Discover more from Little Built
The Planning System Does Too Much
The UK planning system does too much. It is used to change things about society that go far beyond the built environment.
We use the planning system to protect the environment, preserve our heritage, reduce noise, increase biodiversity, support the local character, promote light, promote cycling, promote driving, and fight crime.1
Thanks for reading Little Built! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Each of these goals are laudable in themselves, but in aggregate they cause tremendous damage. They create cascading costs and complexity for even simple, sensible changes. They price out smaller businesses from engaging with the planning system. And the net of all this is that fewer houses get built.
A prominent, recent example was the nutrient neutrality debate. Rivers containing excess phosphorous and nitrogen undergo a process called eutrophication, which drives an increase in algae and a depletion of oxygen. This can cause harms to the river’s ecology, and, in some severe cases, harm to human health.
In 2018, an ECJ ruling, supported by UK courts, ruled that new building projects should not add more nutrients to any already-stressed water systems. The idea was that any new project should either reduce its nutrient output to zero or offset it by making improvements elsewhere, thus achieving a ‘neutral’ impact on nutrient levels in local water bodies.
The trouble is that this is neither the correct problem to focus on, nor the correct solution to that problem. From Housing Today:
The figures from the Agency showed that for phosphate pollution, agriculture was thought to be behind 40-50% of the problem, with sewage treatment works contributing around 40%. With nitrogen pollution, treatment works contribute 48% of pollution load, agriculture 52%. The Environment Agency figures didn’t mention development per se or even urban run-off as a major source of pollution.
In short, urban run-off is not a main driver of this pollution: it is dwarfed by agriculture and sewage. Even if urban run-off were as high as 15%, new builds would be a small fraction of that; this is not the right problem to be focussing on.
But the problem is worse: demonstrating this neutrality has proven, time and again, to be extremely difficult and expensive – planning decisions are effectively on hold in 74 local authorities where the rules are in effect – so developers can’t get permission for sites. The net result is that we see a very small reduction in nutrient levels and a very large reduction in the number of houses being built.
The question I’m asking today is not whether we should care about nutrient pollution in our rivers: it is clearly a problem and something we should care about fixing. My question is whether the planning system itself should be responsible.
As the chief planner writes (my emphasis):
The levels of nutrient loads in treated wastewater is subject to pollution control regimes that sit outside of the planning system and which should address many of the issues relating to the discharge into rivers. Planning decisions should be made on the assumption that these pollution control regimes will operate effectively.
This bears repeating: we should legislate and regulate and do what we can to solve the environmental and social problems that we face. But we should also operate our planning system on the assumption that those regulations work.
Instead, the status quo is such that we overload our planning system with superfluous requirements which in many cases do little to make development more acceptable to local communities, and in all cases make it more expensive, difficult, risky, and therefore less likely to happen.
There is a general form of argument why this sort of overloading this is okay: the built environment is a public good, changes to the quality or distribution of this public good will cause externalities that we might wish to control, and the planning system allows us to control the built environment. Therefore we should use the planning system to control these externalities.
But this is of course not a valid argument. The existence of externalities caused by the existence of buildings doesn’t mean that the planning system is the right place to address those externalities: you could just as easily say that humans cause increased CO2 emissions, so our environmental policy should be implemented by midwives.
It’s clearly not good for the developers. But it’s also not good for the councils. Regulatory demands often exceed the capacity of council staff, stretching limited resources and potentially leading to compromised assessments, which cost the council far more in appeals. What we’ve done, in economic terms, is tried to internalise negative externalities by increasing transaction costs. This distorts the market: fewer houses get built and councils lose the leverage they had to begin with.
There are costs to more building. Roads get busier, schools have fewer places, more water is drawn and more pollution is emitted. But this sort of thinking ignores the entire other side of the balance sheet. More, denser housing means greater tax revenues and economic growth, more efficient employment markets, less pollution, better health outcomes.
The status quo is broken. So the question is: why do councils allow it? I have a few pet theories:
It’s a form of availability bias: the planning system is the one major discretionary power that councils have. If all you wield is a planning officer, everything will look like a planning problem.
The value uplift of granting planning permission goes to the landowners, and we don’t have effective ways – like a land value tax – of taxing it. Section 106 contributions, CIL, affordable housing requirements, etc., are structured in strange ways that make it difficult to spend the revenue collected in a flexible manner. So councils make demands as part of the planning application itself.
But I suspect that the real reason is that councillors just don’t like development. Environmentalists just don’t like development. Local residents just don’t like development. We have reached an equilibrium where we are structurally unambitious, and those who want to preserve that equilibrium will use whatever mechanism they can to throw sand in the gears.