A tale of new cities

Hugh Ellis tells Huw Morris why he believes planning still has a good story to tell – despite austerity cuts, deregulation and a policy agenda biased towards housing

For years, Hugh Ellis has said the planning profession desperately needs to be “more Hollywood”.

Earlier in his career, the policy director of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) was a scriptwriter for the UK’s longest-running police procedural The Bill, broadcast by ITV between 1984 and 2010. He also wrote the screenplay for Summer, an independent film starring Robert Carlyle. With this in mind, it makes sense to hear Ellis argue that the story is king.

“If you are going to keep your morale up, the heart of that is the story that planning has to tell. Originally, the story was ‘things are really crap for ordinary people, so why not design and transform the world for the better?’ That transformation is an obligation for us to achieve. That is a Hollywood narrative. It’s about transformation.”

Morale among planners is at almost rock bottom, particularly in England. The profession has taken a hammering from austerity cuts during the past decade; the National Audit Office reported last year that local authority spending on planning and development has fallen by more than 50% in real terms since 2010-11.

Alongside the cuts, the planning sector has faced numerous moves by the government to deregulate the system, extend permitted development rights that do not require permission, and direct the system towards growth – and housebuilding in particular. This has twisted planning’s tradition of balancing economic, social and environmental factors within decisions and policies.


A structure in search of a purpose

"The progress The Government has created is okay if you enjoy watching paint dry and being demoralised but it doesn't get anywhere near planning's original ambition."

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which informs and guides all planning decisions, policies and appeals, is a case in point. Ellis describes the first version, published in 2012, as a “disaster”. Local authorities without a five-year supply of land for housing invariably had their decisions overturned in favour of developers. The revamped NPPF, unveiled last year, rolls back slightly by encouraging good design, but still lacks any definition of sustainable development in line with UN goals. This has trashed planning’s legacy, according to Ellis .

“Planning’s reputation as box ticking and full of traffic warden slang, with negative connotations for almost every sector, is not what we are. Planning has an immense record of understanding complexity of change from the economic, environmental and social points of view and being able to do amazing things. That’s our legacy and where we come from.

“Planning is now a structure in search of a purpose like never before. I think the government would like us to be an algorithm for growth. That flawed proposition, which contradicts almost everything we know about sustainable development, is not what we are for. The government is trying to make a system do what it was never intended to do, which is let the market rip.”

The big winners, judging by their multi-million-pound profits, have been developers in general – and volume housebuilders in particular, Ellis argues. The losers are everyone and everything else.

“It’s probably the supreme example of regulatory capture in the past decade, where the future of the system has been determined by those it was set up to regulate,” says Ellis. “They have won that battle, and as a result they have been able to make enormous amounts of money by doing the opposite of what the system was set out to do.”

Ellis believes that planning should be the most effective form of environmental regulation available, handling up to 700,000 applications annually. However, it is more complex and demanding because “it is democratic and has to work with people”. This is not widely appreciated, he says.

“As a creative force, many other professionals in the built environment simply regard planning as a box they stumble into, have a bad experience with, then stumble out of again. They don’t regard it as the supremely democratic and creative force it should be.

“How we get back from there requires the government to provide a lead on some core issues. It’s all very well for some of the other professions to look at planning and snigger ‘look what’s happened to you’, but governments have targeted planning above all else because of its importance.”


Garden cities and eco-towns

The government has seized on garden towns and villages as another tool for delivering housing growth. The concept, which emerged from the garden city movement of urban planning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, demands well-planned, sustainable towns that combine the best elements of both the city and the countryside. It sets a very high bar for development standards, with Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, both in Hertfordshire, regularly visited by professionals and the public alike. The TCPA is the most prominent advocate of the concept, which is a fundamental part of the organisation’s heritage and one of UK planning’s greatest achievements.

However, it is not without problems. The elephant in the room is New Labour’s fateful eco-towns programme. This initiative was dogged by controversy, with many of the 50-plus bids to build eco-towns attacked as simply being previous proposals, some already rejected, that had been taken off the shelf and then greenwashed. Is it happening again?

“There is now much more interest within local government for the growth of large-scale sustainable communities,” says Ellis. “There are many more who are trying to do the right thing and see medium to large-scale communities as delivering better standards. This is creating a bit of buzz, particularly because the government has a little bit of capacity funding for these places.

“That said, setting standards is a major issue. Some proposals are trying to do the right thing; with others, I’m not sure which of the garden city principles they relate to. It’s a grey area, but the arguments about managing growth more sustainably through larger settlements is at least up there. That was completely off the table 10 years ago and even five years ago, after the eco-towns disaster.”

The greatest barrier to driving up development quality, he argues, is “the government not being sufficiently supportive or having a creative offer” on resources or standards. “The government provides no real guidance on what a garden town or village is. The only body that does is the TCPA, and our standards are very high.”


The Hollywood moment

Today, Ellis likens planning to the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which the Black Knight loses all his limbs in a skirmish but still wants to fight on.

“There is the statutory planning system defined by government policies, and then there is the project called planning, which is about creating exciting, sustainable places. The process the government has created is okay if you enjoy watching paint dry and being demoralised, but it doesn’t get anywhere near the original ambition.

“Planning reinforces social inequality when it fails, whether that be because of building regulations leading to events such as Grenfell Tower, or whether it’s about terrible outcomes from permitted development, with people living in places without windows. These are the products of deregulation and non-planning.

“Planning should reflect on how you can make the human experience come to life. It’s a general theory of everything. When it works well it is an integrated force designed to work with other professionals and link up to produce fantastic places. We can build a zero-carbon energy-positive city and
we can build places that enhance people’s life expectancy.

“If you go to other countries, you see planners working on these issues every day, but in this country planners have been targeted full-on by governments that do not believe in state action and only want to deregulate.”

"When it works well, planning is an integrated force designed to work with other professionals a nd link up to produces fantastic places."

Despite the gloom, Ellis says he is now “more comfortable being a planner than I’ve ever felt, because I know how radical it can be and where it comes from”. The sector and the profession still have a good story to tell.

“The narrative we have now is bureaucratic and legalistic. When you have challenges facing the east coast because of climate change, or cities because of air quality, or the post-industrial north because of poverty, it is not the procedure and policy that fires people up – it is that Hollywood moment, when things are really badly and we’re not giving in on this endeavour of creating great places.

“It’s a good story to tell, but I’m not sure we’ve been telling good stories about planning. Tell me what the point of what we’re doing is. Make me want to be a part of it. Make me get up at 4 o’clock in the morning when planning is a bloody mess and still have a burning ambition to make better places. Who is making that pitch? That’s what we need.”

A man with a plan

  • 1992 BA (Hons) in urban studies, University of Sheffield
  • 1995 PhD in planning, University of Sheffield
  • 1996 Lecturer in the Department for Regional and Town Planning, University of Sheffield
  • 2000 Head of land use planning, Friends of the Earth
  • 2009 Joins the Town and Country Planning Association, serving as chief planner, interim chief executive and, since February 2019, director of policy


Image credit | Akin Falope
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