System renewal. Challenging established notions. Reimagining our societies.

Re-imagining our societies 4: Rethinking town planning – by valuing the vested interests

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“Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist.

Richard Nixon

There doesn’t seem to be any discussion about fundamental change of town planning development control.  From the current top-down system of town planning development control.

Top-down town and country planning (T&CP) has created unintended vested interests.  Maybe we should consider using these vested interests as a basis for rethinking the whole process of land use planning.

When it comes to proposals for more houses in our area, we are all NIMBYs with vested interests.  There is nothing wrong with this.  We should accept these vested interests as perfectly normal.  Once that is in the open and we are happy to admit it, and talk about it, we can begin to imagine how vested interests can become an accepted and useful part of development.

Consider the kinds of outcomes of the current vested interests:

We all have a vested interest in resisting change.

It is relatively easy to change the use of any building – for example from shop to dwelling.  All land and property are valued financially, as if they have the potential to be used for the most valuable purpose. Usually housing.

Under the present system small shops and pubs in town and country have no development value as such.  So, they mostly get their use changed to houses.

New small shops and pubs are not built because the land on which they might be built is deemed to have a value for housing.  It is too late now, but shops and pubs should not have been allowed to change their use to housing.

With a top-down system, the financial value of land and property is determined by market forces. Which are dictated by the limited amount of land released for development by the top-down planning system. Creating inevitable vested interests.

Which is not to demean the value of the top-down system. Except when it has undesirable outcomes.

Maybe the land use development process should be seen as a mixture of a top-down systematised process and a bottom-up local market process. 

This two-tier system would work as follows.

The top-down system would define and control areas where physical development of any kind would not be permitted. It would include the existing green belts, national parks and areas of agricultural, landscape, historical and scientific importance.

Size would not be a determinate. They will range from very large areas of countryside to small pockets of land in urban areas of historical, architectural or social and recreational importance.

At the grassroots, we would support this.  It would usually protect our vested interests.

I cannot see a good reason to change responsibility for the top-down system.  The unitary, borough and county councils would continue to have this role.

The management of development in the bottom-up system would be the responsibility of administrators (not planners) in the electoral wards and divisions.

I don’t see a land use development role for the existing district and parish councils.  Much of the inefficiency, time wasting and disgruntlement with the present system is caused by the present two-tier system.

In the bottom-up system, all kinds of physical development would be the result of financial transactions between (1) developers, (2) land and property owners and (3) domestic and commercial neighbours.

In these areas, if you are a resident, you would be deemed to be a “neighbour” if development is proposed in your near vicinity.  By which I mean anything from next-door to, say, half a mile away if the proposal could be seen or would be likely to be heard.

All development would be subject to negotiation between land owners, developers and neighbours.

Development transactions would be registered by the bottom-up administrators in the electoral wards and divisions. A straightforward registration process.  Legal issues would be dealt with like any other commercial transaction.

Development could include anything from a house extension to agricultural buildings, a motorway, high-speed railway or airfield runway.

The underlying notion, from the grassroots, is that, in this open-market development process, vested interests take on financial value.  NIMBY would become IMBYITPIR  (In my back yard if the price is right.)

My guess at possible outcomes in the bottom-up areas of potential development could be as follows.

In the current climate of denial of no-growth:

  • All planning permissions not yet taken up would be removed.
  • The so-called housing crisis would be overcome. The cost of land for housing development would come down substantially (in my area) from up to £1 million per acre to perhaps £20,000 per acre (double the current value of agricultural land).
  • The value of old inefficient houses would decline. There would be little point in “improving” them.  New-build would be cheaper and much more energy efficient.
  • New self-sufficient villages would be developed.
  • Farmers would get used to releasing land for housing at much lower prices than at present. (Land which is currently in farmers’ “land-banks” as a way of minimising inheritance tax.)
  • New housing would tend to be concentrated in hilly areas deemed to be of little value for food production.
  • Everyone would have a wide choice of where to live. Not just crammed into gardens in suburban areas. Country areas would be less likely to be preserved for those who are better off.
  • Relatives from away or currently living with parents would be able build homes nearby.

In the no-growth future:

  • Off-grid development would become both economically and socially viable.
  • Homesteading, small scale farming, allotments and small-holdings would be developed.
  • Existing suburban area would reorganise to develop local self-sufficient economies.
  • Travel demands and transport systems would become more localised. A response to declining prosperity.
  • New local shops, restaurants and pubs would be built to serve local economies, which would become increasingly self-sufficient.
  • Industrial-scale agriculture, dependent on commercial indebtedness, would no longer be viable.
  • Self-build would become more popular.

Why not try it out in areas with social and economic problems?

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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