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Infiltrators in War Against Planning System

This week has felt like being behind the lines in a dirty guerilla war over the planning system. While the ConDem Government continues its full frontal attack on the ‘enemies of enterprise’ there are infiltrators and resistance fighters popping up all over the place and new fronts being opened behind the formal battle lines.

I met two infiltrators during the week, Roger Zogolovich and Brian Waters (editor of planning in London) who are both advocating the abilty to turn office and industrial space in London into residential without planning permission or any affordable housing requirement. I’ve noticed that a number of the advocates of this approach have either some vested interest (owning business space that would be worth a lot more as residential for example) or have an almost religious belief that unregulated markets always deliver the best results for society.

Roger was expressing his views after a heart felt plea by highly respected developer Alan Leibowitz of Dorrington who is also chairman of Space Studios, one of the leading charities that provides affordable artists studios in London. Alan’s property nouse was telling him that the suggested change to the Use Classes Order would rapidly remove the studios from the 4000 artists in London. As pretty much all our leading contemporary artists (Hirst, Emin etc) started in these spaces you do wonder what impact this change would have on the art scene in 10 years time. Iwona Blazwick’s solution was a new use class for artists studios to underpin London’s Cultural Strategy.

Brian’s views are expressed in the current issue of Planning in London where he supports the view of Policy Exchange Trustee Richard Ehrman (described as having interests in commercial property). The same issue carries an opposing view by Michael Bach, one of the most informed commentators on the planning system with his extensive knowledge from his time at ODPM. Brian and Michael were hand to hand street fighting on Friday at the Urban Design London event on web enabled neighbourhood planning. Michael is an unlikely resistance fighter but as the French proved in the second world war, when civilisation in threatened the most unlikely people show extreme bravery.

A small band of ex RIBA Presidential infiltrators led by Marco Goldschmied also decided to throw a grenade into the crowded bar last week with an open letter supporting the dismantling of the planning system for the increased power (and fees) they think it would give to architects.

The tacticians in Government, having sought to galvanise support through their co-ordinated verbal assault on the ‘enemies of enterprise’, are not just using the infiltrators but are also cleverly focussing attention on the office to residential change while quietly and under the radar running a ‘Non-Consultation’ through a separate issues paper on the Use Classes Order that could result in some wholesale dismantling of the planning system.

Combined with the presumption in favour of ‘Growth’ the spectre of Localism being redefined as ‘whatever the market wants’ seems to be getting closer.

There are so many unintended consequences from these potential changes that those charged with returning the Government to power at the next election must be overwhelmed by the increasing length of the risk register. One I like came up in the papers this weekend as the FT reported that Delancey and the Qataris had entered exclusive negotiations to buy the Olympic Village and, in a PR dig by ODA at OPLC, that the Wellcome Foundation bid for the Olympic Park together with its proposed life sciences centre in the Olympic Media Centre were likely to be rejected by the OPLC board on Tuesday.

Its kind of typical these days to see one Government policy (East London Tech City) being undermined by another (change to Use Classes Order) so I wonder how long it will be before someone spots that the Media Centre site (despite its importance to the economic growth of Hackney and East London) is a rather good waterside residential location (with potentially no worries about affordable housing or even planning permission).

We can probably learn lessons from previous eras on all of this. When the Use Classes Order was changed to allow warehouses and factories to be used as offices it unleashed a wave of motorway related office development on former industrial estates that in some places overwhelmed the road infrastructure, destroyed town centres and set back sustainable development for generations.

The planning system may need substantial overhaul to reduce its frictional costs but the policies in it should be there to mitigate the costs to society and the planet that an unregulated market inevitably imposes while not restricting economic activity that does not impose these costs. Ill advised changes are often irreversible.

A failure to continue refining policy to manage emerging negative externalities is equally damaging to the system. The Government’s issues paper recognises the social costs attached to ‘clone town’ Britain and offers the prospect of refining use classes to better reflect the needs of society. The French approach of a use class for bakers shops that bake their own bread on the premises is invited here.

The importance society (or at least suburban swing voters) places on High Streets is reflected in Boris Johnson’s Outer London Fund which includes a ‘Love Your High Street’ category. This allocates a probably entirely insufficient £50m to making better places, something that arguably could be done much more cost effectively by refining the planning system.

It might also be completely undermined by the substantial reduction in suburban town centre employment (already under pressure as office employment simultaneously concentrates in major cities and disperses to home working and city fringes) that is likely to follow if the proposed Use Classes Order change were to be implemented as it is often the presence of office workers in these places that supports retail and other services.

These outer London Boroughs and the towns of the south east of England and the prosperous fringes of our bigger cities are where the next election will be won or lost. If the electorate see by then that their countryside is being developed and their town centres destroyed they may not be in much of a mood for more of the same.


2 Responses

  1. It’s curious isn’t it – I have written to David Cameron (three times including a Freedom of Information request) and Vince Cable (twice) asking for the the source of the evidence on which they base their conclusions that the planning system represents “enemies of enterprise”. I have had no reply to any letter – other that a postcard from No.10 Downing Street to the effect that he had passed my letter to Eric Pickles as the “responsible minister”. Had no reply from him either. So where do we go to lay to rest this poisonous nonsense that is being pedalled ?

  2. The threat of relaxed GPDO controls (specifically in terms of changes from B1 to C3) should be read alongside the ‘draft’ NPPF, which states that planning authorities should only introduce Article 4 directions when there is a threat to local amenity and welling. A curious paradox indeed.

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