Rubber Stamping the Planning Process
While the 1930s building boom is not something we would want to replicate in its entirety, the fact is that it resulted in the construction of 293,000 houses in 1934/5 and 279,000 in 1935/6. This construction boom, following the early double-dip recession of 1929-1933, contributed to economic activity, increased employment and provided large numbers of affordable homes to buy. As Professor Nicholas Craft has pointed out, 85% of new homes in the mid-1930s sold for less than £750 (£45,000 in today's money). Terraced houses in London could be bought for £395 (at a time when average earnings were about £165).
There were a number of reasons for this housing bonanza and not all of those can be reproduced today. There is no doubt however that one of the major factors, which is very much within our control, is the delay and expense inherent in the planning system.
As long ago as 1982 Robert Jones of the Adam Smith Institute wrote that planning in Britain was 'in the hands of uncoordinated local bureaucrats who apply personal values to anomalous by-laws, creating a perplexing confusion of rules and restrictions …'. He singled out the time and cost taken to obtain approval for particularly fierce criticism and evidenced how the planning system worked better in both the US and parts of continental Europe. In many ways we tend to think of the UK as steering a middle course between the unbridled capitalism of the one and the socialist bureaucracy of the other: in planning, at least, it is arguable that in fact we have the worst of both systems rather than the best.
A stark example of how far we have come is found on the Boardroom wall of homebuilders Cavanna Homes. It is an approved plan for a house built by Jeremy Cavanna's grandfather in 1933 - see below. On the right hand side are a series of single rubber stamps – one of which is neatly amended in manuscript – which map out the planning process at that time.
They read as follows:
12 July 1933 Torquay Engineers Office Received
12 July 1933 Torquay Town Council Received
17 July 1933 Torquay Town Council Approved (subject to combined drainage agreement)
21 July 1933 Borough of Torquay Approved (subject to works being carried out in accordance with all by-laws and s.15 Public Health Amendment Acts 1907)
25 July Borough of Torquay Approval Issued
These stamps reflect an approach to planning consistent with the principles of English common law – that an activity is allowed unless it is expressly forbidden. This is quite different from the philosophy underlying the 1947 Act which is entirely continental in principle and is increasingly common in UK legislation, particularly that giving effect to European law –not that an activity is allowed unless forbidden but instead the reverse - that it is forbidden unless it is expressly allowed.
That is quite different from the so-called presumption in favour of sustainable development and other recent changes which although welcome, do not represent a fundamental change in this approach. It should be possible however, given the political will on all sides to build more affordable housing, to expedite the time taken and to reduce the money spent in obtaining planning consent as a major step in the right direction.
We could start by re-introducing rubber stamps.