Photo by Darren Holden/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Come friendly reforms

…and fall on planning law

Liz Truss’s proposed investment zones have slipped under the radar amid the month-long meltdown over the new government’s economic reforms. The proposed “full-fat freeports” in 38 different parts of the country are a central piece of the government’s push for supply-side reforms to break Britain’s economy away from its miserable stagnation.

The government has promised to support any local authority that puts together the right bid for the zones, “including agreeing the specific tax incentives, planning liberalisation, and wider support for the local economy”. 

After much of the commentariat, business groups and both retired and serving politicians spent their time slamming Truss’s tax reforms, investment zones are now in the firing line, with Hugh Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association warning that they could create the “slums of the future”.

Ellis’s comments are laden with irony: the TCPA has been responsible for some of the worst planning disasters in British history. The new Housing and Business Secretaries, Simon Clarke and Jacob Rees-Mogg, should ignore them and stick with the urgently needed plans.

The TCPA agrees with the Government that Britain badly needs new homes. They also agree with the consensus among urbanists and the British public that too much of Britain’s development is composed of unremarkable, boxy, environmentally unfriendly urban extensions that people do not want to live in. So far, so good. But instead of urban extensions, the Town and Country Planning Association wants more New Towns. 

The New Towns programme ground to a halt because New Towns were so wildly unpopular wherever they were put — and not just because the residents were forced out of their terraced “slums” to move there. Stevenage was nicknamed “Silkingrad” after the then housing minister, Lewis Silkin. He was jeered by locals, who let the tyres of his car down when he visited.

New Towns are so unpopular that the TCPA itself refuses to publish its secret list of proposed New Town sites, because of the backlash they would create when locals learned what they were being threatened with.

Compare Canary Wharf with the horrors of Skelmersdale

Even setting that aside, how have these New Towns done? Compare Canary Wharf — one of the most successful areas in Europe, regenerated through an early predecessor of an investment zone — with the horrors of Skelmersdale.

Is Skelmersdale troubled because of its location? No. Skelmersdale has one of the highest per centages of children living in poverty in Lancashire at 27 per cent. Its poverty levels are above the national average. In 2020, Skelmersdale was rated as having the worst drugs problem of any medium-sized town in Lancashire. It is mocked locally for its endless roundabouts and its pedestrian-unfriendly design. 

The more successful New Towns like Bracknell and Milton Keynes have generally been placed in areas of the country that were already successful. Bracknell lies on the prosperous Reading-Waterloo commuter line, surrounded by the wealthy towns and villages of Royal Berkshire. Buckinghamshire’s Milton Keynes also slips within that affluent London commuter belt.

These are the best of the lot. The standard is more like Cumbernauld, a town that takes the idea of a cross-motorway service station and decides to add enormous slabs of concrete and the worst commie block-style architecture. It is a “town centre” — stretching the term to its limits — that is so monumentally ugly that the whole thing is being consigned to the dustbin of history.

Of course, the TCPA was also responsible for the worst disaster of all in the history of British planning: the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act, which has led to England having one of the worst housing shortages in the world. Perhaps we should take its prognostications with a pinch of salt.

Unlike New Towns, investment zones will only happen where local MPs and councils have requested them. They will be in places that are not environmentally sensitive, like the protected “brownfield” land that has had previous developments, and normal environmental protections will apply. Further, the political capital limits that have hampered development dreams of the past can be deftly sidestepped by adopting Special Development Orders (SDOs), which give areas the planning aspects that benefited New Towns — similar to those that regenerated Cardiff Bay. 

SDOs allow central government to permit any planning changes it likes in advance, without needing a new Act of Parliament. They can be used for various purposes, including the delivery of investment zones. Crucially for Liz Truss’s promise to “deliver, deliver, deliver” for the British people, SDOs can catalyse rapid growth. If passed urgently, they could produce results by mid-2023.

SDOs can be pushed without a vote in Parliament

With the 2024 election looming over every decision that this up-against-it ministry makes, small investment zones buttressed by SDOs could prove to plenty that the government has the right reforms for improving people’s lives.

Importantly, SDOs can be pushed without any need for a vote in Parliament at all — so the government has no need to worry about backbench rebellion at a time when talk of an uprising is swelling around Whitehall.

To succeed, Truss’s government will need to prove that her Investment Zones will be more effective than the Enterprise Zones introduced by Thatcher, and their successors under George Osborne, which the Office for Budget Responsibility said made “little difference” to economic growth.

The challenge to build and unleash Britain’s economic potential has only become more strained since Thatcher’s time, with the planning system being smothered by bureaucracy. The need to snap back against these restrictions has never been more urgent, but the political environment has stifled several attempts. The last Tory government all but abandoned its planning reform plans after Johnson’s direction sparked a backbench rebellion and the Lib Dem NIMBY rebellion in Chesham and Amersham.

Tory prospects with younger voters are already dismal — just one in 10 under 40s vote for the blue team — but they are destined to decline into further hopelessness if their approach to housing remains so feeble. Forced to move into areas they don’t love just so they can afford a house, young professionals yearn for an alternative future where they can live, work and socialise without the sacrifices currently demanded by the crippled housing market. The brutal ugliness of the New Towns experiment means that when these workers do escape to suburbia, their misery is compounded. They are the slums of today. Investment Zones could give young people thriving hubs of the future.

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