Groups of residents in the UK can now formally register as a ‘neighbourhood’ − but will this be a catalyst for positive change, or is nimbyism forever to be the stumbling block?
Recent local elections in England (excluding London) gave the coalition government a nasty shock: the biggest electoral winner was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), with losses for the Conservatives and even bigger losses for the Liberal Democrats. Their respective leaders, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg, must be baffled as to why significant proportions of the electorate have turned against them − when they won a general election partly on a promise to give ordinary people and local communities more of a say over decisions affecting their everyday lives. That policy seems to have backfired.
The idea of ‘localism’ promoted by both coalition parties was strongly related to giving planning powers back to the people, rather than leaving them in the hands of town hall bureaucrats and anonymous Whitehall civil servants. As an aspiration this sounded impeccably democratic, but has proved predictably difficult to put into any sort of coherent practice.
One reason for this is the government growth agenda, in the wake of the financial shambles left after years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pretending they were prudently managing the UK economy. Virtually all coalition planning policies have had to be geared to growth even though the words ‘growth’ and ‘planning’ do not automatically chime. Indeed many communities imagined that they would be able to use their new planning responsibilities to prevent development on their patch.
This attitude is commonly described as ‘nimbyism’ (Not In My Back Yard), and seems to be a universal condition. It is as likely to affect government ministers who lobby to prevent unpopular development in their local constituencies as village communities worried about being overrun by huge new housing estates. Both urban and rural communities are concerned about the impact of huge infrastructure proposals, such as the High Speed 2 super-fast rail route between London and Birmingham, currently the subject of great controversy. It appears that ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’ is a maxim that can still annoy. Fear of the political consequences of these huge projects has led to the postponement (by the Prime Minister) of any speedy decision before the next general election in 2015 on what to do about increasing airport capacity in and around London.
So is it impossible to combine localism with policies for economic growth? Or simply difficult? The latter is a more convincing proposition, partly because there are plenty of people who are happy to see more housing, more offices, revived retail high streets and new business parks. They may not make as much noise as protesters, but it doesn’t mean they do not exist. Moreover, growth can be directed even if it cannot be stopped, and where precisely it takes place can be a matter where significant local influence can be brought to bear.
It can happen like this: a group of local people register as a ‘neighbourhood’, and they draw up proposals for policies in respect of future development which are subject to a local referendum. This can be binding on the local planning authority, and incorporated into the ‘Local Plan’ which is supposed to provide the legal context for all development in a given municipal area.
So in theory thousands of little planning soviets can determine the future of neighbourhoods where enough interested citizens can be bothered to organise themselves. There are, however, two powerful reasons why we are not going to observe planning anarchy in the UK. First, any neighbourhood plan must be in conformity with the existing Local Plan where there is one, though many are in the process of being drawn up or revised. More significantly, it must also conform to the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced last year and gradually coming into effect.
The NPPF, which replaced 1,200 pages of planning rules and guidance with a succinct 56 pages, also governs what can and cannot be included in the Local Plan, and so what can be adopted in a neighbourhood plan. The man in Whitehall does therefore still know best, and that is of some comfort to architects worried that localism would lead to vast areas of the country demanding designs that would appeal to Prince Charles, banning anything without pediments, as it were.
In fact the NPPF is remarkably supportive of architectural innovation and variety, and specifically rules out the imposition or exclusion of architecture based on mere stylistic considerations.
A neighbourhood could not, for example, insist that petrol stations have thatched roofs. But nor would it be possible to ban pitched roofs on ideological grounds. It is legislation underpinned by a pluralist attitude to aesthetics; it also tells planning authorities to give innovative design the benefit of the doubt.
Needless to say, what legislation decrees and what actually happens are two different things, but there is no doubt that the responsibilities envisaged for neighbourhoods in respect of ‘what they want’ has been balanced by the rights of clients and architects to pursue their own visions of the future. This looks like an attempt to rebalance the planning system, trying to give more certainty to what can be built where, without the imposition of rigid design rules as a proxy for complex development control procedures.
Is any of this working? As with any new planning regime it will take several years to take root, with vast numbers of planning permissions given under the old regime still to be built. There are also still significant factors which make planning permission difficult to obtain in the UK. One is the way that environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are used by local objectors as a way of fighting development, not least through legal challenges to planning permissions on the grounds that some obscure aspect of the EIA has not been properly tested. These cut-and-paste documents, which benefit environmental consultants and almost nobody else, have become a real problem.
Another major hurdle to peaceful and speedy achievement of permissions is the obsession with heritage, and the deep-seated feeling that anything new will be worse than anything old. Combine this with greater powers for ‘neighbourhoods’, which generally start with self-appointed if not self-interested people with an axe to grind about development, and you have a formula for potential stasis.
And even a government committed to growth still sees developments as providing golden eggs to be taxed before, during and after laying, which can inhibit house-building; when it comes to big infrastructure, however, political considerations are all-important, which inevitably means near-endless consultation. More consultation and greater speed are the two great irreconcilables in UK planning policy.
President Mitterrand, famously, was once asked why Paris had built an entire new airport in the time it took London to decide whether Heathrow should have a new terminal. ‘Because in France,’ he replied, ‘we do not consult the frogs.’
Such dirigiste instincts are not popular in the UK, even when they are clearly required; we cling to a notion that we all live in villages, hence the localist agenda of the current government. But we are realistic enough to realise that our urban futures need a wider perspective. The latest planning regime is an attempt at necessary compromise.