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No.10 Policy on Urban Sprawl – Bring it On?

There was a fascinating breakfast this week organised by Dermot Finch at Fishburn Hedges with James O’Shaughnessy the Director of Policy at10 Downing Street.

James is a Policy Exchange alumnus and lead advisor on CLG issues.

The discussions covered a number of the areas debated here over the last few weeks.

The starting point is the idea that Localism is about Growth which is best driven from the bottom up (although local communities will only be ‘allowed’ to add extra development).

The policy approach is based on three principles:

  • Decentralising power and decision making
  • Deregulating (including changing the culture of local government)
  • Incentivising outcome

James recognised the frequent conflicts within policy such as that between neighbourhood planning and the presumption in favour of development.

His view on the proposed Use Classes Order change to allow business premises to become housing was that it would have little impact on business rents. He blamed institutional investors for their upward only rents and felt that only the less efficient business buildings would disappear.

On town centre first policies he advocated building where it is cheapest and profits are greatest and was of the view that John Lewis should have gone into Westfield. He felt brownfield targets were a mistake and that urban areas should grow outwards.

Describing CLG as 3000 planners with a culture of drawing masterplans he contrasted the planning system with his preference for a system where development decisions were dependent on market pricing. While the Government had continued with the planning system they were philosophically libertarian and communitarian. Local Government’s role was guiding where to build not whether or what to build.

He was also of the view that Government would spend the second half of the term deepening and broadening existing policy rather than coming up with new initiatives.

Readers will have their own views on all of this but for me the most perplexing is the advocacy of urban sprawl.

Of course Policy Exchange have form here with a 2008 report on the abandonment of Northern towns being reported as being described as ‘idiotic’ by David Cameron. The think tank tends to espouse unbridled free market policies and we should expect to hear more from them on this theme in relation to cities in the coming weeks.

The urban sprawl issue reminds me a bit of Michael Portillo’s views just before he crashed and burned in politics. I can understand the libertarian and communitarian philosophical underpinning and the simplistic idea that Government failure can be a bigger risk than market failure but I struggle to see where the electoral advantage is. You have got to get a lot of Growth to get sufficient votes to outweigh those lost through Green Belt development in the marginal constituencies in the south east, growth area, general election battle grounds.

I suspect that the urban growth debate is much more sophisticated than can be captured in the short windows of time allowed at the top of Government for decisions on each policy area.

The Joseph Rowntree summary paper published this week from the Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood Network is a more balanced (though still somewhat self promotional) contribution to this debate. One can argue whether all of the developments in the network are sustainable and I often take issue with Nick Falk (who is behind this thought piece) on the issue of suburbs and their lack of sustainability but the mix of inner urban and urban extension developments does give both sides of the discussion.

The paper makes a number of points including the need to promote green recovery in inner cities, use creative funding solutions (something that the CLG Select Committee inquiry into regeneration was particularly focussing on at its oral hearing this week), improve urban design, design to last and invest in long term stewardship and social capital.

The report also calls for extending growing urban areas. This I think is the nub of this debate. If there is to be growth (lets leave that debate for another time) where is it to be accommodated? Do we go for a Detroit solution where the market delivers urban sprawl and inner urban abandonment in equal measure, do we restrict growth completely with tightly drawn Green Belts or do we try and work out a balance where we accept some reduction in growth (as measured by GDP – another debate for later) in order to save the greater public and environmental costs generated by urban sprawl and inner urban decline?

There are probably other options but simplistically it seems likely that any one of these three could be appropriate for a particular time and place. The challenge is in making the right choices at the right times and in the right places but administrative boundaries, our government structure and the electoral system aren’t necessarily designed for this. And these are huge decisions because they are usually irreversible.

Which is where the precautionary principle comes in. If in doubt we should err on the side of avoiding permanent damage in the pursuit of short term temporary gain. And if we do go ahead we have to do urban extensions really well as the JRF report outlines (and our track record here is abysmal as CABE have recorded).

In the early 1980s the then Conservative Government unleashed out of town development, particularly retail (the Gateshead Metrocentre is 25 years old this year). Although John Gummer subsequently gently closed that door we are still living with the consequences of those decisions and indeed Queen of Shops, Mary Portas has had to be recruited by this Government to try and find solutions for our many dying High Streets and this is becoming a significant political issue. I expect we will return to this discussion when Policy Exchange publish their work on cities but its easy to be depressed by the damage out of town and big box retail has wreaked for example on the North Manchester towns I cycle through on my cycle rides up to the moors.

So it seems that the pro sprawl lobby are aligning their tanks on the edge of the Green Belt lawn in the expectation of encouragement from the heart of Government. With organisations like the Campaign for Rural England now in receipt of large amounts of public money (for Neighbourhood Planning) I wonder where the opposition leadership will come from. Civic Voice and the guerrilla army of local community activists perhaps?


6 Responses

  1. Correction James O’Shaughnessy is special advisor to the PM a to 10, Jamie Hilton is head of the no 10 policy unit who holds similarly extreme views.

    These extreme views are fully in line with the Policy Exchange and those associated with them, including their director Alex Morton who this week said
    ‘Given that developers build homes because there is demand, a planning application is proof of demand. So we should require councils to scrap the “predict and provide” model that invariably underestimates demand.’

    The policy exchange is member of the European Wide network of right wing think tanks The Stockholm Network, which has close links to climate change deniers, and it has links to the Heritage Foundation, The Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute and receives funding such as Exxon Mobil as well as many big pharma firms. This web of ‘think tanks’ conceal their funding links and promote the removal of almost all forms of environmental regulation. See here
    https://andrewlainton.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/policy-exchange-nppf-not-pro-sprawl-enough/ They are dangerously close to the ideas of the tea party ant-sustainable development brigade, differing only giving lip service to sustainable development (by defining it away)

    There appears to be a struggle between number 10 and Bressingdon Place. The only difference being that Bressingdon wants to maintain some limited role for the local plan and design control.

    But as John Howells MP, author of Open Source Planning and PPS to Greg Clarke said in Feb if no up to date local plan a developer could then build ‘what they like, where they like and when they like’ which one property magasine rightly called a ‘developers charter’

    It is time people woke up. The practitioners draft of the NPPF was shocking, full of all sorts of quiet policy shifts such as removing the protection of the countryside for its own sake, but once it gets out of no 10s hands, and Eric Pickles who wants to reduce it to 10 pages, it will say little more than say yes yes yes. Whilst the revolt of the nurses etc shocked the government they will be shocked by the revolt of the cpre, THE rspb (with more members than all political parties combined) etc once they get there letter writing to mps going fearing sprawl everywhere. Its politically stupid as the opposition will capitalise as a concern of the shire and tactically stupid as with Patricl Jenkins proposal to dismantle the Green Belt in 1980 it will lead to overreaction in the other direction leading to less development when we need more.

    Chris there is a solution to either sprawl or over tight green belts – its unfashionable but its called regional planning and new towns – see http://www.tcpa.org.uk/resources.php?action=resource&id=880

  2. […] James Brown’s Blog in Regeneration. There was a fascinating breakfast this week organised by Dermot Finch at Fishburn […]

  3. It appears to me that Mr O’Shaughnessy is perhaps the individual behind the Government’s attempt to re-define “sustainability”. I’m sure I’m not alone in being infuriated that after years of fighting the corner of true sustainability having to include a balance of economic and social issues as well as the often over-egged environmental concerns, the whole agenda appears to be getting hijacked (with the Government leading the hijackers possy) by economic interests who seem to consider this is acceptable despite their forgetting of social and environmental considerations.

  4. Having looked at the Policy Exchange’s paper on reforming the use classes order (based in part on a misunderstanding of its legal purpose – I did email them to tell them so but have had no reply) it strikes me that the organisation are best described as “wreckers” driven by a fundamentalist free market ideology which has landed us in the present predicament. They misunderstand or prefer to abandon the planning process in the naiive belief that the market will provide everything in the right place at the right time and in the right form – historical evidence is not supportive of such an approach.
    If this think tank is the source of the government’s non-planning agenda then it is cause for real concern.
    It reminds me of the Thatcherite approach of the 70s, 80s and early 90s – it did not work then and it won’t work now but until the lesson is learnt it will do an awful lot of damage. Perhaps I retired at the right time !!

  5. This is a very interesting and timely discussion. We share many of the concerns about the practitioner draft NPPF expressed here and have set them out to Government in a critique of the practitioner draft.

    We have also spoken out forcefully about the Government’s preferred ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’:

    See also the article in today’s Times, ‘Planning rules pave way for Green Belt housing bonanza’.

  6. Policy Exchange = scary people! But it’s also quite exciting to have some real extreme debate that could galvanise opinions after years of New Labour “all things to all philosophies”.
    One likely outcome, though, is as Andrew Lainton suggests, that Ministers will eventually push the agenda too far and there will be a huge backlash. Urban Sprawl is surely too ingrained as a bete noire in the British (especially Southern England) national psyche to be acceptable.
    Trouble is, it’s all so muddled. Almost any coherent approach, right, centre or left, would be preferable to a botched or befuddled compromise. The JRF options are interesting but, in the absence of any national or regional spatial frameworks, how can they be translated into policy that has any real chance of being implemented? Every local planning authority would have to be connected to a zombie-like mind control network that would make them choose coherent, complementary local strategies.
    The government’s approach is to encourage bottom up, let the market decide planning (themselves two very uncomfortable bedfellows in the leafy shires) on the one hand, whilst pushing through high speed rail and nuclear power stations on the other.

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