From the wrong questions to the right answers

Our society is facing a series of major crises related to the ways we use and develop land.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the ways in which homes and neighbourhoods are harming people’s health and wellbeing, a detriment that falls disproportionately on the poor, BAME communities, and women with caring responsibilities.[1]

The housing crisis, the use of property as a refuge for mobile global capital, the ability of developers to avoid obligations to build affordable homes, and the gentrification of neighbourhoods all continue to erode the rights of ordinary people to the city.

And by failing to build to the highest environmental standards in the right locations, we are collectively borrowing from the future, locking people into unsustainable lifestyles that worsen the climate emergency.[2]

We cannot go on like this.

The Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future argues that the planning system is the problem. As we showed in our previous report, The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions,[3] powerful land, property, technology, and construction interests have sway over government thinking, including the influence of think tanks who advocate free-market fundamentalism. “Streamline planning,” these interests say, “And the market will do the rest!”.

But the evidence to support this claim is weak. Even though it seems counterintuitive, increasing the supply of new housing alone will not, by itself, improve housing affordability.[4] Furthermore, the social and environmental costs of a poorly planned free-for-all are huge. The shoddy outcomes and inequalities we see in our built environment today are not the products of too much regulation, but the consequences of a market-led model that for too long has put the exchange value of land ahead of the real needs of people and the planet. 

In The Right Answers to the Right Questions, published today on the TCPA website we aim to present a hopeful alternative. We want to get beyond the cold-hearted logic of efficiency and profit in the White Paper, and to present a very different agenda for planning reform. Based on well-established principles, we argue that planning can be used to build more inclusive, equitable, healthy, and sustainable places, playing a vital, positive role in tackling the three crises outlined above.

Our contributions are framed around a shared set of values:

1. Planning must care for the future

Planning should be premised on care for the future, ensuring we look after our built and natural environmental resources so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Climate change operates on a lag: the consequences of the emissions we are creating today will not be felt for a decade or more. It is fundamentally unfair to require future generations to pay the costs for our current standards of living. Since the built environment makes a major contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, planning can play a very significant role in the move to carbon-neutral, energy-efficient building. It can also help reverse habitat depletion and biodiversity loss by setting aside land for green corridors, nature reserves, and rewilding. Equally critical is the environmentally conscious restructuring of whole regions and sub-regions, creating low emission transport systems for new balances of residence, work, and leisure. 

2. Planning must foster democracy and inclusion

There are many ways of knowing and valuing places. This means that spatial decisions are always political and often controversial, leading to sometimes bitter battles between different interest groups. Full, open, and democratic processes of engagement and consultation are important to ensure that all voices are heard, especially those who have the least power and influence. To make this a reality, deliberative engagement must be far better resourced, funded, and targeted than it is currently.

However, these democratic conversations need to move beyond merely listening to people’s pre-existing preferences, or encouraging them to engage passively. They must seek to develop a conversation that leads to a deeper understanding of what can be achieved through stronger collective action. 

3. Planning must reduce inequality

The ways we use and develop land contribute significantly to wealth inequalities and structural injustices of race, class, and gender. These limit the health, wellbeing, and life chances of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in our society. Meanwhile, land and property are being used as an investment vehicle for capital (often on an international basis); a process that drives up prices, extracting value at the expense of communities.

Historically, planning practices have reinforced these processes. Any progressive agenda for planning must instead promote social justice. This requires change to amplify the voices of minority groups and to expand the choices of those who have the least power in society by promoting outcome-related rights to the city.

4. Planning must promote health and wellbeing

The 2020 Marmot Review revealed that increases in health and life expectancy have slowed since 2010. This effect is more pronounced in more deprived communities, with those in the North being particularly hard hit. This negative effect on health is of a magnitude not witnessed in England for 120 years.

Spatial inequalities play a role in this, especially poor quality housing. Physical and mental health are also negatively impacted by a low quality public realm (including a lack of retail diversity), high levels of noise and air pollution, a lack of green space, unsafe roads, and non-inclusive urban design (e.g. cluttered pavements that disadvantage those with mobility problems). The explosion in the number of households in temporary accommodation, and the number of individuals who are homeless, must also be considered as a public health tragedy. To put it simply, we are already witnessing the negative effects of a market-driven development system in the health statistics. Reversing this must be a top priority of a reformed planning system[5].

5. Planning must think beyond the local

The consequences of an energy-inefficient and wasteful development in one locality may well be borne not only by those living locally, but by vulnerable black and indigenous communities on the other side of the world. If local impacts alone are considered by the planning system, then these wider regional, national, or even international ramifications tend to be missed. Considering the distribution of wealth and spatial resources at a national, regional, and sub-regional level is also critical to rebalancing the national economy and redistributing wealth (or ‘levelling up’). 

6. Planning must redistribute the value of land 

Over recent decades, the value of land has increased significantly in many areas. This is helping to drive up the cost of housing, pricing out many lower value uses and many poorer users.

Planning permission triggers significant increases in land and property values: gaining permission to develop transforms an agriculture field in Hertfordshire that is worth £25,000 into a business opportunity worth £7.5 million[6].  The landowner has done nothing to ‘earn’ this money: it is effectively a gift from the state to landowners, and it harms the interest of ordinary people. It is important, and right, to recapture and redistribute a large proportion of this state-created uplift in value to provide the essential infrastructure and services that communities need, and to create happier, healthier places. 

7. Laissez-faire has had its day

Recent decades have been dominated by the neoliberal belief that private enterprise and market competition are the most efficient and effective ways of developing society. Economic growth has been prized above all else.

It is now clear that this model is socially and environmentally unsustainable. Huge concentrations of wealth and market power have been accumulated by a small number of people via speculation in land and property, while an ever growing number of people are being priced out of both rented and mortgaged housing. To change things, we need much stronger forms of public intervention to shape more equitable and sustainable patterns of land ownership, development, and land-use 

8. Planning must develop values and purposes beyond profit

Our current planning system stands in urgent need of reform. But the White Paper’s suggestions represent a wholesale move in the wrong direction. We need to find much more holistic and outcome-focused ways of understanding the value of planning. We don’t need less regulation, but better regulation, producing the healthy, sustainable, equal places that people deserve.

We need a planning process that is staffed by well-funded, well-resourced local and regional planners, who will act as the guardians of a democratic process of spatial decision-making. But more urgently than anything, we need to produce better outcomes that improve people’s environments, and therefore also their lives.


About the report

The Right Answers to the Right Questions is an independent report that contains sixteen separate contributions from twenty-two leading academics and researchers, who are all actively engaged in researching, practicing, and teaching planning. This blog post is an edited version of the Introduction to the report. Following our previous publication, The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions, we see this as a further contribution to an urgent and important conversation about the role and purpose of planning. We would welcome additional input or ideas. For further information please contact: Andy Inch ([email protected])

[1] See Place Alliance (2020) Home Comforts and  the TCPAs’ campaign for a Healthy Homes Act:

[2] Committee on Climate Change (2019) UK Housing: Fit for the Future

[3] The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions:

[4] For a summary of the reasons, see Colenutt, Bradley, and Clifford’s articles in The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions

[5] See Crookes’ contribution below and the TCPAs work on health and planning:

[6]Valuation Office (2019) Land Value Estimates for Policy Appraisal, London: MHCLG

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