Planning: letting go of the controls

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Jul 6 17:20:02 BST 2006

Planning regulation
Letting go of the controls

Thursday  July      6, 2006
The Guardian,,1813668,00.html

David Ricardo, the first great modern economist, was hardly making a
trivial point when he wrote: "If all land had the same properties, if it
were unlimited in quantity, and uniform in quality, no charge could be made
for its use." Even in 1817, land and its employment was considered a matter
for public debate in Britain. Since the supply of land is finite, and this
country is highly developed, how it is used is of huge consequence - not
only for narrow economic interests but also for the wider public interest,
including the environment as well as particulars such as housing and

Successive governments have evolved a planning system that attempts to
balance those demands, however imperfectly. That structure, despite having
been substantially revised in 2004, is being questioned by the review of
planning regulation being conducted by Kate Barker, who published her
interim report this week. The review is being conducted at the behest of
the Treasury, and its aims have been made clear by the chancellor, who
rarely gives a speech without declaring his intention to boost Britain's
productivity. The OECD recently judged Britain's planning regulations a bar
to faster growth, and Gordon Brown recently declared that the rules should
be "quicker, more flexible and more responsive".

Ms Barker's interim report is a compendium of the obstacles that the
current regime presents, with graphs showing that office rentals in
Manchester are higher than Manhattan, and Birmingham more costly than
Brussels. The bigger question, though, is in whose interest should the
rules work? How exactly does allowing a new Ikea to be built by the M6 aid
our economic competition with China or India? Even businesses, when asked,
only rank planning third - behind transport and education - in the public
services important to supporting their competitiveness.

Blaming planning for creating economic bottlenecks is too easy. The example
of the retail grocery market shows that land use is only a small part of a
much deeper issue of market dominance. That would be better tackled by
competition law and the Office of Fair Trading, rather than US-style strip
malls. Local authorities can fight off corporations such as Tesco, as
Saxmundham in Suffolk proved. But it is often too expensive. It would help
if Ms Barker recommended that planning guidelines continued to encourage
alternatives to out of town building, as a rule, and that councils receive
support to ensure that prime land does not simply go to the biggest legal

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