This spring has seen town planning hit our TV screens in the fly-on-the-wall documentary The Planners. And very popular it is proving too, with 1.58 million people tuning in and the Guardian describing it as “interesting”. Every episode begins with a portentous voiceover describing how “the government” want to see a lot more development on greenfield sites. And on every episode there is at least one housing development where the local community get very irate and organise a campaign to try and halt it, with varying amounts of success.
The UK Government’s planning reforms – part of their Big Society agenda implemented through the Localism Act – were meant to unleash enterprise within communities and replace “top-down” housing targets with incentives for local communities with housing need to deliver higher levels of development. Yet, as Shelter highlight, new home completions are continuing to fall, reaching a record low and the government is now back-tracking on early commitments to empowerment.
In this blog post we describe why this outcome should have been expected because of inherent inequalities in the way citizens interact with public services – in this case the planning system.
The middle classes and the delivery of housing
In our research we carried out the first ever review of literature on middle-class community activism (Matthews and Hastings, 2013). This review of 69 studies across public services in the UK, USA and Scandinavian nations, found strong evidence that the middle-classes, or more socio-economically affluent groups, are favoured in the provision of public services. The review used a realist synthesis methodology ordinarily applied to policy analysis and evaluation. This aims to produce a mid-range causal theory that explains what works, in what contexts and how (for more detail on this methodology see Pawson et al. 2005).
Two of these causal theories that are particularly pertinent to planning for housing are:
The middle classes and interest groups
The middle classes are more likely to join groups, form groups, and these groups are more important in policy-making (e.g. School Governing Boards)
The middle classes as individual consumers/activists with public services
The middle classes are more likely to complain about public services. When they do so they are more likely to get a positive response and produce a virtuous circle.
We argue that these causal theories largely predict the sort of NIMBY (not in my back yard) behaviour that is portrayed as a key barrier to housing delivery in the UK planning system. The UK coalition government’s planning reforms contained in the Localism Act specifically sought to break the mechanism by incentivising NIMBYs who would have ordinarily resisted housing developments with financial benefits. If communities accepted new housing then they would receive greater investment through a reformed Community Infrastructure Levy (Roof Tax on new housing developments) and a New Homes Bonus where the increased tax base would be matched by an extra contribution from central government for five years. Unpacking the logic of this from the open source planning documents the outcome of low housing delivery is seen as a product of a mechanism of community resistance, but the logic lying behind this is that the new housing puts a strain on local services that is unwelcome. If this can be turned into an economic incentive, delivering benefits to local communities, then the outcome would be more housing – a causal mechanism of basic economic incentives. However, the evidence from the review of middle class service provision suggests they have misunderstood the way that resistance to new develop comes about and why, and ultimately predicts that the Localism Act is unlikely to be successful in overcoming NIMBY pressures against new housing.
Public engagement in the planning system has been a concern since the late 1960s and the publication of the Skeffington report (Hague, 1971). Importantly, under land-use planning legislation in the England the lowest level of local government – parish councils – are a statutory consultee that local planning authorities must engage with when drafting a development plan or deciding on a planning application. Parish councils, particularly in rural villages, are dominated by middle class, older men, often with professional backgrounds. From the earliest reforms to increase public participation in land-use planning that this may empower those most able and vocal, such as middle class civic amenity groups, has been recognised.
Linking this to the second causal theory above, the highly technical system land-use planning also supports the accumulation and use of cultural capital. To engage successfully with the planning system requires knowledge of technical planning language, complex technical terms such as what constitutes a “material consideration”, and knowledge of the system itself and when it is most effective to engage. The studies of rural affordable housing provision demonstrate that middle class parish council members are much more likely to have this knowledge and be able to apply it. The technical nature of planning processes enables the accumulation of this cultural capital as well. The evidence around this NIMBYist attitude was made even stronger by findings that many developers of controversial developments – such as wind energy – presumed that the public were vocal, lobbying and would resist all development.
In our review the evidence that the pre-2010 planning system in England favoured the middle classes was strong. To turn now and look at how planning is being reformed under the localism reforms, our causal theories suggest that the middle classes will continue to be favoured. As part of the Localism Act neighbourhood planning proposals have empowered local groups to produce their own plan which will be accepted as the key planning document for a locality so long as it is in line with national planning guidance, the local plan produced by the local planning authority and agreed at a local referendum. Although the UK Government has attempted to incentivise new development, the weight of evidence from our review of the planning system suggests that the neighbourhood planning proposals are a policy mechanism that is particularly susceptible to causal theories of middle class activism.
The reforms introduced by the Localism Act could have reversed the previous inequality in the land use planning system if they placed less affluent communities on an equal footing and provided them with the means to resist bad neighbour developments such as incinerators and heavy industry and create the types of development they wanted to see. The proposals set out in Open Source Planning that are being implemented as set out in the Localism Act suggest this will not happen. Most of the initial 17 neighbourhood planning pilots were in rural villages, and of those in urban centres arguably only Balsall Heath in Birmingham, Bermondsey in London, and North Shields Fish Quay in North Tyneside could be described as diverse or not affluent.
The implementation of the reforms has actually produced barriers that are likely to support, rather than challenge, the existing bias towards the middle class in the planning system. For example, although any group can come forward to develop a neighbourhood plan, they need to secure a majority vote in a referendum for any plan. This has raised fears that the proposals will allow developers to lead a neighbourhood planning process and impose development on less affluent communities as the latter would not have the resources, either in terms of time and money or cultural capital and knowledge of the planning system to come forward with their own proposals. The plans must also be in line with local, national and European policy and statute, for example requiring a strategic environmental assessment. Local authorities are meant to support local communities in developing the plans, however as they lose staff it is likely this will not be forthcoming. The neighbourhood planning proposals therefore benefit those communities that can organise most successfully and those that can draw on their own expertise and cultural capital.
The public debates about the planning reforms, and particularly surrounding the new single National Planning Policy Framework and its presumption in favour of sustainable development, led many to see neighbourhood planning as a NIMBYs charter. Campaign groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England arguing for protection of the green belt around major conurbations, were pitted against a coalition of business and housing and homelessness organisations fighting for strategic land release for development. These debates reflect on a national scale the same causal theories that our review identified as operating at a local level.
Our evidence suggests that the previous “top-down” housing targets of regional spatial strategies in England disrupted, momentarily, two of the key ways in which middle class, affluent groups could manage the planning system to their benefit. Without this, the fact that the reformed planning system has not unleashed a wave of development does not come as that great a surprise. The economic incentives of the new homes bonus are insufficient to overcome these causal mechanisms by which middle class residents can resist development.