Zonal plans…is the grass greener?

I undertake a fair bit of CPD during my morning commute by listening to podcasts, with the Centre for Cities series a particular favourite. The panel discussions cover issues facing English cities today from a political and economic perspective, such as competitive advantage, productivity, transport, and governance. I find these kinds of issues fascinating as they shape the plans cities choose to adopt (or avoid adopting), and the designs that developers, institutions and designers then develop.

A recent cycle home was marked by a Centre for Cities debate on the relative merits of developing Green Belt (protected open land) and Brownfield (previously developed) land. The definition of Green Belt or Brownfield is made within the planning system and associated legislation, so plan-making and securing planning permission featured prominently in the debate.

The debate featured a good understanding of the multiple (and laudable) reasons why Abercrombie and successors established the concept of Green Belt, namely to improve public health and well-being, protect green space as an agricultural and recreational resource, to protect the setting of historic settlements, and to prevent large settlements coalescing to the degree found in many parts of the world.

There was no definite conclusion on the merits of Green Belt vs. Brownfield, though a consensus was reached on a need for rebalancing. Proposals for awarding the Mayor of London (and other metropolitan centres) more powers over Green Belt in a bid to over-ride hyper local NIMBY opposition and work in the greater good seemed particularly sensible. As individual boroughs developing Local Plans place increasing emphasis on the London-wide housing needs assessments produced by the Mayor of London, this seems a good area for increased GLA powers.

Another observation from the panel was that English urban plans lack the real power, authority or vision that allocating development actually needs. They tend to be generic (often deliberately so), are hard to understand, and mean that few people lend them much credence. I would agree with this sentiment, and hence endeavour to lend the plans I work on a bit of story, imagination, visual power and magic.

The solution proposed by the panel was a shift to a zoning system for English planning, in the belief that this would provide certainty to the market and the public alike, and see more good quality housing built.

It was notable, however, that the panel represented interests from the worlds of private development and housing associations, but not urban planning. There was no-one to defend the current (admittedly strained) system, or point to its successes in ensuring the vast majority of England remains open land with (relatively) vibrant town centres (or at least fewer ghost towns than many other countries) and (relatively) good infrastructure. There was also no-one to point to the shortcomings of the zonal planning system, or question its appropriateness for England.

More resources should be devoted to plan-making – it has to be taken seriously, and seen as a hugely creative and vital undertaking. Looking at examples from Holland and Sweden show what we could be doing (and indeed are when English urban planners are working overseas). In addition, obtaining planning permission should not be an arduous and highly risky process complicated by emotionally charged, arbitrary and uninformed decisions. Local Development Orders may be a step in the right direction, but little evidence of English three-dimensional zoning plans exists as yet.

However, would The Shard was not in any plan and is now a daily feature of London life. Would the resources be available to draft zoning plans capable of coping with medieval street plans and super charged market forces found in the City of London and elsewhere in the capital? Would there be any more entrepreneurial development activity with the death of the discretionary planning system, when it was this system that created the modern English property developer (as brilliantly depicted in Marriott’s ‘The Property Boom’)? What would all the planning consultants do?!

I think this is an evolving debate, and the housing crisis means political will and resource will be allocated to further research (possibly). That said, I don’t see planning departments hiring urban planning talent en masse, or the state developing a national plan (though metro mayors may see some interesting new plans produced?).

English planning is still propped up by temporary and agency staff and their goodwill – the innovation required to produce zoning plans, and incorporate the technical innovation rightly championed by the Future Cities Catapult, seems a long way off when mugs are a scarcity in local authorities, let alone Virtual Reality equipment.

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