Local control is key to quality

November 1, 2013

One of the greatest ironies in politics is that those who argue against freedom of choice and in favour of central planning claim to do so to protect the intangible things in life.

Beauty, for example, must be protected from the vagaries of individual freedom and grubby economic realities.

The plan-led system assumes that planned direction by local councils, themselves under the direction of national government, can create quality. Implicitly, it assumes that a more liberal and market-orientated system could not.

So the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) talks about the importance of design, as did planning policy statements before that, and planning policy guidance (PPG) before that. Indeed, PPG 1 mentioned design 62 times. National rules and local authority guidance and further rules rule.

Indeed, some argue that we need more rules and planning. On this view, poor quality homes are the result of too little planning, or are the fault of developers, too small or too weak planning departments, or lack of sufficient national or local rules on quality.

Yet almost all the most attractive developments, parks and homes in this country were created well before the creation of the current system in 1947; whether Georgian terraces or Victorian villas, Hampstead Heath in London or Heaton Park in Manchester.

Most of the time, central planning fails. The idea that we need more planning and government control to improve design quality is simply wrong. The era that came closest to total government control was the 1950s and 1960s. This era saw the creation of the drab slab estate, where people were herded towards a concrete future. Going back to that cannot be right.

Masterplanning has become largely divorced from development, and many developers seem to have little regard for whether schemes fit in with the area in which they are being built. This lack of consideration has a negative impact on attitudes toward new development. Various studies have shown that 69 per cent of people are more concerned with the quality than quantity of new homes, and 73 per cent support new homes as long as they are well designed and in keeping with the local area.

But this can only be done by forcing private developers to require the support of local people. By giving local people total control over quality, and power to say no to shoddy development, they can choose homes that enhance their area. This is the very opposite of the current top-down model.

Ultimately, what planning is about is itself a clash of two visions. One believes issues such as quality can be set out by government plans and diktat. The other believes that planning should protect a handful of our most beautiful natural and built environments, and then mediate between existing local people and those proposing new developments. If you create a framework for negotiation, quality will emerge. We believe this vision, not central control, must be the way forward.

This article originally appeared on Planning Magazine’s website

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