11 Jul 2012

To plan, or not to plan

Here's an interesting local story with national implications. Cambridge MP, LibDem Julian Huppert (pictured), won a ballot to introduce a private member's bill in the House of Commons and he elected to ask his constituents for some ideas. Top of the poll was the suggestion that we should stop converting disused pubs into flats. But there was a second leg to the bill as well which would stop existing premises being turned into supermarkets.

Now these issues have resonance in Cambridge because we have lost 20 pubs in recent years - all having made way for flats. And we have gained dozens of supermarkets, Tesco Expresses in particular, which have done for lots of independent shops. It's a process that is going on all over the land but in Cambridge it seems to be on steroids. The issue is, of course, the clone town, which everybody and their aunt hates, but which planning has no issue with.

But underlying this is a wider issue which rarely gets an airing and that is the right of an owner to do what they wish with their property. If their pub doesn't stack up financially, why shouldn't the landlord be able to sell it to a developer? If a shop or warehouse is losing money, surely the owner should be able to sell it on to the highest bidder? If Huppert's bill was to become law — apparently this is most unlikely — then it would become the thin end of the wedge and the next thing would be neighbours demanding a veto over who you can sell your house to.

Strip it away still further and you can see the essential dilemma that underlies all issues to do with planning permission. What does "ownership of property" really entail? Or, to put it another way, how much control should your neighbours have over what you can or cannot do with your own land or property?

I would say that our attitudes are now thoroughly inconsistent. Everybody pays lip service to doing away with red tape and making planning permission easier, quicker and simpler to obtain — it's easy to back such notions when they have no direct effect on you. But nobody likes it when a much loved neighbourhood changes, when a once loved pub turns into yet more student accommodation or a little used snooker hall is scheduled to transform into a chain supermarket. Or a neighbour builds a sodding great extension blocking out the light. Or a village is scheduled to become home to a windfarm. Yes, in instances like this, we are nearly all NIMBYs, we sign petitions, we lobby MPs. Which is how Julian Huppert no doubt got the idea of introducing this bill.

But has he thought it through at a philosophical level? His bill may be democratic, but it's hardly liberal.


  1. I agree there are many inconsistencies. We handle planning permissions on a daily basis and sometimes it makes me wonder why they allow people(including me) to do some things

  2. Around the Norwich area there have been at least 15 pubs over the past few years that have been demolished and blocks of flats have been built on that ground and one that has been turned in to a Tesco Express.

    Seems the almighty 'dollar' is more important than community these days.

  3. There are so many issues here. Most of the country was layed out and built before there was anything like our modern Planning System and for the most part the towns and villages that resulted are the ones that people are so keen to 'preserve'.

    What the post war planning system has given us in spades is uniformity, the acres of identikit estates, town centres, traffic schemes. This is the natural outcome of central planning, it is not always bad (though it often is) but by its nature it is top-down and policy driven rather than bottom-up site specific. This usually leads to un-natural looking outcomes that please no one.

    Of course, the poicies are politically driven and sometimes contradictory. E.g. a)We must build more affordable homes, b)building should be on brown field sites, c)new homes should be at a minimum density; so it makes perfect sense to put up a block of small flats where a pub once stood. Meanwhile on the ground it just looks stupid.

  4. AnonymousJuly 30, 2012

    Mark, Your comment about a "great extension blocking out the light" raises an issue which has worried me and I haven't seen addressed. Lots of roofs are being fitted with solar panels and the government is encouraging more. When I look around at such roofs I often see potential shading arising in the future, either from the possibility of new or extended buildings nearby, or from what are presently small trees (or even trees not yet planted or naturally seeded).

    What will happen in coming years when those people who invested in solar panels on their roof find they're no longer working effectively due to somebody else's building or trees? Where I live, wild willows have grown from almost nothing to much higher than my roof in 10 years but they are on someone else's land - partly a neighbour's land and partly on land for which responsibility lies with the neighbour, the highways department or the environment agency, depending on who you ask (they all deny responsibility and do nothing). Luckily, I haven't put solar panels on my roof. Do you know if anyone has considered how this situation will be dealt with? I can see the lawyers making money out of it!
    Peter Barnes

  5. Peter,

    It's a point well made and I don't think anyone was thought this through yet. My own feelings are that domestic rooftops are not good locations for power plants and that we are storing up trouble by subsiding them so heavily. If the panels were genuinely supporting the energy use of the house (as solar thermal does), then there is a much better case for mounting them on your roof, but once you establish a grid connection and start exporting, then it becomes just another form of offsetting and you might as well do it professionally on large well managed solar farms where issues like trees and new building will be addressed properly.

  6. AnonymousJuly 30, 2012

    Another factor is that development of PV technology will accelerate faster than most people expect and the panels now on our roofs will be obsolete before they've paid back the installation costs. We'll all be crying out for the next version - what you might call the `Apple effect'. And the next version won't simply be more efficient at generating electricity, it'll be in the form of flexible panels, transparent panels, panels shaped as tiles or facia boards, windows with embedded PV and so on (some of it already becoming available now). We'll wonder in a few years time why anyone paid thousands of pounds for those big ugly things on their roof (the villages here already have old cottages with roofs almost completely covered on one side with PV panels).
    Peter Barnes

  7. If you have spent alot of money buying a property then your neighbors should have no control on what you can do. Sadly because of things like "If you build that extension i won't get sunlight" that we continue to have planning applications.