Planning doesn’t deliver housing...
1 September 2021, Paul Finch
Heriot-Watt University researchers have produced a report which, without being particularly accusatory in tone, nevertheless claims that planners have managed to enhance racial inequality in housing in recent decades.
Had this report been written 30 or 40 years ago, it would probably have concluded that planners had failed to improve equality of opportunity for working-class communities compared with their richer fellow-citizens. These days, the prism of race is all-important, disability occasionally supplanting it.
The report is based on a fallacy, but one which is deep-rooted in British public life: that planners are responsible for housing. They are not, and never have been, but that has not prevented those who claim to understand our housing problems from making an erroneous assertion which does nothing to solve the ‘crisis’, which is in fact a semi-permanent condition, and all the worse for that.
Organizations that create housing are as follows: private housebuilders of varying sizes; housing associations; local authorities; development corporations/new towns; self-builders. Note that local authority planning departments do not appear on this list. That is because they are not responsible for housing, only where it could or should be located.
There is nothing new about this. The 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, the foundation stone of our planning system, was passed at a time when housing was the responsibility in Whitehall of the Ministry of Health. Had it stayed there we might have built more but that is another story.
At that time, planning went arm in arm with ideas about economic planning and a post-1945 version of the wartime command economy, where planning and delivery were inseparable even if sometimes (as is inevitable during a war) chaotic. You might say that the architectural consequences of the 1947 Act were not about the design of buildings, but instead concerned (a) location, in a world where CIAM-style zoning held sway; and (b) public funding for the New Jerusalem building programme of public housing, schools, universities and hospitals, where numbers programmed generally trumped ideas about quality of design.
Housing targets were determined by politicians, both national and local; public housing was organized by local authority housing departments – of course in conjunction with borough architects and planners, but the latter were not the leaders in this development dance.
It is a fact of professional life that taking the blame for something that did not happen can confer status. For example, failure to build a sufficiency of homes in London, to accommodate the additional two million people who have arrived in the capital over the last 25 years, is a responsibility sometimes claimed by breast-beaters making exaggerated claims about their own importance. If the shortage is the fault of architects or planners, then they must be omnipotent in respect of housing delivery. They are in fact nothing of the sort.
If you want proof about who is really responsible, look at the latest announcement from the wretched Robert Jenrick (still hanging on) in respect of increased public funding of housing delivery. The announcement is far from wretched, since it concerns finance for construction, rather than subsidies to middle-class couples buying homes at a discount.
The figures are significant: £8.6 billion intended to create up to 180,000 new homes, with London benefiting from nearly £3.5 billion. Mayor Sadiq Khan has trumpeted a claim that this will enhance his ‘relentless focus on giving boroughs the funding and expertise they need to build’. Take that with a pinch of salt, but support his insistence on good space standards, sensible materials, sprinklers in apartment blocks, and proper access to light. All sensible stuff and good for architects too.
The task of planners in all this will be to ensure that there is a five-year supply of land needed for the borough’s anticipated housing needs (an intensely political question all of its own), and of course to vet planning applications as they are made.
Government believes that a major reason we have a housing shortage is hold-ups in the planning system; local government suggests it is housebuilders hanging on to land for dear life. There isn’t much truth in either of these general assertions, but it is certainly true that in practice, within a planning system that operated at a time when we were building enough homes, the detailed requirement for applicants have become more and more onerous with the passing years. Planning officers have too often turned into development control commissars, possibly because they have so little scope for real town planning.
My central point remains: we cannot and should not expect planners to determine or deliver homes. They can help but they cannot provide. Sadiq Khan understands this, and his latest commitments are a welcome sign of someone coming to terms with an incontrovertible fact: relying on private housebuilders to deliver a sufficiency of truly ‘affordable’ homes is a waste of time. They can’t and they probably shouldn’t.
Incidentally, another example of fanciful thinking is the government’s belief that UK architects are among the best in the world, but also that they are incompetent and in need of greater supervision by the far-from-expert Architects’ Registration Board. It’s called cognitive dissonance – there’s a lot of it about.