The unintended consequences of planning


In his Wiki Man column in this week’s Spectator, Rory Sutherland writes that “residential architecture is one area where innovation has stalled in Britain. Why? Perhaps planning laws need to change…” His argument is that the burden and complexity of UK planning laws mean that only developers build residential housing – trying to do it yourself is too much of a bureaucratic nightmare. The result is “standardization at odds with what most people really want.”

I think he’s right. The rather soulless uniformity of most modern developments is – at least in part – the result of regulation encouraging much larger economies of scale than would prevail in a free market. The planning system, in other words, accomplishes the opposite of what most people think it is for and leads to less attractive housing.

It isn’t hard to point to other unintended consequences of planning interventions. Why, for instance, have developers spent the last 10 years trying to put up blocks of flats in leafy suburban areas, where people actually want to buy detached houses with gardens? It might have something to do with John Prescott’s housing density requirements, which basically compelled developers to cram as many units onto each bit of land as possible. Likewise, the reason most modern housing is gloomy, sterile and airless has a lot to do with government imposed energy efficiency targets.

One could probably spend hours reeling off all the problems that the UK’s land-use planning system causes. But in short, it makes Britain less attractive, less liveable, more cramped and, of course, more expensive. It is a relic of post-war socialism, and its demise is long, long overdue.