Culture Clash: Planning is for Profits not for People

The exciting Lammas eco-hamlet project was eventually given planning permission by Pembrokeshire County Council under its pioneer Policy 52, a forerunner of One Wales One Planet, despite strong opposition from within the council itself. Lammas is a community creating nine low-impact smallholdings at Glandŵr, near the Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire boundary.

The Lammas founders, orchestrated by Tao Paul Wimbush, sought to make this a legitimate rural development by obtaining planning permission before construction, rather than going ahead and then seeking retrospective permission. The exhausting process revealed the chasms that exist between policy and practice, and highlighted the clashing frames of reference which planners must somehow align.

The planning system in England and Wales is currently mired in the 1950s, when the global context was entirely different. Local food production was perceived as of diminishing importance because cheap transport meant imports could be sourced easily. ‘The countryside’ was a collection of landscapes for rich people to live in and for poorer people to enjoy from a distance. As for the poorer people, new jobs in the bright technological future would result in each generation being more prosperous than the last, and these new middle classes would be car-dependent and live in spacious suburbs.

A wave of New Towns, including Basildon, Bracknell and Harlow, reflected the Utopian aspirations of the Labour governments of 1945-50 and 1950-51, led by Clement Atlee. The first section of the M1 London to Birmingham motorway opened in November 1959. Dr Richard Beeching came along in the 1960s and on his recommendation the rural railway network was largely abandoned. He thought the car would rule from then onwards. The UK was still a manufacturing nation, jobs were plentiful, and when oil from British fields in the North Sea started flowing in the early 1970s, how bright the future seemed. The Franco-British supersonic Concorde made its first commercial flight in January 1976. The fatal flaw of Concorde, the fatal flaw of the transnational industrial age, was profligate use of energy. Concorde’s engines burned 5,638 gallons of fuel per hour, or 56.38 gallons for every one of a capacity load of 100 passengers. Concorde was not sustainable, and was withdrawn from service in 2003, the final flight taking place on November 26th.

The England and Wales planning system, though, has remained in the 1950s, in a landscape of suburban estates, industrial ‘parks’ and town-centre bypasses.

Lammas’s founders suffered years of failing to convince Pembrokeshire’s planners and councillors of the legitimacy of their vision, because low-impact development was off the agenda when the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was assembled, and has never been properly recognised as a permissible land use. We are stuck with outdated conceptions of development which oppress today’s priorities for low-emission, low-energy, local lifestyles.

Battles over planning legislation since 1947 have focused on whether and how to tax the rise in land values following the granting of planning permission.  The 1947 Act in Labour Britain introduced a 100% charge on the rise in land value, but the Conservatives suspended it when they came to power in 1951 and abolished it in 1954, although public bodies were able to buy land at its existing use value until 1959. The 1966-70 Labour government created both a Land Commission to buy land required for the implementation of national, regional and local plans, and a ‘betterment levy’ of 40% on value uplift. The following Conservative government of 1970-74 abolished both. When Labour returned in 1974, they tried a ‘development land tax’ of 80%, which Margaret Thatcher’s first Conservative government of 1979-83 cut to 60%, before her second government did away with it in 1985. During the ‘New Labour’ interval between 1997 and 2010, a ‘planning gain supplement’ was mooted but the idea, vehemently opposed by developers, was dropped in 2007.

Since 1945 the big argument has been about taxing the financial gain conveyed by planning permission. The concept of land use for an ecologically balanced future is missing from the main legal framework.

The first gesture towards low-impact development was on the edge of the UK, in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. In June 2006 Pembrokeshire County Council and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (the planning authority in the national park) adopted Policy 52, Supplementary Planning Guidance ‘Low Impact Development Making a Positive Contribution’.

Policy 52 applications must pass eight tests:

  • There must be environmental, social and/or economic contribution with public benefit.
  • All activities and structures must have low impact on the environment and low use of resources.
  • If there are buildings on the site, their re-use must have been investigated and incorporated wherever practical.
  • The project must be well integrated into the landscape and have no adverse visual effects.
  • The project must require a countryside location, must involve agriculture, forestry and/or horticulture, and be tied directly to the land on which it is located.
  • A sufficient livelihood for the residents on site must be provided.
  • The number of adult residents should be directly related to the demands of running the enterprise.
  • If the project involves members of more than one family, it must be managed and controlled by a trust, co-operative or other similar structure in which the occupiers have an interest.

The policy sets low-impact development firmly in a business frame. An appendix states that “if residents become unable to contribute to the proposal, due to age or illness, the Authorities will consider whether they can remain on the site”. This condition implies that a low-impact settlement is only for the hale and hearty, and primarily an enterprise, not a home or group of homes.

from ‘Solving the Grim Equation’, published in 2015 by Cambria Books, written by Pat Dodd Racher, pps 147-150. Planning policy 52 conveys an assumption that enterprise income is more important than family or group solidarity. Planning, generally, is about access to profit.

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