Planning without sacred cows

David Walker calls for an intellectual vision for land, housing and transport
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The Independent Online
There is one bit of the welfare state that after 17 years of Tory rule looks pretty much as it did in 1979, and, it's safe to predict, would actually expand were John Major to win the next election.

Between now and 2016 we have it, on the authority of the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, that the number of households in England will grow by over four million. Not all those will want or have the money to pay for separate dwellings. But many will, and they will want to live not just in the stressed areas of East Anglia, the near South-west and the South-east but also in plush Cheshire and the Vale of York.

During the past few months the Town and Country Planning Association has been sponsoring regional meetings around the country of house-builders, financiers, councillors and professionals asking: where are the people going to go? Its final report is published today.

Fitting the extra households into already crowded parts of England in the face of opposition from the very vocal and organised countryside lobby that favours keeping it green will breathe new life into planning. Astute contenders for the Tory leadership - step forward Mr Redwood - have already trimmed their free market principles to accommodate not just the planners but also the councils that employ them.

For this is territory where consistent right-wing principle tends to give way to gut political instinct. The Tory party is a party of planners. State planning - setting government targets for this industry or interfering with that money market - is ideologically unacceptable. But town planning - bureaucrats stopping someone building in the fields next to your four- bedroom house - that's only fair.

To the naive, town planning is about the environment, green belts, about how the country should look. Planning as it is practised in the town halls and across the desk of the Secretary of State for the Environment is a matter of using government powers to juggle the interests of one middle- class group against another, the existing owners of land vs would-be developers.

Why on earth would a well-known fast-food chain employ a leading fixer to invite Tory ministers to a dinner (where beefburgers were not on the menu)? The answer: planning applications. Planning is a kind of socialism. It is the interpolation of the judgements of politicians and bureaucrats about the uses to which land should be put, and how buildings should look. Its survival therefore during a Conservative era when market forces held sway takes some explaining.

Why did the system escape the attentions of Lord Young of Graffham and his Deregulation Unit? Why have local authority planning departments been exempted from the insistence of Michael Heseltine and his colleagues that white-collar services be compulsorily contracted-out? Why did the former Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, start out talking big about bending the system to favour the volume builders then backtrack? It wasn't just his reluctance to see houses built next to his country property and his consequent yelp of Not in My Back Yard. Why has there never been a whisper about privatisation of the Planning Inspectorate?

The answer - the insight is credited to Professor Peter Hall of University College, London, co-author of today's TCPA report - is that planning is the middle-class welfare state in action. It is the use of government to benefit those who possess homes and land and want to keep a grip on them.

The town and country planning system was born in 1948, the same year as the National Health Service, and is in better shape.

It seems the private sector can be trusted to perform medical operations but not to deliver the peculiar adjudications involved in planning. In the hands of councils, in Buckinghamshire districts and the county of Hampshire, the system by and large works - in the sense that the public believes the decisions of councillors, albeit subject to appeal to a minister in London, are legitimate.

Professional planners, despite spending a lot of time dealing with councillors and house-builders, remain oddly idealistic. Everything would be fine, if only it accorded with the land use map they drew up previously. Tim Cordy, director of the TCPA, speaks of planning being at risk of being seen as just arbitrating between competing uses when what it really needs is "vision".

A social "vision" of town planning goes back at least as far as the late Victorian Ebenezer Howard and his concentric circles of parks, factories and housing around the urban core - a vision that came close to being realised in tarmac and concrete when it was reproduced on the wartime maps of Patrick Abercrombie, the London County Council planner. It continued through the Garden City movement into the New Towns.

What the TCPA is hoping for is more than a growth in planning jobs. That is sure to occur in the sense that the volume of applications for development will pick up, especially south of the line of prosperity from Bristol to the Wash. If that sounds optimistic, take a trip along the new A14 linking the M1 and A1 and count the building sites.

But what the planners want instead is an intellectual planning revival - a vision - some general statement from the political powers that connects transport, land use, economic opportunity and that tantalisingly vague notion, sustainability. That is, however, what they won't get from the present government or its likely successors, right or left.

For there is a world of difference between using government to support a status quo of property rights and nice views across the fields and using government to build new towns, invest in public transport, direct investment and pay for housing for those who need it rather than those who can afford it. That's the difference between town and country planning and Planning.