Having described the main features of the system from a procedural point of view, what can one say about its main substantive policy stances towards housing? Probably the most abiding and pervasive feature of British planning, particularly applied to housing, is the emphasis on ‘urban containment’ (Hall et al. 1973; Champion 2002). This originated as a clear reaction against the ‘urban sprawl’ of the 1930s, but has been progressively reinforced by the conjunction of different policy and political influences up to the present day. Thus, it has served the wishes of Conservative politicians representing rural or peri-urban constituencies to resist large scale urban incursions, as well as that of Labour councils in cities wishing to hold on to their population and voters (Dunleavy 1981). It served the early-post-war drive to promote home-grown food, by protecting agricultural land, long after such policies ceased to make sense in the context of European Union (EU) food mountains and set-aside (Cheshire et al. 2014). It saved on resource costs for public infrastructure. It appeared to chime well with the newly emerging ‘sustainability’ agenda in planning, which became strongly associated with ‘compact cities’ (Jenks et al. 1996), primarily on the grounds of less car-dependence and transport emissions, and intellectually linked with the ‘new urbanist’ movement from the USA. The desire to promote urban regeneration and ‘renaissance’ gave a further boost to this strand of policy (Rogers/DETR 1999a).
The policy instruments which promote containment are, most obviously, the green belts around many (but not all) major cities and historic towns, originally proposed in the 1930s but implemented formally from the 1950s. However, more pervasive UK planning norms also reinforce containment: the general presumption against isolated or scattered development in the countryside; the designation of ‘envelopes’ around villages and larger settlements, implying a presumption against development outside these (Satsangi et al. 2010); the relatively short time horizons of plans, which militate against identification of major urban extension locations (School of Planning and Housing 2000). From the 1990s, also, an obsessive policy concern with raising the share of new development built on ‘brownfield’ (previously developed), land became a key performance indicator, arguably at the expense of ensuring an adequate supply of land in total (Bramley 2007).
The politics of containment continue to exert a significant hold on policymakers in England, especially, reinforced by the lobbying power of bodies such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), who ally a widespread deep affection for the countryside to the maintenance of persistent myths about the extent of urbanisation and the ‘threat’ posed by new housing (Cheshire et al. 2014; Evans 1991; Evans and Hartwich 2005; Taylor and Walker 2015). This hold is exemplified by the restatement of commitment to the green belt by the Conservative party in its successful 2015 election campaign, despite the manifest contradiction between this and rational solutions to the housing supply crisis promoted by a wide range of professional opinion.
Some other features of British planning policies and norms for housing are partly consequential on or associated with containment. British suburban housing densities are typically well above those traditionally seen in North America or Australasia. Attempts to promote high-rise housing in the public sector in the 1960s led to often unsuccessful and arguably inappropriate high-rise housing in peripheral estates (Dunleavy 1981). More recently, the drive to urban renaissance and brownfield emphasis contributed to a marked rise in densities in the mid-2000s (Dunse et al. 2013); this was also reinforced by market conditions for a period, before the market for city-centre and waterfront apartments became glutted.
Policies regarding socio-economic and tenure mix of housing schemes and communities are discussed further later on, in the context of ‘affordable’ and ‘inclusionary’ housing. Suffice to say that the history of policy here is pretty mixed to say the least, with traditional segregation between private and public sectors consequent on the traditional local authority housebuilding model. Whilst policymakers became more interested in mixed and balanced communities as a goal in the 2000s, the academic evidence base to support these goals remains fairly ambiguous.
An oft-heard critique of much new (suburban) housing from the 1950s through to the 1980s was that it was bland, soul-less and lacking in local facilities which could promote a sense and practice of community. Some of the resistance of local communities to new development reflected that experience. Thus, there was a good rationale for the ideas promoted in the Sustainable Communities Plan (ODPM 2003) and subsequently to use better design and attention to infrastructure in order to build communities which were more sustainable socially as well as environmentally, because hopefully this would build more support for new development (see also Bramley 2012b, Matthews et al 2014). A similar case can be made for the current flirtation with neighbourhood planning which purports to deliver planning powers to the neighbourhood scale (Matthews et al. 2014). However, there is less consensus about exactly what social sustainability, in particular, implies about ‘best practice’ in the design of new communities (Bramley et al. 2009; Dempsey et al. 2009).
It is sometimes instructive to ask what is not present, in a policy framework, as well as what is. It can be argued that the most obvious ‘housing policy’ which was largely absent in England, from about 1976 to about 2003, was a policy for overall housing supply (Bramley 2007; Barker 2004). There are a number of reasons for this absence, including the downturn in demographic growth, the ‘solving’ of the main post-World War II housing problems and the shift towards neoliberal pro-market ideologies. However, the decade of the 2000s provided a rude awakening and sudden rediscovery of housing supply as a problem. Whilst housing supply may still not be the top item on the policy agenda, it remains on the list of problematic issues which government has not fully got a grip of, which impact on the lives and aspirations of mainstream groups (e.g. young aspirant homeowners in ‘generation rent’) and which is linked to other issues which are politically sensitive (e.g. immigration).
The lack of policy focus on housing supply in England may be contrasted with the situation in a number of other countries, including Ireland and Spain discussed elsewhere in this volume. In these cases, construction and real estate development became a very large sector in the overall economy, accounting for a large part of the growth in GDP and employment at the national level and in many localities. National
Illustration 5.1 Local authority housing, Scotland. Local authority high-rise public tower blocks epitomised government housing provision during the modernist era.
(Image credit: Nicole Gurran 2014)
and local governments adopted an overwhelmingly positive stance towards the housing sector, which has been characterised in some literature as a form of ‘Keynesianism’ (Norris and Coates 2014), but were unfortunately blind to the dangers excess speculative development posed for economic stability. We are not necessarily arguing that in Britain governments (national and local) are not interested in promoting economic development—far from it—but the perceived reality in Britain is that housing is at best a relatively marginal sector in the economy and that new housing development imposes costs as well as benefits, without being particularly critical to the competitive edge of local economies.