An interim report on the uk's land-use planning was released on July 4, 2006, fuelling a debate on the possibility of relaxing regulations in the planning system to encourage rapid market growth.
Kate Barker, member of the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England and author of the 2004 review of housing supply, was commissioned to undertake it under the pre-budget report by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer. The review was to consider how planning in the uk could better deliver sustainable economic development in a timely and transparent manner.
Environmental concerns The report was to analyse how planning could be conducted in the context of globalisation. The remit was to assess ways of improving the efficiency, flexibility, transparency and the predictability of the system and explore the relationship between planning and productivity.The report was to focus on understanding how the planning system impacts economic growth and employment, by analysing the direct and indirect impacts of policy and processes on the key drivers of productivity: enterprise, competition, innovation, investment and skills.
Barker's report has raised concerns among environmentalists and social rights groups. The report says the planning system needs to be made more responsive to economic fluctuations and the pressures of globalisation. This 'act now, think later' attitude to planning might thwart efforts to keep housing prices low for those in need, and result in unnecessary building in rural areas, fear environmentalists.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (cpre), a non-profit organisation, has criticised the report. "It is as if this report was written by two people facing in opposite directions. One writer appears to recognise the critical role of our planning system in protecting the environment for the benefit of us all. The other appears to be a treasury apparatchik hell bent on weakening the planning system in order to deliver a development boon for footloose international capital," said Nicholas Schoon, spokesperson for cpre. The organisation said it would try and influence the final report so that it did not undermine the planning system by neglecting the environment and the countryside in the long run by favouring urban regeneration and commercialisation.
Brown's Mansion House speech (uk budget declaration) in June 2006 clearly shows his bent towards commercialisation. "We will set a clear ambition to make Britain the location of choice for even more of the world's leading companies," said Brown. Earlier he had expressed his concern regarding the impact of planning curbs on the productivity of the uk's retail sector because he felt the planning system discouraged enterprise since it was unable to respond quickly enough to demand.
Alistair Darling, secretary of state for trade and industry, agrees with Brown. He believes that snail-paced planning procedures threatened the country's capacity to provide energy for market growth. In an interview with The Guardian, while discussing plans to build more nuclear power plants, he said, "You can bet your bottom dollar that there will be a planning objection."
Greener pastures The government's planning policy guidance to local development authorities contains a 'business use class' that processes enterprises and investments with greater flexibility. Barker's report might take the planning system further down this very road for the 79 per cent of businesses in the uk (Barker's estimate) that still await planning permissions.The loosening of screws might also entice enterprises back to Britain since a recent survey done by property advisors gva Grimley found that nearly 20 per cent of businesses in the uk are considering relocating to Eastern Europe, India or China in order to avoid the high cost of British land and the "cumbersome planning regime".
Barker estimates that only 8 per cent of England is urbanised, but cpre claims her calculations of how much of England is urbanised may be off the mark by as much as a third.
Further development will take a toll on the 'greenbelt' areas -- protected rural sites to check the urban sprawl -- as development leads to encroachment on rural lands. Two hundred years ago people moved to towns for better work opportunities. But with the revolutionary impact of broadband on trade and communication people can establish their offices even in Lake District. Choice business locations are no longer necessarily in expensive office complexes in the commercial core of a capital city. And with the growth in Internet sales there is an increased demand for warehouses and distribution centres for which a rural site with good motorway access would be preferable to an urban centre. A good example is the Internet bookstore Amazon's uk 'fulfilment centre', that covers an area larger than that of five football pitches on a motorway junction, fifteen minutes from the nearest town. uk could soon become the capital marketplace of the world without the marketplace necessarily being in Britain's capital.
While the government may rightly predict that an influx of entrepreneurship in depressed rural areas would bring jobs and boost local economies, it will also widen the gap between the nouveau riche and the poor. "Unless we act now, we will create a rural theme park, where only the very wealthy can live, with small pockets of communities living in hardship," says David Orr, chief executive, National Housing Federation.
Putting a country town on the commercial map could also result in a swift rise in house prices, and as Kate Barker acknowledged in her 2004 Review of Housing Supply, affordable housing is now one of Britain's most pressing needs. Many country houses are now being used as holiday homes in areas where homelessness is on the rise. In March 2006, the shadow environment secretary Chris Huhne warned that "rural areas are being killed with kindness and success". He stressed the "need to bite the bullet on housing, particularly in areas where local young people are being priced out by an influx of the urban elite buying second homes".
In July, cpre and the National Housing Federation formed an alliance to urge the government to address the rural housing crisis. cpre has written a housing manifesto in which it strongly opposes recent government proposals designed to make the planning system more flexible and responsive to market conditions. It argues: "Such an approach would devastate large parts of the countryside and condemn areas in need of regeneration to years of decline and neglect -- yet fail to meet the need for affordable housing."
cpre asks for a 'sequential approach' to development, which ensures that 'brownfield' sites -- lands previously built upon but not being used -- are first exploited before 'greenfield' lands are encroached upon, and for national targets to be set to reduce the number of empty homes.
The very day Barker's Interim Report was published, the Liberal Democrat member of parliament, Sandra Gidley, spoke up for the 1.5 million people awaiting council homes, asking Yvette Cooper, the minister for housing and planning, why 600,000 houses across Britain were empty. Cooper evaded the question, saying the construction of houses was likely to increase by 50 per cent over the next three years. Such haste seems unlikely to leave much room for careful consideration of the need to keep prices low, and to pay careful consideration to location.
Until the Blair dispensation gets more serious about equity, housing issues will remain in a tailspin. Don't expect homelessness to go away soon.
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