Battles for diversity, heritage and the future of the city: Part II

Four proposals to empower and re-tool our planning system could ensure it is able to act in all of our interests

Rowland Atkinson & Malcolm TaitIn the first part of this blog, we noted how the system of planning in the UK has been denuded to the extent that it has become severely limited in its ability to contest urban change stimulated by international capital flows, which in the UK are particularly apparent in London. In this second part, we propose four initiatives that would make the planning system work more in favour of the public good of cities, anchored in the notion of public amenity rather than economic competitiveness and the luring of international investment capital. In doing so, planning needs to see itself as less a neutral system for balancing competing interests, and more a tool by which social equity and justice can be achieved in the urban environment.

  1. One consequence of the type of market focused, hyper development that we have experienced recently is the destruction of cherished built environments – neighbourhoods that contain valued historic buildings and public spaces. Places such as Highgate have seen protracted battles between its residents, planning authorities, and super-rich home-owners who see no obligation to retain historic features of buildings. Whilst the planning system has a toolkit of rules and laws by which the historic environment might be protected, it is only effective if the system by which it is implemented is well-resourced. Over the past six years due to spending cuts many local authorities have cut the numbers of dedicated conservation officers and as such have lost considerable expertise to protect historic environments. This creates a situation where contested planning applications become one-sided battles with highly paid consultants working for super-rich clients. If council tax and other property taxes were levied at rates appropriate for the value of properties, more resources for local authorities could be found to protect and manage the cherished environments that often create high property values in the first place.
  2. A related consequence of the super-rich have been the construction of ‘fortress homes’, with their over-developed security systems. Such defensive architecture has a significant impact on public space, as Mike Davis noted so eloquently in City of Quartz on Los Angeles in the 1980s. Gated communities, often found in riverside developments, hinder ordinary citizens’ access to public spaces, make places less amenable to people walking and socialising, and generally create a diminished urban realm. Do we want US-style neighbourhoods, where walking and social interaction are discouraged, except in malls and retail parks? The planning system provides a key way of pushing back against this, but recent deregulation – such as allowing buildings to be converted to apartments without planning permission – denies our ability to require that new developments meet these public standards. We need to recover our ability for planning to be the mechanism by which we democratically decide the quality and nature of our public spaces and places. Regulation is not a bad thing, if it brings broad public benefits through a fair and open process.
  3. One of the highest profile consequences of a housing model based on international investment is the demolition of social housing and its replacement, under the name of ‘regeneration’, with private housing and minimal levels of truly affordable housing. The planning system has been quietly subverted to enable such development, reducing its ability to meet social goals in favour of a one-eyed focus on a narrow vision of economic growth, based on private investment and sustaining housing markets. A related, but very different, consequence of such international investment are ‘ghost neighbourhoods’ of empty homes and developments, meaning little social life, and the knock-on effects this has on the viability of schools and health services. If the planning system was repurposed as ‘social town planning’, as argued for by the Town and Country Planning Association in their Planning4People manifesto, it would be capable of asking hard, but necessary questions, such as ‘who has a right to live here?’, and ‘what types of services should we have in this neighbourhood?’ In doing so, we might provide a mechanism for the wider public to be engaged in taking significant decisions about their neighbourhoods and cities.
  4. Overarching all of these issues is a planning system that has lost its ability to work in the public interest, and has been repurposed as a minimal and resented system for managing market conflicts. Without mechanisms for securing public value from development – whether this is genuinely affordable housing, the provision of public spaces that are truly open and public, or the services we (and especially those with fewest resources) need to sustain cities as places of diversity and conviviality – our cities will get more unequal and become more socially atomised. The past six years of austerity have seen the planning system increasingly unable to secure development that will be of long-term benefit to all. This has been most significant in the reduced abilities of local authorities to require properly affordable housing, as has been illustrated by the new London mayor’s difficulties in moving towards his goal of securing 50% ‘genuinely affordable housing’ in new developments. Our planning system needs the capability to ensure that new development does not denude our public realm – the tools by which it does so, whether through negotiated planning gain, a land value tax, or taxes on the rise in land values associated with planning permission, are perhaps less significant than a reconfiguration of planning as a socially-oriented activity, not an irritant to market actors.

Whilst planning cannot, on its own, create new places and spaces, nor directly challenge some of the wider neoliberal forces and beliefs re-shaping our cities, it nonetheless might play a significant role in ensuring that we have places that are for everyone, not just the rich. It might do so from the position that it is one of the few mechanisms by which we could democratically make these decisions. After all, planning provides a way of thinking about the future and the long-term.  Whilst market actors and investors are increasingly concerned about short-term gains, the places they are creating will be with us for an incredibly long time and with significant social consequences.  Without a viable planning system, we will be paying for our mistakes long into the future, with inadequate infrastructure, poor-quality housing, and socially polarised neighbourhoods.

London faces an uncertain future. The vote for Brexit, currency fluctuations, uncertainty over the future scale of financial activity in the City and intense pressure on infrastructure and resources like health, housing and social care all present major issues.  Within this maelstrom of factors generating continued urban change the planning system becomes even more important; it could and should act as a stabiliser that helps maintain a transparent development environment while engendering notions of the public good in changes to the social and physical structure of the city.  Empowering and re-tooling planning is in all our interests.