Among the recently announced big government plans in the United Kingdom, the pronouncement that may well leave a more permanent mark on the post-Covid-19 landscape was Boris Johnson’s promise to “build build build”.
The prime minister’s supposed ‘new deal’ to build our way out of a dire economic situation has been widely dismissed as an empty statement that depends mostly on the repackaging of existing funding with few tangible changes. The ideological ambitions to deregulate, reduce control and willingly weaken environmental standards are frightening and deepen the misunderstanding of the real issues of planning and infrastructure in our country.
We have a housing crisis. This crisis is not because we have an over-regulated planning system but because we have a disenfranchised and dismantled one (funding for running this system has been cut by 42% over ten years). The rhetoric of ‘Project Speed’, of “scything through red tape” and poking fun at “newt counting”, takes us back to an unfounded and outmoded attitude that planning is the problem. After decades of experience building in cities around the world, it is evident that the opposite is true: planning is the central part of the solution and we need more of it. We have also seen evidence through Public Practice that if you celebrate planning and give authorities the remit and resources to be creative and ambitious, you will have a genuine route to rebuilding the United Kingdom’s infrastructure. Infrastructure does not simply mean technical engineering projects; it also encompasses the basic human right to good housing, which, when planned with skill and to encourage a sense of community, forms the foundations of a civil society.
Focusing on quantity, the prime minister asks why the UK is so slow at building homes. As the government’s own Letwin review of build-out rates identified in 2018, we are too dependent on too few house-builders, all delivering the same kind of homes. We need to diversify this process by funding small builders, community-led housing, housing associations, and most critically of all, council housing. Over the past ten years the planning system approved more than 2.5 million homes, but only 1.5 million of these have been built. Developers complain of delays in the planning system, but there are more than a million homes with permission that we’re waiting on those same developers to complete.
As far as investment in the built environment and infrastructure is concerned, speed and quantity have to be aligned with quality. Diluting standards will result in lower quality and lower costs for developers but not lower prices, in a housing market where supply continues to trail far behind demand. Deregulation does not guarantee more homes.
We need changes that could help communities to engage with planning earlier; where they can influence the big decisions instead of being presented with faits accomplis. We need reforms that empower planners to be proactive and creative, to demand quality and shape development before the market forms its own expectations and fixes its own price. We need to give the public sector the structures and strength to get back into building good homes at scale.
But none of this will happen if planning continues to be vilified as a tick-box process, if local authorities are not given the resources to plan proactively, and if the government sees its role as simply getting out of the way.
Finn Williams is a co-founder of Public Practice, a non-profit social enterprise building the public sector’s capacity for proactive planning.
David Chipperfield is the founder and design principal of David Chipperfield Architects.