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Comment 2012: see entries for 5-14 December 2012 on planning

Comment 2015 : see entry for 11 April 2015 on planning


Author: Alan Evans


Fifteen years ago this seminal pamphlet on the planning system was published by Lord Harris of Highcross' Institute of Economic Affairs.

It was part inspiration for my article in the Daily Mail published by Sir David English on the day of the beginning of the 1989 Conservative Party Conference which he said prevented an incoming Secretary of State from introducing more restrictive planning legislation based on the old post-war Town and Country Planning Acts.

Professor Alan Evans' perceptive observations in No Room! No Room! are, if anything, more true today than ever before.

The tenor of his work can best be summed up by quoting from his concluding paragraph.

The pioneers of British town planning talked of 'garden cities for tomorrow' and hoped that planning would allow people to move away from crowded conurbations to these garden cities. It seems a strange perversion of the ideals of these pioneers that the system they worked to create should be used to prevent people moving to the country and to force them to live at high densities in gardenless flats and terraces'.

The curious title, of course, comes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. "No room! No room! they cried out when they saw Alice coming, "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

The table may not be a large one but in a generation when there is once again a growing population, a 1.0% - 1.5% greater use of Britain's land area would give many more space to live in at a much lower cost.

As the pamphlet summarises:

The British Town and Country planning system was originally designed to guide rather than restrict development. It has grown into a system which prevents development across the board.

This has imposed significant costs on the British economy. Many of these costs arise from unintended and unrecognised effects on the planning system.

Planning controls have led to spiralling house prices and increasingly crowded urban areas. This has decreased the quality of urban life.

15 years on (2004) the question Alan Evans poses - where should development take place? - is as live as ever.

The British public is voicing its own preferences. But without a sense of the whole picture, the broad brush perspective that Alan Evans provided, it fails to get its own way.

Most city dwellers have ancestors who came from the countryside. Some of their descendents are expressing a wish to return there. There is no reason why they should be prevented from doing so.

They should not be castigated as incomers driving up the price of property when they do so. It is not they who have artificially restricted the supply of land forcing up prices.

To usher them into existing villages at ever greater densities is not the answer. This is unfair on existing villagers. New villages must be created with densities similar to older villagers.

Low density in villages and moderate density in cities is a key to quality of life.

There are plenty of potential sellers of non-prime agricultural land, out of the line of sight of existing settlements, beyond the green belts. Nimbyism can be perfectly acceptable if there is plenty of land. They are not allowed to sell to Alice because they are told there is no land in England. If they were permitted to do so, competition would keep prices down.

In cities, many would like to modestly extend houses. There is often no great reason why they should not. Most houses can be extended once by 10% without planning permission. To raise this figure to 20% would meet many people's aspirations.

What is less welcome is planning officers showing excess enthusiasm when a large garden is filled in with a block of flats thereby fulfilling a centrally imposed quota to shoehorn dwellings into a city.

It is frequently the nearby green space, used by many or for private recreation, that is the most valuable rather than open space out of sight and out of mind.

Likewise there is little logic in cramming new housing onto sites on the periphery of cities at centrally dictated and excessive densities. It pushes outwards the boundaries of the green belt, formalised or not.

A town like Newmarket, horse racing capital of the world, has de facto satellite villages. It allows horses to wend their way between the polka dots of settlements. Much of the intervening open space is heathland with its famous gallops.

A city like nearby Cambridge needs more satellite villages.

Polka dot planning has been a relatively successful form of planning for Britain.

Beating ribbon development. Shaming today's high density cramming of cities. When London had an expanding population in the last century, the solution was to build garden cities beyond the Green Belt. By definition, these were only moderate density settlements. Despite the great attractions of London as a world capital, its population for many decades never rose to equal that before the garden cities were built.

In fifty pages, Alan Evans summed up the case for radical change in planning legislation. No Room! No Room! , though perhaps a little less controversial now, remains as relevant in its arguments as fifteen years ago. As Lord Harris explained to me, his Institute introduced market economics to Britain at a time when logical ideas were shocking.