Planning is the problem

Jules Lubbock
3 July 2001

In their openDemocracy interview, Richard Rogers and John Jackson jointly lament the disintegration of the countryside and the decay of the towns. One might have expected the world-famous architect and head of Britain’s recent Urban Task Force and the Chairman of the Countryside Alliance to have sharply different perspectives. Instead, taking community as a joint starting point, they largely agree on the need to preserve the countryside from threats and to inject further development into the cities.

They are both wrong. And so are their supporters in the New Urbanist think tanks and the Countryside Alliance. They have mutually picked the wrong problem and come up with wrong answers. The Countryside, so-called, is under threat from too little building not from too much, and from having too much land under cultivation. Even after the recent plague of foot-and-mouth disease, there is almost one sheep for every British man, woman and child.

In the UK there is far too much planning, or zoning. The consequences are dire for all of us who live here. Far from the British planning system being something other countries should emulate, they should look upon the United Kingdom as a negative example and beware.

The Town and Country settlement

In 1947, two crucial and interrelated acts became law, the Town and Country Planning Act and the Agriculture Act. Both acts aimed, like Rogers’s recent Urban Task Force Report, to end suburban sprawl by imposing an impassable divide between town and country so as to create compact cities and an arcadian countryside, which would make Britain self-sufficient in food and provide the urban majority with space for recreation.

To this end land was nationalised by the ingenious device of giving the state the overriding right to permit or to refuse development. Agriculture was also effectively nationalised by a similar device: farmers kept their land but agricultural production has been controlled ever since by government subsidy, which has formed a large part of farmers’ income.

The state also wished to de-Victorianise the industrial city. Rigid land-use zoning separated homes from factories, shops and offices. Slum streets, which could have been rehabilitated, were compulsorily purchased and demolished; housing densities were somewhat lowered; high-rise towers were erected, and the surplus population decanted into overspill dormitory council estates and New Towns to prevent unplanned suburban sprawl.

The policy was terribly effective and, I have to admit, some aspects were even popular. Mark Clapson, in Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns (1998), has shown that many working class families were as happy to be moved out of city centres as the middle-classes were to leave under their own steam. Too much community can be tyranny. People didn’t want Mum dropping in all the time, though they did want to be able to visit her – hence the necessity of the car.

As a result of these policies, London today ends quite suddenly at the M25 on the outer limit of 1930s semis – likewise all British towns and cities. The sprawl Richard Rogers complains about is a figment of the imagination. Greenfield developments are concentrated. Britain has been preserved as a green if not altogether pleasant land, as can be seen from the air or from the road.

No crisis

So it is nonsense to talk of the countryside being concreted over and eroded by suburban sprawl. Rogers’s own statistics disprove his assertions. Fig.1.2 on page 29 of his Urban Task Force Report Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999), shows that in England, 35 million of us (three-quarters of the population) are jam-packed onto 2million acres – a mere 7 per cent of the land. The remaining quarter of the population is spread out across 93 per cent of the land, 32million acres: those 12million people are housed in 1,000 towns and villages, all of them smaller than 20,000 inhabitants – very small settlements indeed. Contrary to popular belief, we live in an uncrowded island.

Figure 1.2 English urban areas 1991. (Towards an Urban Renaissance, p.29)

Population of urban area Total population (million) Cumulative percentage of
population (%) Area covered (hectares) 250,000 +21.846.3509,000 100,000 – 250,0005.457.7139,000 50,000 – 100,0004.166.5109,000 20,000 – 50,0003.874.5105,000 10,000 – 20,0002.780.378,000 5,000 – 10,000 2.184.861,000 3,000 – 5,0001.287.339,000Less than 3000 and rural areas5.910012,002,000 TOTAL ENGLAND47.110013,042,000

As Robin Best showed 20 years ago in Land Use and Living Space (1981), the English are housed in the highest urban densities in Europe, higher even than Holland. There is little suburban sprawl; the countryside has been preserved. The 1947 policy of urban containment has been very effective.

There is no crisis requiring people to be forced to live in high-density urban communities. There is no physical shortage of land. The new generation of neo-colonialist masters have simply cottoned on to the wrong crisis, and are recommending more of the same 1947 medicine.

New urbanism, new orthodoxy

Richard Rogers used to be an ardent supporter of modernist town planning – the old 1947 orthodoxy. Now he champions New Urbanism: high-density urban villages where everything is within a ten-minute walk, to use Leon Krier’s pithy phrase; mixed uses; preservation of the countryside and respect for the fabric of the traditional city. New Urbanism has become the New Orthodoxy.

In their interview, both Jackson and Rogers and their questioners seemed to believe that the UK and its New Urbanist orthodoxy has delivered a planning policy which is not joined-up. In fact, the overarching connection is strong and is still almost identical to the Old Orthodoxy – the policy of urban containment has if anything been intensified.

To preserve the countryside, town and country are to be separated as never before. Faced with an estimated demand for about 4million new homes over 20 years on account of inescapable demographic and social factors, the new policy proposes that, as far as possible, these homes should not be built on green fields. Whereas the Old Orthodoxy concentrated new housing in New Towns or designated growth points like Basingstoke, the New Orthodoxy insists that 60 per cent of the new homes must be built at much higher densities within existing urban areas on so-called brownfield sites, such as old factories, warehouses, pubs, cinemas, and garages. But urban green spaces including allotments and playing fields are also coming under threat. Far from greening the cities, the unintended consequences of the new policy will be just the opposite. It is crucial to note that this applies not just to cities but also to much smaller market towns.

The countryside is sacrosanct: Nature has become our God, ecology our religion, and a new theocracy of platonic guardians is stealthily preparing to take over political control from our imperfect democratic institutions by scaring us with an environmental doomsday. Rogers’s Urban Task Force was appropriately named, for Force it is. Everything is framed in the imperatives of the colonial administrator, to use Scruton and Worpole’s acute observation: people must live in communities; town and country must be kept separate; the countryside must be preserved; people must not be permitted to live in greenfield suburbs. This is the same language as the post-war planning regime that New Urbanism claims to be replacing but actually perpetuates, and with a vengeance.

Of course, policy has always been driven by perception and high emotions, rarely by facts and reason. In 1947, the experience of blockade in two World Wars, the Great Depression and the Dickensian smog-ridden decay of the cities were nonetheless not unreasonable incentives for containment, land use planning and self-sufficiency. But today’s anxieties about the loss of countryside are absurd.

At current densities for new housing (of about 12 houses to the acre), all those 4million new homes could be built on a mere three hundred and fifty thousand acres, just 1 per cent of the total land in England, 0.5 per cent of Britain. And this is the worst-case scenario, where every new home is a family house and garden built on a green field. In fact, much of the new demand arises from the increase of single person households requiring small flats, many in existing towns and cities. There is no crisis; there is an abundance of land. The countryside has not been eroded.

The real crisis

What makes the new policy far more ridiculous than the old is the fact that the land is no longer needed for agricultural production on the post-war scale. 2.5 per cent of Britain (1,350,000 acres) is now set-aside land which farmers are paid by the EU not to cultivate. The world is awash with food: overproduction is as high as 50 per cent – hence, in part, the drop in farmgate prices hurting farmers the world over, not just in the UK. More and more fields lie fallow. 350,000 acres of green fields could be built upon without loss of food production, amenity or any threat to strategic national interests.

The real crisis is apparent whether one walks or drives through the country and observes that much has been eroded not by houses or concrete but by prairy-like factory farms, the product of subsidy. There is more wildlife, not to mention woodland, in the gardens behind my Hampstead flat than in many parts of the so-called countryside.

The effects of containment upon towns and cities have been equally disastrous: high-rise flats, the result of subsidy; the effect of zoning in creating dormitory ex-urbs and estates without shops or entertainment; long commuting distances which are costly to individuals and have high externalities in terms of pollution; central business districts which are dead at night and weekends.

Planning and prices

One of the major effects has been upon the general cost of living. The price of land has been massively inflated by an artificial shortage of supply, resulting from the draconian system of planning permission instituted in 1947. For example, Grade 2 agricultural land in Essex costs about £4,000 an acre. But once planning permission for housing is granted this rises astronomically. Developers are said to have paid about £500,000 an acre for land with planning permission to build executive houses outside Chelmsford. Housebuilders make much of their profit from sharing that planning gain with the landowners. The selling price for such houses is around £120,000. At 12 houses to the acre, the cost of our planning system amounts to an extra £40,000 on each of those houses before a single brick has been laid.

It is hardly surprising, then, that house prices in the prosperous south of England are so high, making it almost impossible for unemployed workers to migrate to where the jobs are. In 2000, 135,000 new houses were completed – the lowest number, apparently, since 1924. This was largely the result of the shortage of building land with planning permission. What is more – the additional mortgage payments on such houses amounts to about £4,000 a year. It is actually cheaper to rent a flat on Manhattan than in Colchester. In effect every household in the country pays a huge tax for the 1947 system of town and country planning, a tax paid to private property owners and developers – for what?

There is a similar effect of the planning system upon the cost of food and other goods. The cost of land for a supermarket in the UK is up to ten times more expensive than in the US. This factor led a recent Competition Commission report on supermarket prices to conclude that the high cost of food in Britain is not the result of profiteering but – in part – of the planning system. It is absurd to talk of cheap food in Britain. It is 50 per cent more expensive than in even the wealthiest US suburbs.

Is there a solution to these real problems?

Mixing Town and Country

I believe that there is. Moreover, it is to be found in one of the fundamental principles of New Urbanism – reinstating mixed uses within urban areas. If mixed uses are so desirable, why restrict them to towns alone? As we have seen, the most fundamental land-use zoning is that between town and country. Almost no one questions it.

But why not lift the embargo and encourage mixed uses between town and country? If shops, workspaces, art galleries, homes, restaurants and pavement cafés are all to be mixed together in the Rogers vision of an Urban Renaissance, then why not orchards, fields of wheat and barley, woodland, meadow grazed by sheep and cattle as well? And why not more offices and factories in the countryside, perhaps even the occasional pavement café?

This is not far-fetched. It is not so long ago that working people kept a pig and a cow in their backyards. During the last war townspeople were encouraged to keep rabbits and poultry. And the London parks and commons were grazed by sheep and cattle until the 1950s (I possess a photo of the shepherd and his flock in London’s Green Park – an annual feature of the 1930s). If Rogers really wishes to restore the city state of the Renaissance he should bear in mind the fact that Florence, the most populous, never exceeded 90,000 people (smaller than modern Colchester), and that there was more farmland within its walls than buildings, as is still the case in Siena to this day. The mills of the early Industrial Revolution were in the countryside, in Gloucestershire, Derbyshire, Lanarkshire, surviving now as heritage sites.

If John Jackson and the Countryside Alliance want to nurture communities, then they should welcome the lifting of planning restrictions so that business parks, factories and other industrial plant can flourish outside major cities.

Let Swindon thrive!

I propose the dismantling of the entire post-war British planning system with its commitment to urban containment. And to back this up, the end of the system of agricultural subsidy – the last two acts of denationalisation. If 66 per cent of English people wish to live in the countryside, nothing should prevent them from doing so. If the nimbies of Ashford in Kent object to the influx, then let more adventurous places benefit. The Economist, of 23 June 2001, reported that Houston, Texas, the fastest-growing city in the US, had benefited greatly from an absence of zoning ordinances. This not only makes land cheap but also makes for a city that is racially less segregated than other US cities. Let Swindon thrive!

The loss of so-called countryside would be minimal. Even if as many as 10million new houses with decent-sized gardens were to be built at densities ranging from one to twelve houses to the acre, all of them on greenfield sites, only a little more than 2 per cent of the land (about the same area as current set-aside land, roughly 2,000 square miles) would be concreted-over by roads and houses. But a further 8,000 square miles would simply be converted from agriculture to horticulture, to private gardens.

The advantages are great. The country would enjoy an increase in biodiversity, reforestation in gardens and woodland, habitats for birds and wildlife. The emigration from towns would revive commerce of every kind and drive the Rural Renaissance John Jackson calls for. An increased supply of land would provide more affordable village houses so that both newcomers and the children of existing residents could be accommodated. The price of food, housing and other rents would fall. One housebuilder told me that people like him would go bankrupt as the value of their landbanks plummeted. Movement from areas of high to low unemployment would be possible. The cost of labour would fall. British goods and services would be more competitive.

Most important, people would be free to live where they wish, in suburbs, in villages, in the open country as their circumstances permitted. In a free and more openly democratic society, no one should be forced to live in communities against their wishes by the policies of an elite formulated in ignorance. That is club government at its worst. All the evidence points to the great majority of people wanting to move out of high-density cities. That is true of Europe as well as North America, including urban gems like Florence and Siena so favoured by New Urbanists.

There is nothing so sacred about huge cities of a million-plus inhabitants that they must be preserved when people want to desert them. Large cities are the relatively recent product of the Industrial Revolution. Should they ever regain their popularity, my proposals would not prevent people returning. People would be able to live where they want.

Like Rogers, I shall remain in the city – partly because it is large and anonymous enough to accommodate people of widely differing opinions without our coming to blows. Others will follow Scruton and Jackson to more rural areas in search of community. Others still will choose suburbs that, contrary to Rogers’s assertion, are highly communal.

Britain is an Uncrowded Island. There is room on it for almost every type of human habitation. It will be a far better place to live, its land and wildlife will flourish more, and will be more enjoyed, its cities will be more easy going and pleasant, if people are free to live and build free from the shackles of Town and Country planning.

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