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Danger: Zones

Planning does need to be improved, but the Government’s planning reforms announced this week are an attack on local democracy, says a local planner, activist and former architect.

Owlthorpe fields

Owlthorpe Fields near Crystal Peaks Shopping Centre, where 'people power' led to councillors on Sheffield's Planning Committee refusing a planning application by Avant Homes in June 2020.

Stephen Lister

In my day job, I campaign for a better planning system. As a planner, I know that the system has its faults, but also how important it is. Now I need to ask for your help, because the central principle of that system is about to be scrapped: democracy.

One thing I’ve learned about the governments we’ve had since 2010 is their knack of appropriating the language you’ve used to try and persuade them of something and turning it against you. “Look,” they say, “We’ve listened. You were right. We’ve just changed it a bit…”

This week, the Government proposed the most radical overhaul of planning since 1947. It commits to a new ‘zoning’ approach in which all land is put into one of three categories: ‘renewal’, ‘growth’ and ‘protection’. I knew I’d heard this before, and sure enough, in 1928 Patrick Abercrombie, founding father of the UK planning system, wrote to the architect Clough Williams-Ellis about the need “to restore as swiftly as possible what is decayed, to show us how new growth can add to the beauty of the landscape, and to advise what country should be kept free from human additions” (emphasis mine).

I often use this quote to introduce people to why we do planning. And here we are: the planning reforms have gone back to the source. It’s what we set out to do a century ago, isn’t it? But there is a dastardly devil in the detail.

Where the planning system has been strong, it has produced good results. Green Belt has kept beautiful countryside within easy reach of our homes. Sheffield is famous for that and the coronavirus pandemic has amplified its importance. The transformation of Kelham Island wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been protected as a Conservation Area.

Yet whenever the Government wants to ‘boost growth’, it deliberately weakens planning powers. The results are painful to see. Town centres are dying. Swathes of urban land – think of the Don Valley from Neepsend to Darnall – are derelict or trapped under surface car parking for low-rise retail units, where you’d think twice about walking alone. This is what de-regulated market forces deliver.

These new proposals wheel out yet again the hackneyed line that planning is a slow, cumbersome beast that blocks the road to progress. The technical term for this is ‘bollocks’.

90% of applications are approved, most of them pretty quickly, but the whole point of the application process is that it can refuse things if needs be, and you have a say in that. If a scheme is bad, you can – and should – try to stop it. Your elected councillors are responsible for making the decision, so you can hold them to account. Recent cases like Owlthorpe Fields and Loxley Township show people power in planning in action.

This time, the power that will be removed is the one you hold, as a citizen. If you didn’t notice five years ago when the zoning was being planned, well, tough luck. A scheme that complies with the new zoning will be automatically permitted, whether you like it or not.

Since the Thatcher years, the UK has relied on building a load of expensive homes as a way to subsidise a handful of affordable ones. The unsurprising result is that we have loads of expensive homes and a chronic shortage of affordable ones. Meanwhile, in 2013 the Government began allowing offices to be converted into homes without planning permission and without internal space standards. They commissioned research which showed this has produced the tiniest, darkest flats in Europe - then promptly extended the policy.

These new proposals perpetuate and entrench past mistakes. Time and again, faced with hard evidence, the Government wilfully takes the wrong course. The result is a deepening division between cramped slums for the worst-off and a Range Rover-friendly paradise for the wealthy. Those of us who try to point this out, to redress the balance, are kettled into a corner marked ‘awkward squad’ and left to shout ourselves hoarse.

It doesn’t need to be like this. The terms ‘renewal’, ‘growth’ and ‘protection’ paint as good a triptych of utopia as we could hope for. Planning does need to be improved, for sure. But trashing local democracy is not the answer. It really, really matters.

There’s a consultation on the White Paper here. I urge you to read it, and to read between the lines, and then respond. Let’s make a stand.

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