What should planning look like in 2040?

Big data, changing social mores and lessons from abroad and from history don’t just permit but require us fundamentally to change the way we plan in the UK.


The public debate about British planning reform nearly always misses the point.

It focuses on symptoms not causes, misunderstands house price economics and regards the problem as one of supply and demand, not of politics.

It is also grossly ignorant of the history of planning and of experiences in other countries. Too often the debate is polarised as one of ‘there is too much planning’ (the free market right) versus ‘planners save us from rapacious developers’ (the left).

In fact, as most countries find it necessary for the state to mediate between mutually-impacting land rights, the real question is how do you do so without choking off sufficient supply or destroying support for new housing.

At a debate this week that Create Streets are running with the TCPA, I will try to set our challenges in a wider context and sketch out a vision for the future and some practical steps to get there. There are four key reasons why, twenty years hence, the way we plan can and should be very different.

Firstly, never forget how odd the British planning system is. Socialist in its scope but very English and common-law in its application it is both more ambitious and less predictable than nearly all comparable systems.

This leads to more uncertainty, higher planning risk and much higher barriers to entry.

Most European and North American rules-based approaches give landowners more certainty about what will be acceptable. (This can come with its own challenges but at the least seems better to align demand with supply). The British system should be less odd and more predictable.

Secondly, society is changing. People no long believe that the man (it usually was a man) in Whitehall or Town Hall knows best.

They expect to influence what happens near where they live and work. And (our research shows) they are more inclined to support development when they are genuinely involved – not just in a tawdry and ersatz PR exercise. The British system should make this easier to achieve.

Thirdly, the IT revolution is making it easier to build great places. It is easier, quicker and cheaper to access the views of a wider number of people via social media and online polling and engagement platforms.

It is also becoming easier, thanks to big data, to research associations between urban form, design and beauty with wellbeing, support and long term value. And the answers are getting clearer.

A walkable, green, structure of human scale, blocks and streets that clearly define the public and private realm with a sense of place and which most people find beautiful is, put simpler, better for our health and a wiser long-term investment.

Still, today, too few new developments achieve this aim.

Over the next 20 years we need to undergo a direct planning revolution so that a network of provably popular forms and housing patterns can be pre-approved and delivered with more speed, efficiency and certainty thus lowering the financing costs and barriers to entry.

This would in turn permit councils to move beyond inefficiently under-staffed development control and perform a, necessarily populist, place-shaping role.

Building more homes and more communities which people will support and where they will thrive is an aim of existential importance to fairness and opportunity in modern Britain.

It would also permit planners to plan not to micro-manage. Surely that is a good thing?