9 Sept 2011

The Portuguese Approach to Planning

I've just returned from a week in Portugal, staying with friends in a piece of the Western Algarve which has seen a lot of haphazard development over the past twenty years. It's pertinent to our ongoing debate about NPPF because the Algarve is a good example of what the National Trust/CPRE fear might happen to England if the new planning regime comes into force.

It's not that there is no planning permission in Portugal. I was hearing stories of people being evicted from land they owned on which they thought they had a right to build and didn't, so manifestly there are planning controls. But it's also obviously not a zoned system like we have in the UK, because there a lots of examples of new houses being built in isolated spots in the countryside. Quite why some houses should gain permission whilst others don't looks, to the casual observer (me) to be unfathomable.

As you travel around the highways and byways between Lagos and Sagres, at the very south-western tip of the European continent, what strikes you isn't the fact that the countryside has been "ruined" by haphazard development, but that some of the building is awful whilst other bits look just fine. Maybe I'm biased, but to me the catalogue homes which seemed to have been speculatively built for profit looked mostly dreadful, whilst the owner built houses sit quite comfortably in the landscape and don't blight it in any way. It's not black and white, not by any means, but there are some stunning new homes built in this area which really add to the landscape. And generally, the people who build them live there all year round and don't just use them as a holiday homes.

This area is interesting in other ways. Parts of it (the West Coast) are protected by National Park status and there is no new building allowed at all. It's a semi wilderness for horseriding, cycling, beachcombing and surfing. Just inland, there are a series of windfarms covering all the higher windy ground. Disfiguring? Possibly. But to me it just looks like pieces of machinery in working countryside, little different to power lines, telegraph poles and tractors. There are quarries too, the odd piece of woodland, and sheep grazing. Some very small towns and villages, and a scattering of small farms. It doesn't look like it's ever been particularly pristine, and so the addition of new houses or wind turbines (the sort of thing to give the CPRE kittens) doesn't stand out at all. The countryside doesn't look ordered like it does in England, but that's not a failure of the planning system - it's more like the way it's always been.

To suggest that Portugal is in trouble because of lax planning, as George Monbiot has done recently, seems just a tad bizarre. After all, we are not exactly rolling in it as the moment, are we? And one of the countries we aspire to in terms of economic well being — Germany — has a much more relaxed planning system than we do. Building in the countryside is something the Germans specialise in - last year they built 92,000 mostly rural selfbuilds — yet somehow I don't think the Germans are complaining about urban sprawl or mickey mouse planning.


  1. Hi Mark,
    I just wanted to correct one or two things.
    In Portugal all the land is zoned, each County has its own Local Development Plan and some areas within the Counties have Local Area Plans (more detailed). There are also two types of protected areas: the National Ecological Reserve (that you mentioned) and the National Agriculture Reserve.
    I agree that is shocking to see so many haphazard development, particularly with so many planning tools. The reasons can be many, including a corrupt system that favors personal interests over Portugal's national interests.
    Isabel Barros

  2. Thanks Isabel for your helpful comments. I guess the worrying thing is not that there's no planning system but that the one that does exist is so easily overridden.

  3. i could spend weeks replying to this post, but i'll keep it short. i would have haphazard construction in a heartbeat, over the totalitarian building controls wielded by the planning Nazis of this planet. the only thing worse than the type of development described above is the nightmare where the right for people to use their own property as they see fit, has been taken away at gunpoint!