‘Labour must not blame “NIMBYs” for a broken Tory planning system’

Gareth Fearn
© Tom Woollard/Shutterstock.com

Labour are right to think the planning system is held back by ‘blockers’. The mistake they seem to have made though, is that the blockers are simply those who, in Starmer’s words, “more often than not – enjoy the secure homes and jobs that they’re denying to others”.

Following the same rhetoric used in the government disastrous Planning for the Future white paper and the Policy Exchange report from which the paper was derived, Labour appears to have decided that the biggest barrier to development the nation faces are the very middle class homeowners in marginal seats who they also claim they have to pander to in order to win power. 

Putting to one side the contradictory electoral logic, the claim that is being made about the planning system is that its central problem is that it allows a privileged minority – NIMBYS – to block development.

The agenda of right wing think tanks

Like most of the lines that come from right-wing thinktanks, this is nonsense. That is not to say that wealthy people do not sometimes mobilise to reject housing development, they do, rather that the main problems facing the planning system have far more to do with the much more powerful actors that have shaped its policy and practice (Conservative governments), and those with the wealth and political influence to game the system (landowners and developers) than those with more marginal power in the home counties.

This should be blindingly obvious, but a lot of work is done to muddy the waters by those with a vested interest in maintaining or further de-regulating the present system.

In a recent policy paper, myself and a group of academics from across the UK have shown that far from being the “last bastion of communism”, the planning system is suffering from a decade or so of reforms made with the expressed aim of making land-use decisions more market-led.

A ‘market-led’ planning system has been a disaster

This experiment has been a disaster. Planning is the hardest hit area of local government by austerity, and the result has been a part-privatisation in which public planners pay and conditions have been decimated, with local authorities increasingly turn to consultants for its core planning functions – consultants who on another day might be working for developers, creating potential conflicts of interest.

The over 50% cut to resources for local planning departments is the primary cause of delay, particularly as the knock on effect of the cuts is that most areas do not have up to date plans as they lack the planning staff to produce them. Planning has also been significantly de-regulated, through ‘streamlining’ into the NPPF for England and through expanding ‘permitted development rights’, as well as the housing regulation roll-backs that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. In recent years, this has led to a scramble to ‘re-regulate’ in haphazard and piecemeal ways.

Consistent with Thatcherism, privatisation and de-regulation have led to a much greater level of central government intervention – the ‘market’ needs a strong central state to enforce it when it inevitably leads to unpopular or unjust outcomes.

Developers are gaming a broken system

‘Streamlined’ policy has created ambiguity which leads to more ‘planning by appeal’ (especially as local governments fear legal costs they cannot afford), and ministers are called upon (or choose to) intervene directly in planning decision to suit particular developer interests who have their ear – or for their core voters.

The major housing developers can game this broken system, releasing housing and using their stockpile of planning permissions in such a way as to keep house values high. Meanwhile, housing rents and prices are driven up by a mixture of government policies (e.g. quantitative easing, state backed mortgages) and policies which support speculative investment in land and property, at a time when wages are stagnating.

Politicians and thinktank wonks who have little interest in altering these economic fundamentals then use the planning system as a convenient scapegoat for their own timidity, failures or as cover for upwards wealth redistribution.

We cannot go on like this. Which is why our paper sets out the basics of a planning system that puts public, not speculator, needs first. A properly funded, plan-led system can create the conditions for public and private development that begins to address the myriad crises of Tory rule.

The public, not the speculator, must come first

We need to invest in the public planning system once more, empowering local councils and devolved/regional government to make strategic plans through a democratic process – with strong policy support for public-led housing development and green energy.

Such a system can be partly funded by much needed redistributive taxation (reformed council tax, land value capture) which transfers wealth from unproductive rent extraction to productive investment in social and affordable housing and new transport and green energy infrastructure.

Good public planning enables and unlocks socially useful development. There will always be disagreement about land use decisions, and in many cases (like with shale gas and urban gentrification/displacement) so-called ‘blockers’ are those who are defending communities from harm when local authorities are not.

Just as important is the ways that planning can help challenge the regional and spatial inequalities the UK faces. We urgently need to develop consistent devolved and regional planning powers and resources linked directly to elected officials, as a means of ensuring a better distribution of jobs and to drive forward new industries.

A strong public planning system can also help to tackle spatial inequalities, ensuring that lower income areas have access to fresh food, GPs and dentists, affordable and active travel options, community and social spaces, cleaner air, and access to employment opportunities. 

Labour should not be taken in by YIMBYism

My concern is that Labour’s policy is leaning towards the emerging sub-culture of ‘YIMBY’ism, a loose alliance of neoliberal thinktanks, very online and angry men, and younger people in professional jobs frozen out of homeownership. They put forward a simple proposition – building more homes will reduce price and de-regulating planning will mean more homes. 

The problem with this view is that, it is not clear that simply adding more housing units will seriously address the profound crisis of affordability (it is just one part of what needs to be done), and further the de-regulatory zeal completely ignores the role of planning in creating places that people actually want to live in and which are more equitable than what the ‘market’ would determine left to its own devices. 

Planning is an institution which, with reform, can facilitate democratic debate and deliberation on the use of land rather than wish away political complexity. These decisions are too important to be left to an algorithm or financial speculation. We do need more housing, but only through good planning can we ensure this is developed in a way that doesn’t simply benefit a section of the (rightly) frustrated professional classes.

Fundamentally, Labour will not be able to lead the UK to a recovery from Tory crisis whilst it sees planning as the problem rather than part of the solution. The privatised, de-regulatory approach to planning is a radical and failed experiment which we should not allow to continue.

We must not succumb to a deregulatory agenda

We do not need one more deregulatory push to bring economic growth out of hiding. The proven way to develop good affordable housing and deliver an energy transformation at the scale required is through a public, plan-led system which is democratically accountable. 

The reality is that it is not ‘NIMBYs’ who are holding this country back, it is those who have been allowed to accumulate so much wealth and power that they think our towns and cities are their personal, speculative playground.

These are the real ‘blockers’, and if we want to rebuild our society from the wreckage of Tory rule we need a planning system that puts the public interest before theirs. There is still time for Labour to change tack and move away from their divisive rhetoric, with Angela Raynor now in charge of the brief we can hope she takes the opportunity to support a public planning system like successful Labour governments have in the past.


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