The Barker Review of Land Use Planning (‘Barker II’) reviews the UK’s planning system, with an emphasis on the economic impacts of the planning regime – specifically, how it impacts productivity and growth.
Centre for Cities Reaction
Our initial reaction is a cautious welcome. The Barker Review has a number of sensible suggestions, and includes a welcome focus on cities and economic development. Alongside the Eddington Review, this bodes well for the Planning Bill slated for 2007.
First, the Review supports the ‘smart growth’ of our cities – by making better use of brownfield land, endorsing the town centre first approach and allowing selective building out into greenbelt land. Our cities are the UK’s building blocks, and they need more room to grow. This can be done without undermining environmental goals, and needs to be done without low-density sprawl. But planning tools need to get better at promoting regeneration in the deprived neighbourhoods around our city centres.
Second, the Review has a raft of proposals aimed at making the planning system quicker and more efficient – especially for major infrastructure projects. Local NIMBYism cannot stand in the way of essential developments. However, we also support the devolution of strategic planning powers to big city-regions like Greater Manchester. So the proposed new national planning body (Independent Planning Commission) – which was endorsed by the Chancellor in the PBR – must not be a back-door to centralisation.
What does the Review say? And what does it mean for cities?
Barker makes a large number of recommendations, many very technical. The highlights are:
- Keep the town centre first approach. Barker endorses the Government’s pro-town-centre planning tools, saying that they bring a number of benefits. However, she suggests a key element of current guidance – the ‘Needs Test’ – is removed. In essence, the test allows local authorities to turn down proposals for new development on the grounds that there is already enough of it. Barker says this is unnecessary, adds to the cost of planning applications and may have anti-competitive effects.
- If the Needs Test is removed, what replaces it? On this, Barker leaves detailed recommendations to the Competition Commission, which is currently investigating the retail grocery market – and unlike Barker, has the power to make policy. So it is hard to gauge the exact impact for cities, although it is likely to result in more out of town development – especially in deprived areas where there may be regeneration benefits. While the current guidance is not perfect, it is critical that the achievements of the town-centre first policy are not unravelled by reform.
- More building on the Green Belt. Barker says that the UK has twice as much protected land as the OECD average. Economic and population growth will increase the demand for land – particularly for housing – and Barker recommends selective building out onto green belt land. The Green Belt is a containment device – it is not the same as land protected for environmental reasons. So it seems sensible for cities to use ‘smart growth’ approaches to selectively expand onto the Green Belt – and in practice, some Green Belt land is already built on. Nevertheless, this is politically very contentious stuff.
- An Independent Planning Commission for major infrastructure projects. Barker aims to take the politics out of big planning decisions – which often take years to be decided. She suggests that Whitehall departments set out Statements of Strategic Objectives. An Independent Planning Commission, staffed by experts, would then use these to decide whether or not development should go ahead. This is mixed news for cities. It may be easier to get the go-ahead for key projects like Crossrail, but they will have less say in the matter. ‘Devolving up’ to an unelected body also goes against the grain of stated Government thinking, which has been focused on passing power downwards – to regions and cities.
- New incentives for cities to promote pro-growth planning. Barker rightly identifies the need to give local authorities reasons to plan for growth. At local level, planning departments often operate in isolation. And existing tools like LABGI aren’t working very well. Barker leaves the detail to the forthcoming Lyons Review, but suggests that Tax Increment Financing is an attractive option. This is potentially good news for cities, if it comes as part of a proper package of financial reform.
- Speeding up local planning. Last but not least, Barker sets out a package of measures to speed up the planning system. Much of this is about fast-tracking small developments so that planners can concentrate on the important stuff. Barker also suggests moves to improve the capacity of planners – more sharing or resources, or buying in private planning expertise (which cities like Salford have already done). This is important for cities – planning is increasingly complex, and local authorities are being asked to take a much more strategic approach. This may prove challenging for some smaller towns and cities.
Overall, Barker argues that there’s a clear case for reforming the planning system – to give more weight to economic issues, and be faster, more transparent and more responsive. The evidence on planning’s impact on the UK economy is not at all clear cut, as the Review’s own Interim Report made clear. Nevertheless, Barker suggests that aspects of the planning system tend to have a negative impact on the five drivers of productivity, contributing to the UK’s productivity gap.
Planning is all about balancing economic, social and environmental concerns. The system needs to be complex, and big decisions sometimes need to take time.
Given this, and the relatively thin evidence base, the Government needs to move carefully in the coming months. Barker rightly stresses that there are no silver bullets here, and a package of smaller measures are needed.