Large scale planning has all but ceased in this time of COVID 19. The public inquiry rooms stand empty. The boxes of yellow tabbed files are as close to redundant as many of their owners. There is an understandable clamour for the system to reopen; to find a way to “carry on as before”. And, of course, when appropriate, this must happen.
But in truth, the planning system in the UK will need to play a role which is fundamentally more important than simply “carrying-on as before”. The economy has been dealt a body blow of a type not seen in a century. Recession is now inevitable. Depression is possible. There are few direct levers of growth available to the Government to pull to reverse the economic decline. The planning and infrastructure system provides one such lever. It should be used.
Just as in post-war Britain and in 1930s America, the Government, assisted by the development industry has to play its role in ensuring rapid recovery and reconstruction. In short, once this health crisis is over, what will be needed is, in effect, a strong Ministry for Growth and Recovery, led by a bold and confident DCHLG and the devolved administrations. What will be needed is a Rooseveltian “New Deal” of mixed public works and private development of unprecedented proportion.
Rarely has there ever been a more appropriate time for such a Keynesian intervention in the economy. After years of austerity and cuts in public expenditure, there is now an even more pressing need for government investment in sustainable infrastructure; infrastructure that will connect the poorer parts of the UK to the wealthier parts, that will green our energy generation profile, provide sufficient housing for our population and will also repair and repay our NHS.
Across the UK, there are shelved transport projects, (such as the M4 link road) which are critical to the future prosperity of the poorer regions which could now be brought forward again quickly by government. The clean-energy economy presently lies in tatters with tidal barrages cancelled and almost all new nuclear power stations stalled. It must be repaired: these projects must proceed, clean energy is central to our future. Our public provision of housing is caught in a political stalemate which is leaving more of the most vulnerable without appropriate homes. The provision of proper public “council” housing is now an economic necessity. The need for further and better provision of hospitals does not require further elaboration. These are all things which a right-minded Government can do… and can do quickly.
There is also an urgent need for the government to foster and to promote non-governmental development.
How might this be done quickly and appropriately? Here are 4 suggestions.
First, the weight which is to be given to the economic impact of development by decision makers will inevitably increase. Such economic impact is now more important than it was previously. That is a fact. Planning does not operate in a vacuum of time or place. Economic activity and its consequences are now more important to the issue of what constitutes the public benefit than they were previously. Whenever there is now a need in planning policy to balance economic activity against other issues, the weight to be given to economic activity must be increased. Government must say that this is so in policy guidance: local planning authorities and Inspectors should not be left to work it out for themselves.
Second, the corollary of this shift in balance is the need to identify and to protect that which is truly important in a planning system seeking rapid growth. An unadulterated race for growth for its own sake or even for the sake of recovery would not be an appropriate or sustainable response to the present crisis. But, protection of land from economic development needs to be properly justified especially at this time of urgent need. It is not therefore appropriate simply to hold fast to previous shibboleths or to protect things unthinkingly.
There are those such as prominent ecocritic Professor Sir Jonathan Bate who now argue formidably that it is the ability of specific elements of countryside to stir the emotion, to excite and delight that will be its salvation. In effect, that the human and poetic response to countryside will be its guardian when science religion and planning have all failed.
I doubt that such a high minded and subjective notions will play well at the hard nosed coal-faces of the public inquiry or in the development committees of national house builders. Which sites would be worthy of such Wordsworthian praise and who would choose them ? But before we scoff too loudly about the use of poetry and subjective judgment as a policy tool we would do well to remember that the Labour Government’s National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which created and protected our most valued countryside and open spaces (and the statutory tests that we apply daily to their protection) can be traced word for word directly and deliberately to the works of William Wordsworth and the Romantic movement. So poetry has already once helped to frame the protection of the countryside by the planning system.
And now a re-evaluation of what truly must be protected; what is truly important; what “stirs the soul” or serves a true spatial purpose in the public interest is needed again at this critical time in the life of our planning system. Not all “green” space is the same or is of the same value: especially now. A qualitative re-assessment of “worth” (Wordsworthian or not) is now needed.
Third, and in this precise context, Green Belt policy must urgently be relaxed on some areas of Green Belt land. I am in little doubt but the concept of the Metropolitan Green Belt has had its time. It is an anachronism. It is much misunderstood even by senior ministers. Most Green Belt is not in the countryside or close to it. Most Green Belt land is not beautiful: often it is ugly and not even…well green. Neither does it truly often serve a valued spatial modern function. It certainly mostly fails the poetry test: it rarely stirs the emotions nor fills the mind with Wordsworthian elevated thoughts. Its continued policy protection in the context of the present crisis should not be seen as inevitable or indeed appropriate.
Metropolitan Green Belt is by definition located close to urban areas, is often remarkably well served by public transport and is almost always located in housing market areas of great or overwhelming need. It is, by and large, easy and quick to develop and is a huge potential underused reservoir for well-designed mixed use housing-led economic activity of the type needed to help lift the country out of its inevitable COVID recession (as well as to meet the more pressing housing need that now exists).
The operation of central government Green Belt Policy on small identified areas of the least functionally important Metropolitan Green Belt should therefore be suspended forthwith and an urgent review of the balance put in place at the same time. The potential benefit for the economy and for the meeting of housing and other needs is enormous. Thus, development on just 3.7% of the capital’s Green Belt has been calculated to be sufficient to provide upwards of a million much needed homes. Other areas of Green Belt adjacent to our other major cities, scrappy, unkempt, degraded and underused would be no less fruitful.
Fourth, the inner urban areas need to be significantly densified: an ugly word that is definitely not worthy of Wordsworth. But, denser brown field development of our City Centres where public transport is at its best, is the most sustainable use of land possible. And here, quality of architecture, landscaping and environment is critical.
The continued requirement to use nationwide generic development management standards and tools such as national daylight provisions or facade to facade distances (even as starting points only) should be removed for inner urban sites and replaced by an understanding that an holistic assessment of the quality of place is far more important. Very high quality dense development is part of many cities’ histories. (many of London’s most desirable squares “fail” abjectly the “vertical sky component” daylight test.) Such development, if well designed certainly must now form part of their future. Excellent architecture and high quality landscaping and placemaking are not inconsistent with dense development. The Government should have the confidence to leave decisions on quality and placemaking to individual circumstances and to the good judgment of Councils and Inspectors rather than to acontextual national benchmarks.
Overall, when the health crisis is over there will not be time for tinkering or for “business as before”. As I have said elsewhere, the potential exists for this economic crisis to be lifted quickly, once the health emergency is over. There was, despite the absence of infrastructure investment, no major pre-pandemic structural issue with the economy. Gaining capital and credit for investment will not be a post-pandemic issue. But, government action to stir what will have been a slumbering giant will be critical to confidence and to early growth. The Government should establish a strong Department for Growth and Recovery now with the DCLG taking the lead on a C21st century New Deal. It should be bold, ambitious and should not fear to challenge outdated and inappropriate spatial designations. Our protection of what we now see as truly special about our countryside should be strengthened: the economic and housing needs of the post pandemic population must be met too.
Before we get there however, we need to support our NHS, as I have said before on these pages it is the best and most humanising institution in our civic society by far. Designed in Tredegar by a Welshman you know!!