Barker: Build now, pay later

Gerrard Winstanley office at
Thu Jul 13 13:20:26 BST 2006

Build now, pay later

The Barker review of land-use planning has significant implications
for the environment,,1817928,00.html

David Blackman
Wednesday July 12, 2006
The Guardian

It has to be wondered which Treasury wag chose July 4 to launch a
report that many fear heralds a US-style deregulation of the planning
system. Friends of the Earth planning campaigner Hugh Ellis isn't
chuckling about Bank of England economist Kate Barker's review of
land-use planning in England. "The next few months could be the end
game for the planning system," he says. "This is crunch time."

The choices the government makes about the planning system over the
next few months could have a profound impact on the environment and
the extent to which the drive to boost economic competitiveness is
allowed to rule the roost.

The widespread concern about Barker's review is rooted in a string of
recent statements about planning that have emanated from the Treasury
and No 10. Gordon Brown promised substantial planning reform in his
Mansion House speech last month, having already said he was worried
about the impact of planning curbs on the productivity of the UK's
retail sector. And Tony Blair used a recent article to show that, on
planning at least, he sees eye to eye with his Downing Street
neighbour. To add to the sense of impending revolution, the trade and
industry secretary, Alistair Darling, last week identified planning as
holding back new nuclear power stations.

In fact the planning system has been in the government's sights for a
long time. As far back as 1998, consultants McKinsey published a
report for the Department of Trade and Industry detailing how planning
was acting as a brake on the UK's economic competitiveness. Persistent
lobbying on the issue by the Confederation of British Industry led to
Brown commissioning Barker to conduct this review last December. She
presents her final recommendations in the autumn. And since May's
Cabinet reshuffle, deputy prime minister John Prescott, who has held
the planning brief for much of the last decade, is no longer in a
position to keep the Treasury at bay.

Henry Oliver, head of planning at the Campaign to Protect Rural
England, says there is a relentless campaign against planning, and in
favour of unregulated development, at the highest level. "It is driven
by a narrow vision of economic competitiveness. On planning, the
government seems to be in a state of permanent revolution, it's clear
that the chancellor has little time for the environment."

The extent to which events have moved is illustrated by the way that
the likes of Oliver view Barker. Two years ago, the economist was the
bĂȘte noire of many environmentalists, following the publication of her
earlier housing supply review and its recommendation that there should
be a dramatic increase in house building. Now Barker is seen by many
as the only figure able to temper full-blown planning deregulation.

Environmentalists are heartened by the report's executive summary,
which balances the competing pressures of economic competitiveness and
environmental sustainability. The report largely consists of an
analysis of the impact of planning on the economy, rather than a set
of firm recommended reforms.

But the tentative conclusions outlined in the 200-page report offer
some pointers to where Brown might seek reforms when Barker does
present her final recommendations. The report finds that recent
changes to the planning system have not speeded up the decision-making
process, which it says remains too complicated.

Stronger role

Worrying for environmentalists will be the report's conclusion that
the proportion of Britain protected from development by national and
European Union environmental designations, such as the green belt, is
twice the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
average. The report places a further question mark over the green belt
by suggesting that the growth of towns and cities leads to the
development of wildlife-rich sites over less valuable open space
beyond the urban boundary. It also suggests that the government should
have a stronger decision-making role in deciding where major
infrastructure projects, such as power stations, should be located.

But the most worrying news for anyone concerned about the environment
is likely to be Barker's decision to focus on how the planning system
can become more sensitive to "price signals" - in other words easing
the release of sites in response to market pressures.

The report finds scant evidence that the supply of offices, factories
and shops is out of kilter with demand. In London, where demand is
greatest, it shows that the amount of floor space that has planning
permission exceeds the total under construction. Nevertheless,
focusing on where development is cheapest is likely to lead to
pressure on existing policies that favour expensive town centre sites.

The Treasury is concerned that an inefficient retail sector is
undermining the UK economy, based on figures contained in the Barker
report showing that UK shops are 20% less productive than their
counterparts in the US. The report says the most productive shops are
single-storey 3,000sq metres-plus retail units, which are difficult to
accommodate in sustainable town centre locations.

It says the curbs prevent competition by making it harder for smaller
firms to enter the market, and suggests that instead of preventing
out-of-town development, councils should work harder to improve the
quality of high streets. It also blames the growth of homogeneous
"clone towns" on out-of-town curbs, saying that restrictions on the
supply of floor space drive up rents in more central locations out of
the reach of smaller, independent retailers.

Guy Rubin, a senior researcher in the local and regional economies
team at the New Economics Foundation, is worried by the implications
of the report. "A lot of the vestigial controls that have just about
stopped the worst effects of out-of-town retail are in danger of being
put back by this focus on competitiveness and productivity," he says.

Former Labour planning minister Nick Raynsford sees the fingerprints
of the US free market economic theory that is popular in the Treasury
on the report's analysis of the retail sector. He says the flipside of
productivity gains in the US has been continuing urban decline.
"[Those at the Treasury] have never walked around a deprived community
in a northern city. They come up with theories that are totally
divorced from reality in the UK," he says, adding that the
productivity costs must be balanced against the sums involved in
regenerating communities.

He and many others will be hoping that July 4 won't be remembered as
the point when the UK planning system becomes subject to the free market.

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