Planning regulations were first introduced in the UK in 1947 to address the pressing need for reconstruction following World War II. The regulations aimed to ensure that the development of houses and infrastructure was carried out in a sustainable and unprejudiced way, considering important factors such as the environment, economy, and social impacts. However, many have argued that these regulations have become overly bureaucratic and ultimately delay the construction process. Consequently, the UK is currently suffering a housing crisis as the price of housing continues to soar, since demand significantly exceeds supply. In 2022, the government pledged to ‘build more of the right homes in the right places’, with an aim to build 1,500,000 new houses within the next 5 years. Nonetheless, progress has been slow. According to the National Housing Federation, there is still a shortage of homes for over 4 million people in England alone, and this figure is predicted to rise to 7 million by 2040. Scrapping planning regulations can certainly speed up this process, but at what cost to the British economy and its welfare?
In a statement released in June 2022, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (the housing secretary at the time) announced that ‘we [the government] are going to put more publicly-owned brownfield land to use’. Brownfields are defined by Environment and Climate Change Canada as ‘abandoned, idle or underutilised commercial or industrial properties where past actions have caused environmental contamination’. These locations are thought of as ideal for meeting all developmental requirements and simultaneously protect green spaces. The countryside charity CRPE suggests that at least 1,061,346 housing units can be constructed in the 25,000 available hectares of brownfield land in the UK. Most brownfield sites are located in urban areas, though almost a third of those in England are located in high growth areas of Greater London. Thus, there is available space for sustainable development in areas that are attractive to live in, yet there has been an average annual net loss of 24,000 houses since 1991. One could argue that this is a consequence of extensive planning regulations and the overly administrative tasks they entail. If these oversights were abolished, the supply of housing would increase, helping to tackle the current housing crisis in an environmentally friendly way.
Furthermore, an increase in the supply of houses would result in an expansion of demand. This would lead to greater competition in housing markets and incentivise firms to lower their prices to gain customers and market share. In addition, it would encourage new companies to enter the market, forcing out overpriced and relatively low-quality suppliers, whilst at the same time inspiring innovation such as the construction of houses with solar panels or superior insulation. However, firms are incentivised by profit, and as a result, producers may become more relaxed about upholding ESG standards to decrease the cost of production and relay a lower price to the consumer.
However, not only could there be a possible fall in quality, but in the short-term consumers could experience a price increase; inventions require lots of time and money to develop as well as the increased marketing necessary to advertise the good. If firms are first to have a certain product, they can charge higher prices to compensate for earlier investments, but also take advantage of the scarcity in the market. However, these price changes for houses, infrastructure, and industrial estates depend upon the price elasticity of demand (PED), which is a measure of the responsiveness of quantity demanded for a product after a change in the price level. If the good is viewed as a necessity, like houses, PED would be relatively inelastic and an increase in supply would lead to a greater fall in the equilibrium price.
The scrapping of planning regulations could allow for the development of more infrastructure and industrial estates, which would create more available jobs in struggling sectors, stimulating long run economic growth whilst addressing regional inequalities. However, this is only if planning committees decide to develop areas that have previously been neglected, and not only locations which are close to all local amenities. Thus, bad planning could have the opposite effect and exacerbate already existing inequalities.
Another potential drawback of relaxing planning regulations is that it could destroy green spaces and wildlife habitats. Many regulations protect the natural environment from irreversible damage, such as the Environment Act (passed in 2021) which requires projects to have Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). This is an obligation for developers to ensure that all new proposals feature at least a 10% improvement to biodiversity and is a significant step forward from the Town and Country Planning Act (1990) and the Planning Act (2008), which only require mitigating the impact of development. The same act also states that the purpose of conservation is to protect ‘the setting of land with a natural environment or natural resources or which is a place of archaeological, architectural, artistic, cultural, or historic interest’. Without these regulations, developers may be free to build infrastructure and housing without regard for the impact on the environment, which could result in problems for wildlife and the climate, as well as the general wellbeing of local communities.
The success of construction projects and developments is largely dependent upon public opinion and the actions of the local community. Without regulations in place, the public has reduced input as firms and building companies have full control over the construction process. As a result, people can become the victims of negative externalities that arise throughout the construction process. Public opinion can influence the decisions made by local authorities and the government by forcing them to consider the concerns and suggestions of the community, either preventing problems from arising or potentially increasing the standard of living in the area. An example of this is the construction of the London Garden Bridge in 2015, led by actress Joanna Lumley and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The bridge was a proposed beauty spot across the river Thames, including green spaces, trees, and other exotic plants and wildlife. However, the idea faced significant opposition from residents who were concerned about local traffic, the cost, and the potential disruption to surrounding wildlife. Despite these worries, the project was given planning permission by the local council and was subsequently cancelled after years of delays and mounting costs in 2017.
Input from the public also often ensures that the process of construction is sustainable and carried out equitably. Developers and policymakers consider people’s perturbations to ensure that the development is environmentally friendly and socially just, which can be seen with the High Line Park in New York City. The park, situated on the West Side of Manhattan and first opened in 2009, was initiated by residents who wanted to preserve an abandoned railway as a public space, rather than see it demolished. One of the key concerns raised by the public during the planning process was the impact of the park on the local environment, and in response, designers incorporated several environmentally friendly features into its design. For example, the park provides habitats for local species, utilises a ‘green roof system’ which catches and filters rainwater, and features a lighting system that reduces energy use by up to 35% when compared to conventional appliances.
In addition to this, scrapping planning regulations discards almost all accountability by creating a lack of transparency, and removes liability for any problems that may occur. Before the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed in August 2018, killing 43 people and significantly damaging surrounding buildings, experts warned local authorities and communities about increased corrosion due to the lack of maintenance and expressed concerns about the bridge’s structural integrity, but they were largely ignored. Although the Italian government subsequently launched a formal investigation and arrested several of the men involved, who were later charged with negligence and manslaughter, the collapse of the Morandi Bridge serves as a tragic reminder of the responsibility required in these processes to ensure the safety and reliability of critical infrastructure.
Whilst introducing bureaucracy and delay into many projects, planning regulations are both productive and essential in many instances throughout the world. For example, strict regulations have been imposed in Tokyo in response to frequent natural disasters and in particular earthquakes. These were applied to the development of the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, a 27-floor skyscraper, designed to resemble a mobile phone and tailored specifically to be earthquake resistant. Similarly, ignoring established controls can have disastrous effects, as seen in the development of the Transbay Transit Centre building, serving as a bus terminal in San Francisco. Here, a late addition to the construction resulted in cracks in supporting steel beams which necessitated repair and an eventual downsizing of the original concept.
However, there are instances where regulations can impose delays which result in extensive costs and can threaten the very life of a project. In the UK for example, a third runway for Heathrow was first proposed in 2006, but has yet to be approved due to extensive planning controls addressing noise pollution, CO2 emissions, and the likely rerouting of roads, diversion of a river and demolition of an entire village. The case for streamlining the planning application process is however strong, and the Localism Act (2011) was passed in the UK to remove central government planning control by cutting targets on councils, easing the burden of inspection and reducing red tape. It also removed the imposition of excessive bureaucracy arising from regional strategies imposed by a single central body, and devolved more power to local authorities, introducing more flexibility to accommodate circumstances unique to certain projects and their demographic situation. This has had limited success as evidenced by project delays to both infrastructure and housing development and more needs to be done.
Ultimately, planning regulations exist to control the orderly and safe development of housing and infrastructure. Removing them altogether places communities, the environment, and the economy at considerable risk from both immediate and long-term adverse effects. In some cases, this risk cannot even be anticipated. The High Court has recently ordered the Government to outline its policies for net zero emissions by 2050, and these may very likely increase elements of planning regulation. However, there is an ongoing need to monitor the effectiveness of how planning regulations are applied and relaxed, and it should be made a priority to revise them accordingly and not scrap them altogether.