Reforming Planning – lessons from history

As parliament reassembles after its summer break, Planning reform is once again set to dominate the agenda.  After all the problems the Government had from the heritage lobby over the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework, I understand that George Osborne has decided that “if you can’t beat them join them”, and has asked for ideas from the History departments of all the Russell Group universities about how to free up Planning, and get the housing market working again.

A  mole inside Whitehall has passed me the Confidential Executive Summary of the Universities’ joint report, and here, exclusively, are some of the proposals.

1.  Best Practice from North America

A key problem in the British housing market is that it is in the hands of too few large companies, claims the report.  We need to free this up, and let the British live the American Dream.

It recommends instituting a practice based on the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.  All households on a Council waiting list anywhere in England would be eligible to take part in a Land Rush.   They would record their interest on a web-site, and then would be emailed details of the muster point the day before it is to happen.  At the sound of the starting gun, it would be every family for itself to move on to the site and fence off a plot of 0.03 hectares on which to build their dream home.   They would have to provide a credit card number, and would be billed once the fence was up.

The report identifies National Trust land as ideal for this, as it is all in the same ownership, virtually uninhabited, and is currently generating only a fraction of its potential economic return.    It points out that the National Trust owns 248,000 hectares of land – enough for over 8 million homes.  This could keep the building industry going for the next 25 years.  If the National Trust really has the interests of the nation at heart, say the report’s authors, it will embrace this idea.

The report suggests that the Land Rush will support several parts of the Government’s agenda.  It would give a massive kick start to the self-build programme, a concept close to Housing Minister Grant Schapps’ heart.  It would also provide the opportunity to institute Local Development Orders on a substantial scale.  If you successfully obtain a site in a Land Rush area you should be allowed to build a two storey house on your plot – no questions asked, suggest the authors.  There is also a major opportunity to be part of the Olympic Legacy.  Land rushes would be based around different Olympic sports.  At some sites families would have to run to their desired plot, at others cycle, and for the Island properties sailing or rowing would be involved.

2.  The experience of the 20th Century

It is clear from the chapter on modern history that a major dispute broke out between two Social History academics.  The section begins by pointing out that 1968 saw the highest level of housebuilding ever in Britain.  This was achieved under Harold Wilson’s labour government, when housing was planned and built by a state which looked after its citizens from cradle to grave.  However the subsequent paragraphs counter that this just created 400,000 houses that nobody has ever wanted to live in, and that 1935, when nearly 300,000 desirable semi’s were built in beautiful tree-lined avenues around our major cities, is the real success story.  And this was long before the current Planning system was put in place.

As a result of this disagreement the report recommends an experiment to find out which is best.  This will operate like the successful Athens ring odd / even number licence plate restrictions.  On Mondays, Wednesdays and alternate Fridays the planning system would be abolished, with builders able to build where they liked.  On Tuesdays, Thursdays and the remaining Fridays a system of Council house building will be introduced  in planned high-rise estates, associated with a programme of slum clearance.  At the end of a two year trial period the less successful method will be abolished.

The report suggests that this approach will be particularly attractive to the current Coalition Government, as it deliberately makes room for differing viewpoints.

3.  Learning from Archaeology

The report explains that detailed study of the archaeological record from key sites including Callanish, Castlerigg and Stonehenge has found that prehistoric stone circles were constructed without any problems from NIMBYism whatsoever.  The report suggests that a return to Palaeolithic values could therefore sweep away onerous and unpopular planning burdens for ever.  A pilot project is suggested in which Lincolnshire will be designated a Stone Age development area.  Households which are prepared to give up the trappings of modern life will be able to move to the east midlands county and build whatever and wherever they want.  Lincolnshire was chosen by the authors as it isn’t on the way to anywhere else and so won’t impact on the rest of the nation.

In recognition of some of the problems that a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle may cause, free internet cafés will be provided in nearby Hull, Newark, Kings Lynn and Peterborough where the latter day Fred and Wilma Flintstones will be able to log on and update their Facebook status.  The report suggests that this pilot project might also provide a solution to the obesity crisis as it will provide the opportunity to operate the highly fashionable paleo diet strictly and on a large scale.

4.  The Medieval scales of justice

Perhaps the most far-sighted idea comes from the section on the 13th century.  An approach based on tests for witchcraft is recommended as a simpler alternative to the current cumbersome planning appeal system.  Where planning permission is refused, and the applicant wishes to appeal, the case officer will be frog marched to the local lake, placed in a ducking stool and tied firmly.   He or she will then be asked whether they stand by their reasons for refusal.  On giving the answer “yes” they will be immersed in the water for two minutes.

If on being brought back out of the water they are found to have drowned, then unfortunately they will be unable to give their evidence, and so the Planning appeal will be upheld, and the development will proceed.  If however they are still alive, then they are obviously a witch and will be burnt at the stake.  In this case unfortunately they will also be unable to give their evidence, and so the Planning appeal will be upheld, and the development will proceed.  It is estimated that this will save well over £100 million per year in payments to public and private sector planners, and provide a great boost to housebuilding.

Overall I’m sure you will agree with me that the report makes interesting reading.  A Treasury spokesman assured me that none of the ideas were yet Government policy, but then he gave me a broad wink and assured me that we can always learn from history, and I shouldn’t have long to wait to find out which ones will be part of the legislative programme for the new parliamentary session.

  • Thomas Evans


  • Neil Mc Killen

    Very good Tim but remember that there are Torys out there who might be seriously attracted to the Witchcraft proposal.