Planning at Wormwood Scrubs illustrates the flaws of English local democracy

England is about to have its land-use planning system overhauled ... if the platoons of Tories against the proposals do not force another climb-down. But the current land-use planning system does have very serious flaws. Their solution, however, can only come through a thorough democratisation of local government. Without it, the proposed reforms are suspect
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
1 October 2011

Wormwood Scrubs is not only a notorious Victorian prison in West London - its former inmates include the Soviet spy George Blake who escaped dramatically from the prison in 1966, Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover, and enfant terrible Pete Doherty - but also a large area of common land to the North of the prison. It is my local park and have written about it as the locale of my a-royal wedding celebration.

It is also where, since my wife and I bought our first flat just a few minutes walk away just 12 months ago, I have had the opportunity to live as an engaged resident and to exercise my everyday citizenship. I became a member of the Friends of Wormwood Scrubs who invited me to join their committee.

Our year has been dominated by two issues - first, an attempt to have the Council consult the Friends on how they plan to manage the space, and second, a rather urgent need to stop the council from redesignating a good portion of the space away from the planning category of "Metropolitan Open Land" (MOL), which currently puts the common into the same category as Greenbelt land.

The second has been more successful than the first ("We won!...", and, for the full details, here; the mindmap of the arguments put to the planning inspector is here); but it has also convinced me that the first - participative, user-engaged decision making - is all the more urgent. The story of both attempts, I think, show how local democracy can be poisoned by institutional failures.

To understand the detail, let me first explain the background of the planning consultation. Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council have a duty to create a Local Area Development Plan (LADP) that sets the broad parameters for land-use in the borough. It must be consistent with the overall planning policies and objectives of Whitehall, and the Greater London Authority (GLA) - essentially the Mayor's office - can flag its approval or not of what is done at the lower, Borough level.

Deeply buried in the LADP - and discovered by an eagle-eyed architect and member of the Friends of Wormwood Scrubs - was a request to make a large part of the Scrubs potentially buildable land. Somewhat oddly, the request was viewed favourably by the GLA under the Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson. The GLA views the preservation of Greenbelt and Metropolitan Open Land as a priority, but nevertheless found it in itself to applaud this plan. (Hammersmith and Fulham has only recently become a Conservative council - the gentrification of the past 20 years are still filtering into the balance of local representation: our MP is still Labour, but our council has swung.)

The council argued that the sports facilities were getting a little grubby and needed upgrading. This would be an expensive business, and the best way to finance it would be to allow some amount of residential and commercial building on the site. There would, of course, also be "key-worker" and social housing units. The logic of redesignation seemed quite clear ... And, I have to say, not entirely without merit. I have no strong "Not in My Back Yard" (NIMBY) tendencies - indeed, I suppose I would try to resist whatever tendencies like that I might naturally feel for a local space I am fond of. I think the South East of England needs more housing; London certainly needs low cost, key-worker housing. And I am all for new sports facilities.

And yet I willingly put energy into resisting the plan. First, of course, was the simple procedural matter that the Council seems to have gone to some length to make it difficult to see that this was proposed. If there are good reasons for a development, let our democratic representatives explain the case to us. We can take it. But - and this is the main reason for resisting the proposal - our elected representatives know very well that they have absolutely no credibility with voters when it comes to planning. The reason is simple. Local authorities have almost no fiscal power - they cannot choose the level or the structure of their taxes: that is controlled by central government. Indeed, most of their revenue - almost 90% - is covered by grants from central government. For 90% of their activity, they are simply the agents of central government: they are tax collectors; those taxes are put into a central pool, and Whitehall distributes it back to localities based on central assessments of need. (I have written here about the insidious "ratchet" of centralisation that has gripped England for at least 20 years.)

Local government has one substantial opportunity to transform localities that does not go through Whitehall - the "planning gain" that comes with every major development. The proposed redesignation of the Linford Christie Stadium on Wormwood Scrubs would have provided a huge cash windfall to owners and developers. The Council can benefit from this in straightforward ways - by selling a lease on the land, for example (though that would not have been possible in the case of Wormwood Scrubs, which the Council does not own). It can also benefit in round-about ways. A development gets the blessing of the council if it manages to include the amenities that the council would like to see - a school, a roundabout, the agreement to shoulder the burden of public space maintenance. Sometimes, it is a straightforward handover of funds from developer to council, as in this recently approved luxury scheme in our Borough - made possible by a gift of £13m ... All of them in themselves possibly worthy goals and project - but once again, the process by which this "gain" or that is achieved is entirely distorted by the powerlessness of councils. A project is not discussed for its own merits, but because it comes as a package with some piece of development. This is like a restaurant where you can only have the steak if you also have chocolate mousse and you happen to be sitting at the corner table by the door. Arbitrarily tied decisions cannot lead to good land use.

Large-scale developments have become one of the very few ways in which councils can exercise political control - they can achieve outcomes that they actually otherwise do not have the fiscal means to fund. Land-use planning is therefore no longer directly about the public interest and the common good: councils have a huge incentive to simply find new large-scale projects, whatever their intrinsic merits, simply in order to pursue other policy objectives. A well-functioning local democracy would offer clear options for citizens to consider: what uses should this space or that be put to? and quite separately, questions like "do we need a new school or a new roundabout, and where should we put them?"

The two become entwined in the current planning process because the only way a council can act over and above what Whitehall decides is good is by linking projects to developments. This is a process almost designed to produce bad outcomes.

So, comfortable that objecting to the redesignation was not a NIMBYist knee-jerk reaction - neither council nor residents would have asked for it if they had full control of relevant local decisions - I put my energies behind the committee's efforts to stop the redesignation and we won.

I thought the issue was done and dusted and put effort now into convincing the council to consult with us on their management plans for the space. The story is long and fascinating in itself, but let me fast-forward to its last development. After many months of effort, the Parks Officer with responsibility for Wormwood Scrubs agreed to meet the Friends and take them on a guided walk to talk about bio-diversity management. This is not what we had asked for - we wanted to talk about all aspects of the space - but it was a start.

View Wormwood Scrubs Park in a larger map

A small group assembled at 9am on a week-day morning, a beautiful autumn morning. Our officer - a young man, hugely knowledgeable about plants and an enthusiastic communicator - told us a great deal about the trees, the lizards, the birds and the drainage. On this last point, he explained that a new directive on water treatment gave the landowner responsibility for drainage off their site, while it used to be a water company responsibility. The scrubs catches a great deal of rain and slopes gently towards Shepherd's Bush, and the question of water management would need to be addressed. One option is to create a wetland on part of the site.

So far, so interesting ... later, as we continued to cross the site, the subject of water returned. Our officer was explaining that it might be a good idea to create the wetland around the Linford Christie Stadium. That is when I remembered the arguments I had put to the planning inspector. In order to qualify for Metropolitan Open Land status, it is important that the area be considered a single unit - an "integral part of a whole". The council had tried to argue that the Stadium was clearly separate from the common, and was barely distinguishable from the neighbouring, built-up areas. As I had said at the planning inquiry, "to think Linford Christie Stadium is separable from the Scrubs is like saying centre court at Wimbledon is separable from the other courts because it has better facilities". This had drawn a chuckle, even from the council's planning experts.

So as soon as our Park's Officer talked of putting ponds between the Scrubs and the Stadium, I could not help thinking that this was an attempt to separate the spaces again. I told him of my concern. He laughed and assured me there was no great conspiracy afoot. But how do we know? Indeed, how does he know? The desire for large developments simply to capture their subsidiary benefits is so important in our current system of local government that there is simply no way to trust council decisions. And this goes right down to the level of how to deal with the water drainage from a park.

The only way to solve these problems is to return important local decisions - not only over land-use, but also, crucially, over local taxation and spending priorities - back to locally elected governments. The failure to do so not only produces bad decisions, it also stands in the way of normal relations between citizens, representatives and bureaucrats. This is how planning needs to be changed. The current attempt by the central government to radically simplify the planning process cannot be taken in good faith until a real local democracy is put in place - one that recognises that there can be very little true representation without taxation, that fiscal autonomy is the first step to grown up, localised planning.

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