Planning in Great Britain

One might think that given many similarities in culture and in law (much of American law is derived from English common law), planning in the United States and Great Britain might be done in a similar manner. But this is not the case. In Britain the national government is much more powerful relative to subnational governments than is the case in the United States. For one point, Britain does not have a written constitution. Parliament can thus act with much more freedom than can the U.S. Congress. During the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher, Parliament temporarily abolished a number of municipal governments, including that of Greater London, and placed oversight of the affairs of these municipalities directly in its own hands.

Two other features of the British system should also be noted. In general, citizen participation and media coverage of the actions of local government are much more limited than in the United States.

The British elect their politicians and then expect them to get on with the job:

that is what they have been elected to do.2

That is a very different approach from the American tendency to elect the politicians, suspect that they are rascals, and watch them like a hawk.

Another feature of the British system is that questions that in the United States would be settled in court are settled administratively. A property owner who is displeased with a decision of a council (a unit of local government) may appeal it to the national level, but he or she does not take it to court. Since the passage of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, there has been no zoning in Great Britain. Even a project that conforms in every detail to the land-use plan of the council must have specific council approval before construction can begin. A builder cannot "build by right" as in the United States (see Chapter 9).

Planning in Great Britain Since World War II. In the 1930s, Great Britain, like much of the Western world, suffered from the high unemployment rates of the Great Depression. The problem had a strong geographic dimension. The London metropolitan area suffered moderately, but many of the more peripheral parts of the nation experienced real economic disaster. This was particularly so where the economic base was heavily dependent on manufacturing, ship building, or mining. Thus British officials and planners in the late 1930s saw much of the national planning problem as limiting the growth of the London metropolitan area and diverting economic growth to other parts of the nation.

Little could be done to effectuate this vision during World War II (1939-1945), but even in the early stages of the war, when it was far from certain who would win, planning continued. The strategy that emerged was embodied in a series of laws passed by Parliament in the decade after the end of the war. The main thrust of the plan that emerged in the early postwar period was to:

  • 1. Limit the growth of London and a few other major cities.
  • 2. Preserve as much as possible of Britain's remaining farmland and countryside from development.
  • 3. Strengthen the economy and prevent population decline in lagging outlying areas.

To effectuate these goals, the national plan had three main elements:

  • 1. A system of greenbelts surrounding London and other major cities.3
  • 2. The creation of new towns.
  • 3. The use of subsidies and regulations to divert economic growth from London to lagging areas of the nation.4

The last element, namely the use of subsidies and regulations to divert growth, was never very successful, but elements 1 and 2 were carried out vigorously and have changed the face of Britain.

The concept of the greenbelt was enunciated in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and remains policy up to this time. The greenbelts are the most striking manifestation of British planning. The American planner making an automobile trip from, say, the city of Oxford to the city of London, located about 40 miles to the east, encounters a very "un-American" sort of landscape. Oxford (population about 100,000) is densely developed by American standards, yet the instant a traveler leaves the city, he or she is in the countryside. There is no transitional suburban or exurban zone. The motorway into London passes through countryside. There are fields, woods, and an occasional house or hamlet in the distance. At the London end of the trip, the transition back from countryside to city is equally abrupt. One moment the traveler is passing through fields and pastures, and the next moment the traveler is in a dense urban environment.

Clearly, the spreading and scattered development that would have been produced by the natural working of market forces was blocked. How was this done? The Town and Country Planning Act simply froze development in the greenbelt areas. The development that already existed was permitted to remain, but new development was simply forbidden. A limited amount of compensation was paid to some landowners for losing the development potential of their land. Basically, though, the government had "nationalized development rights." Parliament had, in effect, ruled that the property owner does not have the automatic right to profit from increases in land value, nor the right to be compensated should the government prevent him or her from developing the land in the most profitable use. Although the political pendulum has swung back and forth from left to right in the intervening seven decades, the basic greenbelt plan has held.

One might ask what happened to all the population and housing growth that would otherwise have gone into the areas designated as green- belts. Part was absorbed in existing urban centers. British planners have used the term "town cramming." As demand for housing and business locations in already urbanized places increases and property values rise, there is an understandable tendency for denser development to occur in town and for every available parcel of land to be used. The trade-off is inevitable. The more congested town and the unspoiled expanse of the greenbelt are the flip sides of the same coin.

Another portion of the population growth deflected by the greenbelts was housed in new towns. Between the end of the war and 1980, over 30 new towns were begun in Great Britain. The first wave, started in the 1946 to 1951 period, included both towns located around London and towns located in lagging areas of the nation. In the period after 1960, additional towns were begun in order to relieve population pressures around other urban areas. By 1990, according to Peter Hall, new towns that were begun since the end of World War II contained about 700,000 housing units and a population of about 2 million.5 Although new towns absorbed some of the population growth that might have gone into the greenbelt, the part that they did not absorb led to an increase in long-distance commuting, a result that was not part of the plan.

Milton Keynes, located about 60 miles north of London, is one of the new towns built in Great Britain after World War II. The commercial center is located proximate to the train station. Most housing is in small hamlets separated by open space. The town has a dual circulation system with roads for automobiles and an extensive parallel system of bicycle and footpaths. Above, a view of the commercial area seen from across a roundabout (rotary) at the intersection of two bicycle paths. Note the underpass for these paths under the automobile road at upper left. Below, a view of one of the hamlets from the path. Automobile access is from the other side of the hamlet.

The British system of strong central government and relatively weak local governments facilitated the building of new towns. The process was set in motion by Parliament in 1946 by the passage of the New Towns Act. The building of a new town was the responsibility of a group of directors appointed by a national official, the Minister of Town and Country Planning. The committee, in turn, hired staff to do the planning and administrative work. The Commission had broad powers to acquire land either by purchase or by condemnation, and to construct housing, commercial and public buildings, and the infrastructure such as roads and sanitary facilities necessary to support the town.6 The law called for consultation with local councils (governments), but the real power was in the hands of the directors appointed by the national government, and the wishes of local governments could be overruled. The money to support these expenditures came from long-term bonds issued by the national government, subsidized in part by some deferred payment arrangements. The reader might compare this process with the building of planned communities in the United States as described in Chapter 7. In the United States, the planned community, whether it is small or covers thousands of acres as in the cases of Reston, Virginia (see Chapter 10), and Columbia, Maryland, occurs on land owned by the developer and is done as a profit-making venture. The capital involved is entirely or almost entirely private. The community is built pursuant to the permission of local government. If the necessary rezonings and other adjustments in land controls are not granted, then the project cannot be done. The land involved is acquired through voluntary sale by private landowners. In some cases, like that of Columbia, Maryland, built by the Rouse Corporation, land was purchased very discreetly through a variety of dummy organizations, since, if Rouse's intentions had been known, land prices would have risen sharply, making the project impossible.

The building of the new towns was influenced in many ways by the ideas of the turn-of-the-century planner Ebenezer Howard (see Chapter 3). Howard argued that land values were created by public investment and should be captured by the public, not by individual property owners.7 In the new towns much of the land and many of the structures were owned by the commission that built the town, and so as land and property values increased, the commission could capture that increase either as rents or, from time to time, sales of property. The monies realized from increases in property value were, in turn, used to pay off the bonds that underwrote the development of the new town.

The physical planning of the town also reflected Howard's thinking. The original town plans generally aimed for populations in the 30,000 to 60,000 range, which was similar in size to what Howard had suggested. (Some new towns, like Milton Keynes, which is about an hour's train ride north of London, have been much larger.) He favored a population size large enough to sustain a significant amount of economic activity so that the town would be more than just a bedroom community. On the other hand, he favored a small enough size so that places of business could be reasonably close to people's homes and so that an ample amount of the natural world would survive within the town. He also favored a ring road (a rail line in the original conception) that took traffic out of the town and also connected the town to the central city and the rest of the metropolitan region. Finally, the original Howard vision called for the location of some industrial activity outside the ring road to keep it from impinging upon residential areas. All these design elements showed up in many new town plans.

Although greenbelts and new towns are the most distinctive features of post-World War II British planning, there were other important elements as well. Like all other nations with advanced economies, the British had to confront the postwar explosion in automobile ownership. Thus an important part of British planning in the last several decades has been a system of high-speed limited-access motorways similar in overall design to the U.S. interstate system. One of the persistent British planning problems is traffic congestion. The high rate of automobile ownership coupled with high population density make that problem inevitable.

In the years immediately following the end of World War II, much subsidized housing was built in central areas, and as part of that process there was also a great deal of slum clearance. New housing was needed both to replace housing destroyed by bombing during the war and to make up for the slow rate of construction during the Great Depression and war years. Clearance was needed to replace much very-low-quality housing that had survived the war. Urban housing conditions in Britain had been worse than those on much of the continent for a simple historic reason. The industrial revolution began in Great Britain, and so the process of rapid urban growth got started there much sooner than in other nations. For example, the coming of rapid industrialization in Germany trailed that of Great Britain by more than half a century, and in Scandinavia the process lagged by approximately a century.8 Thus Great Britain had masses of densely developed, low-standard urban housing dating from early in the nineteenth century. As measured by physical indexes like overcrowding and poor plumbing facilities, considerable improvement in housing quality was achieved by this combination of building and clearance.

British Planning Since the 1970s. Although a great deal had been accomplished by the 1970s new needs were becoming apparent, and some dissatisfactions with the results of the early post-World War II planning were being voiced. Then, too, Great Britain was changing politically. There was considerable dissatisfaction with the British welfare state, what some have termed the "nanny state," and there was also a feeling that the British economy would perform better if more were left to the market and less to the state. In short, Britain was moving to the right politically. In 1979 the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, assumed power. Thatcher herself enjoyed the longest period in office of any British prime minister in a century and was then succeeded by the less colorful but quite conservative John Major. The Conservatives did not relinquish power until 1997, with the election of a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair (1997-2007). By that time the British political center of gravity had moved far enough to the right that on most domestic policy issues the Blair government looked remarkably like the Conservative government of a few years earlier.

But even before Thatcher took office, the planning agenda had begun to shift. It had become apparent that none of the accomplishments previously noted did much for the problems of depressed inner-city areas. In fact, it could easily be argued that the building of new towns and new housing developments (called "housing estates" in Great Britain) in peripheral areas actually increased blight in inner cities. This situation is analogous to that in the United States, in which post-World War II suburbanization sucked income and jobs out of the inner cities, leaving behind a stranded underclass that was not capable of participating in the general prosperity of the nation. Then, too, there was the issue of national economic competitiveness. Britain was growing economically at a slower rate than a number of nations on the continent and elsewhere, a fact that many attributed to the effects of regulation and heavy taxation.9

The Thatcher government essentially stopped making grand national plans. To use the terminology that will be introduced in Chapter 19, there was a shift from a comprehensive to an incremental planning philosophy. The British government began to focus on deteriorated urban areas and to try to involve private capital as much as possible. One Thatcher initiative was the Enterprise Zone, a concept developed by British planner Peter Hall, cited earlier in this chapter. A depressed part of a city would be designated as an Enterprise Zone, and within that part, builders and firms would be eligible for a variety of tax breaks and would be free from many ordinary planning restrictions. This idea later crossed the Atlantic and appeared in the United States in the form of Enterprise Zones in a number of states and then later at the federal level in the Clinton administration's Empowerment Zones.

Another closely related Thatcher administration initiative was the Urban Development Corporation (UDC). These organizations were designated and funded by the national government. In their designated areas they had the power to take property and to override the plans of local government. Their boards of directors were heavily weighted toward businesspeople to give them a pro-business focus. The goal of the UDC was to make the area attractive to private investment by establishing the preconditions for development, such as providing cleared sites and infrastructure improvements. The parallel with U.S. urban policy, particularly Urban Renewal, is very strong.

The most visible single result of the Enterprise Zone and UDC approach is the Canary Wharf development on the Isle of Dogs, a part of the London Docklands area. Within the Isle of Dogs Enterprise Zone, an enormous amount of capital, most of it private, has been invested to produce a massive office and retail development. The path was not a smooth one. In fact, the Canadian development firm Olympia and York, which did a great deal of the actual construction, went bankrupt during the building. Nonetheless, Canary Wharf is a very impressive development. At least for a time, it was the largest office development in Europe, with work spaces for about 45,000 people.

In brief, planning in Great Britain moved in the direction of what is often termed "property-led" development, meaning that the pattern of development was largely shaped by the competition for private capital investment in property. When government seeks private capital investment and a development depends on private investment, compromise becomes necessary, and some of the decision-making power necessarily shifts from public to private hands. As discussed subsequently, the trend toward "property-led" development made itself felt at about the same time in a number of nations on the continent. The cause was basically the same— strain on the public purse and the desire to be economically competitive. In its emphasis on private investment and in the competition between places for private investment, the British planning scene became more similar to the American scene.

The Thatcher government also introduced a variety of American-style programs designed to foster competition and to integrate construction programs with schemes designed to attack underlying social and economic problems. Among these were some grants for which cities had to compete and some investment in manpower training programs to increase the employability of the residents of poorer areas.10 Again, the parallel with U.S. policy is very strong. Planning policy in Great Britain did not change substantially under the subsequent Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

However, under Conservative prime minister David Cameron, elected in 2010, there has been a devolution of planning authority downward and a further emphasis on growth. Some of this may be ideological, but some also stems from Great Britain's economic situation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. At this writing the British government faces large budget deficits and has responded by laying off many public sector employees, raising tuition at public universities, and cutting back on the "social safety net" in general. All of this is driven by a desire to reduce government deficits and defend the British pound. It is clearly not a situation that favors major planning initiatives. Within the three tiers of the British planning system, responsibility has been pushed down from the national level to the regional level and from the regional level to the local level.

In 2011 Parliament passed the Localism Act which abolished the making of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS).11 These had been part of an attempt to influence the rate of housing construction and hence the rate of population growth in various parts of the nation. Instead, a great deal of power was ceded to local housing authorities and the idea of a national housing plan discarded. New rules permit a group as small as three—what one British planner characterized as "mom, dad and the dog"—to set up a neighborhood forum that can bring planning proposals forward at the local level. But, in keeping with the big priority of the Cameron government, such proposals must promote growth.

Perhaps the biggest planning problem today in Great Britain is housing supply and price. The rate of new construction is about half that of new household formation. One result is that housing prices are climbing much faster than incomes and faster than prices in general. This has been going on for some time. The Economist (a British weekly published on both sides of the Atlantic) notes that "If since 1971 the price of groceries had risen as steeply as the cost of housing, a chicken would cost ?51 [$83]."12

The British, like the Americans, favor homeownership. Across the twentieth century homeownership rose dramatically, peaking at 69 percent of all households in 2001. Since then it has dropped to 64 percent, largely because construction has been limited. One would think that high home prices would evoke much construction activity, but that has not been the case. Predictably, homeownership is being priced out of reach for many Britons, many families double up, and increasing numbers of people occupy substandard or illegal spaces.

The problem has much to do with land-use controls. In the parts of Great Britain where the demand for new housing is greatest, the more southern parts, and, in particular, the London metropolitan area and its surroundings, the greenbelt keeps masses of land out of development. The "town cramming" mentioned previously has reduced the supply of available land in cities and towns. Where there is developable land, local governments often resist development under the pressure of NIMBYism. When the Localism Act mentioned above was passed, it was hoped that devolving power to lower levels of government would reduce bureaucratic delays and substitute the wisdom of the marketplace for centralized decision making. But the results have been meager at best.

Clearly the situation is unsatisfactory and pressure is building. It will have to be resolved somehow. One obvious solution is to chip away at the greenbelts. But they have been there, sacrosanct since 1947, and understandably many people are very attached to them as they are. How the matter will be resolved remains to be seen.

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