‘countryside’. But other than this yes the current planning system hasn’t and doesn’t protect the countryside. We’ve seen this with the extension of the M3 – turns Twyford Down into a void and we see this in the criteria used to select the preferred route for HS2. Interestingly, both of these and the development of new towns are a direct result of government sponsored infrastructure development that is able to step around the Town and Country Planning Acts.

    5. “And the planning system is seen as a barrier by 98 per cent of businesses. It is stifling our economy.” This incorrectly quotes the 2011 CBI report which actiually states: “Almost all businesses (98%) see the planning system as a barrier to the delivery of new infrastructure currently.” It is the lack of infrastructure investment that industry see’s as “stifling our economy”.

    Fundamentally, we need to ask what population and sort of country do we want to have in 2050 and plan accordingly.

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