Friday 30 May 2014

What would a world without planning be like?

Now I'm not sure about the planning regulations in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe these days but, as you wend past the slopes overlooking the Danube from Slovakia and Hungary, it is striking that the hillside is dotted with houses - mostly fairly modern looking and all different in style (other than in an enthusiasm for capturing the view). I'm also guessing that the typical western town planner would characterise this development as sprawl and, supported by enthusiastic environmentalists, would seek to prevent people simply buying a plot of land and building a house on that plot of land.

So rather than the rather attractive smattering of houses seen in the picture above we might get a glorious green hillside free from untidy housing. A situation described here in California:

The reason for all of this ostensibly is to preserve open space. This is a worthy goal when kept in perspective. But in California, NO open space is considered immediately acceptable for development. 

The consequence of this approach is dense, unhealthy urban concentration. We sneer at the old Eastern European apartment blocks ('Stalinist Baroque' as one Hungarian tour guide dubbed it) but fail to realise that our planning policies lead to the same conclusions. Indeed, in the article from which the quotation above is taken, the author shows two aerial photographs at the same scale - one of Soweto in South Africa showing the crammed consequences of racist housing policies and the other of a Sacramento suburb showing how the 'build absolutely nothing anywhere' approach to open space creates almost identically crammed housing.

But in some ways the Californian place is worse since, not only is the housing crammed and over-dense but many working-class Americans couldn't aspire to buying the property because it is too expensive. The Soweto properties have the merit of affordability whereas the Sacramento shacks are selling at $250,000 each. With the result that, to house the poor, governments end up building stuff like this:

Now it may be that this is exactly what the poor want! Except that, when Slovaks and Hungarians get a bit of money they buy a plot of land and build a house on it. Suggesting that the poor don't want to live in high density housing estates - they live in these places because it's what they can afford. Or rather what the government, through its control of development, allows them to afford.

We are slightly terrified (and living in the protected 'green belt' as I do, I understand this terror) of a relaxed planning environment. What we don't do is ask the logical question - what would a world free of planning controls be like? Would it be a 'development free-for-all' as rapacious housebuilders concrete over every last inch of green field in the pursuit of profit? Or would the absence of planning simply change the model - since development land would be less scarce might we get better space standards and improved build quality? Given lower land prices would there be more individual properties built - a bit like that Slovakian bank of the Danube?

What disappoints me in this debate is that the study of these matters at universities seems incapable of speculating about a world free from planning. Instead, the more typical response - especially in the UK - is to call for a more 'plan-led' system topped up with generous dollops of taxpayer cash to fill in the cracks created by that 'plan-led' system. I guess I should accept that someone who studies 'planning' is likely to be a fan of planning but, given the manifest failings of the system (and of endless attempts to improve it), asking what would happen if it weren't there would be a useful academic exercise.

Above all else, asking this question allows us to consider whether our current system helps create some of our manifest social problems by, in effect, concentrating poverty. This allows people (who should know better) to claim a neighbourhood effect in health and poverty rather than seeing that our dysfunctional planning systems (not just in land use but in housing, in health and in employment) might create the problem. Put in simple terms, people aren't poor because they live in Easterhouse. People live in Easterhouse because they are poor. Even with a less extreme example - look at any good-sized English town - you'll see the same effect with the less well-off concentrated in one part of town and living in poorer quality housing.

As Ed Ring concludes in his article about Californian planning control:

The victims are the underprivileged, the immigrants, the minority communities, retirees who collect Social Security, low wage earners and the disappearing middle class. Anyone who aspires to improve their circumstances can move to Houston and buy a home with relative ease, but in California, they have to struggle for shelter, endlessly, needlessly – contained and allegedly environmentally correct.

Now ask the same question about London?


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Cooke

Perhaps an experiment could be conducted where a part of the country has planning rules abolished for all development.

Doing this in a 'deprived' area might result in rapid economic development that decades of government incentives have failed to achieve.

That might be why such an experiment would never be contemplated.


ModernLibertarian said...

Really interesting article, relaxing planning laws would solve a whole host of problems, but I've never appreciated the perverse outcomes current planning policy creates in this way.

Trofim said...

It's a population problem. With a constantly increasing population, the concept of "enough housing" has no meaning.
People all over the world live in high-rise buildings without any problem and I'm sure there are millions in the UK too who would be happy without garden. I live in a road in Brum noted for its very long gardens and therefore very popular with gardeners. My next door neighbour oved in two years ago, and had a house-warming on the rear patio. Since that day, the chairs lie where they fell. He hasn't been in the garden since, and it is a wilderness of brambles. The folks next door to him - again, youngsters cut the grass and weeds once since they moved in, and do not go into the garden otherwise. Young people don't do gardening. They're happy with a balcony to sit out on.

Blogger said...

Land ownership/desirability is different in every country.

US has no planning in the early days - what happened to its great forests? The herds of Buffalo? etc.

Turning green field into brown field is easy, quick and cheap - turning it back is virtually impossible at any price.

Any American can afford a house - many are being virtually given away... just in places noone any longer wants to live. I dare say there are similar properties here in the UK.

Your appeal to 'build quality' is very odd - if you can take a field and throw up a shack for tuppance, many people would do so, from the thsousands of People who can afford no more.

The Barbican centre is high density - and is very popular... people like change (from flats to houses, houses to flats) but neither can be assumed to be more universally desirable.

Have a discussion by all means, but put a bit of thought into it first!