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  • Whiterock Wales

Planning our way into a crisis

They don’t make land like they used to, goes the saying. True enough, but there’s a feeling that today’s planning system has never quite dropped its feudal mind-set either.

At least that’s the opinion of Christian Hilber, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, and who recently presented the Commons Treasury Select Committee with a radical reform package.

Its long been contended that our approach to planning has less to do with the principles of supply and demand as the idea of need versus desirability. Hence a constant shortage of decent accommodation.

This dilemma was offset by a post-war council house boom initiated by the Conservatives – but also ended by them 30 years later. Now a new generation reaps the whirlwind.

Hilber holds the opinion that what we call ‘development control’ – where individual applications are tested on merit – is more fixated on people with property rather than people who need it.

However, his solutions to redress this are controversial to say the least.

The first proposition is to replace development control with a ‘zoning’ system. This move, he claims, would simplify land allocation and take away the ability of developers to hoard land and delay development.

Zoning would also remove the horse-trading that goes on where local authorities can extract sizeable financial concessions out of developers as a condition of approval.

The result is that smaller-scale firms could then enter the market and boost competition – breaking down what many feel has become a cosy monopoly for the industry’s big names. Prices would fall accordingly, he states.

His next recommendation is to introduce financial incentives to local authorities such as abolishing Stamp Duty and converting council tax into an annual local property tax - or possibly a local land value tax with automatic revaluations.

His contention is that councils could focus across the housing spectrum with better land-use options and provide an incentive to diminish the number of vacant residential properties. Another suggestion is upfront ‘impact fees’ to pay for additional local public infrastructure and services.

The last and most provocative recommendation is to look again at constraints such as green belts, height restriction zones, protected view corridors and conservation areas. Local authorities, and statutory third parties, would need to justify the reasons for such restrictions instead of imposing a rubber-stamp rejection.

Policy makers elsewhere are already looking at reforms. The 2016 Budget explicitly mentioned “moving to a more zonal planning system” as means of reducing “planning-related uncertainty”.

Few doubt that effective supply-side reforms could boost the construction industry and provide meaningful affordability across the entire housing sector. Whether Hilber’s radical approach could get even partial political support is another thing entirely.

A recent factor could be confirmation that the private rented sector market is adding to problems with the effect that the housing benefit bill is now £9.3bn a year.

For every pundit who says reform is unlikely there is another who says the pressures will be too great to resist – and that Wales will eventually follow England if fundamental change happens.

Investing in our future

You may have already read that the newly-built Ysgol Bae Baglan school has opened its doors to students.

The £40m school development marks a milestone in education provision in that it has already been selected by IT giants Microsoft as an example of excellence in the learning environment.

I have to say that the technology verges a little on the intimidating for those of us who stem from a generation when education was something accompanied by the noise of chalk scraping on slate.

What strikes me most though is that the new building replaces three secondary and one primary schools and is one of only seven schools in Wales that will educate pupils from age three to 16.

Half of the funding has come from the Welsh Government's 21st Century Schools and Education Programme.

You often hear about the need to invest in the future. I’d say this is where it means something.

Science and technology showcase

A myopic perception about higher education is that it’s all about churning out students with degrees; and the more the better.

What’s often forgotten is that universities focus just as much on leading-edge research - with the occasional scientific breakthrough.

This is particularly true of Swansea University who will soon be opening a science pop-up exhibition, “The Story of Time”.

Their on-going mission is to showcase science to the public through innovations designed to inspire visitors about what happens in space and how it impacts on day-to-day living.

Included in the exhibition is a 30 metre time wall illustrating the history of the Universe plus an immersive video with a soundtrack from the Voyager spacecraft’s Plasma Wave where visitors can hear the “sounds” of deep space.

Swansea University are hosting the British Science Festival this year. In the meantime, the exhibition in Princess Way opens later this month. You can visit for more details.

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