You may have read about the dramatic proposal for planning reforms in the news recently. But what do they mean for community-led housing and democratic planning?

One our of Directors, Professor Sue Brownill joined other academics to respond to the proposals and counter misconceptions driving the Government’s planning reform agenda, in a report “The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions”.

We are pleased to re-print Sue’s article, “Can development corporations overcome problems of local democratic control?” here on our blog:

We want to drive economic growth outside London and the South East. Our new development corporations will empower local areas to come forward with ideas for new towns that deliver jobs, houses and economic growth – creating the future Canary Wharfs of the North and Milton Keynes’s of the Midlands.’ (Robert Jenrick 26 October 2019, Press Release (1)

Page 69 of Planning for the Future refers to the consultation launched by Robert Jenrick in this press release on a new generation of ‘fit for purpose’ development corporations (DCs) and the simultaneous announcement of a new DC at Toton, Nottinghamshire (2). Under the heading supporting innovation in delivery, the White Paper raises the possibility of more ‘flexible DC models’, the precise nature of which will emerge from responses to the consultation exercise. It is therefore worth looking at what was set out in that consultation in more detail. Recognising the variety of possible forms of DCs (see below), its stated aim was ‘to seek views on whether this varied legal framework inhibits the operation of development corporations, and to invite ideas on how the legal framework might be reformed’ covering three main areas of change:

This will be the sixth wave of post-war DCs (3). They are attractive to Governments of all persuasions as they provide the things that planning and local government often can’t – that is the tools for delivery in the form of land acquisition powers and funding to provide infrastructure – and combine these with planning powers. But those powers; to buy land, make decisions on planning applications and to receive and raise finance, are not granted without strings and are set within different political, governance and planning contexts as neatly summed up by Jenrick’s quote. Yes, Milton Keynes and Canary Wharf were both delivered by DCs, but they are widely different in terms of how they were delivered, who has benefitted from the outcomes, their governance arrangements and the type of environments created. Given their ubiquity, attempts to ‘improve’ DCs may not, therefore, be surprising, but combined with possible planning reforms including zoning and the restriction of the involvement of councils and communities in decisions, they could be significant. The devil is, as ever, in the detail.

The first area of change is the increased involvement of the private sector. This is in essence a question of democracy and control over planning and development decisions. While dressed up as ‘local empowerment’ all DC legislation entails the centralisation of power from local government to central government (in the form of the Secretary of State) which is then decentralised to a DC Board, in Jenrick’s paper of predominantly ‘independent’ members. This brings three dangers. One is the ability of central government to over-ride local democracy as day to day it is the Secretary of State, not local politicians or even the private sector, who has the final say over decisions. The fact that the Telegraph (4) reported on June 25th that DC plans had been put on hold because of Jenrick’s Westferry Printers debacle underlines the major flaw in a system without transparency or accountability. The second is how the role of the private sector is misrepresented. The DC model assumes that it is the governance model which is stopping delivery and not more fundamental issues over the costs and assembly of land and infrastructure. What is needed is to get the ‘red-tape’ of planning out of the way and bring in the ‘can-do’ mentality of the private sector (with their cash) as opposed to ‘sclerotic’ local planning authorities (who have no cash). This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Not only could it lead, if combined with zoning, to undue private sector influence over what is built where, it also underestimates the amount of public money which went to the ‘successful’ DCs Jenrick refers to. The LDDC, for example, if infrastructure costs and tax relief are factored in, received about £6bn (5). The current DCs are competing for £10m each. Thirdly, DCs have no requirement for community representation built in, therefore local people are excluded from decision-making.

The second major concern signalled in the current consultation is whether the existing models available to local areas i.e. Mayoral DCs and Locally-Led New Town DCs are ‘broad enough in scope to deliver and what the barriers are’. The issue here, as Lichfield’s point out, is the difference between designation and delivery (6). Many local DCs have struggled to deliver e.g. Northamptonshire because of a lack of resources and powers. What this could point to is a desire to reduce the locally led nature of DCs in favour of a more ‘robust’, ‘fit for purpose’ model which would further undermine local influence.

It also begs the question, ‘deliver what’? Fundamentally DCs are placed within a planning framework – they are delivery agencies. Again, contrast Milton Keynes with Canary Wharf. Milton Keynes was built to a masterplan which strategically allocated land for housing (including social housing) and employment uses (7). Canary Wharf was built with no planning scrutiny and resulted in ‘reverse leverage’ of public money to retrofit a private scheme developed away from major transport infrastructure. The New Town model shows how mixed-use development and large amounts of affordable housing could be delivered through a DC – but this is not solely the result of a DC being used. It is the combination of factors and the strategic planning framework within which it operates which is vital.

This brings us onto the third and crucial point – comparable powers such as determining planning decisions, acquiring land and capturing the uplift in land values. The significance of these to DCs has already been mentioned and hopefully the consultation is not intending to stop DCs from e.g. charging CIL. However, experience has shown that there is a fine line between delivering and determining development. In the 1980s DCs had development control but not plan making powers. Developments were consented which over-rode local plans and local plans were then refused at inspection because the UDCs had the power to deliver. Perhaps in response to the outcry from this, development control powers in some later ‘benign’ DCs stayed with local authorities, thereby enabling a more planned approach (8). Is the government looking to revisit this reversal and remove it as a ‘barrier’ to delivery? Zoning has precedent here as well. When the LDDC was set up the London Bridge City development, which had been refused by the local authority, was included in the designated area along with a Local Development Order. Could zoning be coupled with DCs to drive through similar schemes, overseen by a sympathetic board?

Introducing more DCs may in itself not be a totally ‘bad thing’ – though some would argue it is. But the direction of travel that is emerging from the suggested planning reforms implies they could be used to power through developments favoured by the private sector which are not strategically planned and over which there is little or no local scrutiny. This would represent another example of missing the big picture. If it is lack of housing delivery, the problem is not Local Authorities, or local communities that need to be by- passed. It is issues of land acquisition, infrastructure provision and land value capture. What we should therefore be doing is drawing on the lessons of DCs to empower local authorities and communities to deliver democratically accountable and strategically determined developments by providing adequate funding and powers to acquire land at low cost and retain the resulting uplift in land values to provide affordable homes and a range of social and economic infrastructure. This could be accompanied by changes to CPO legislation and greater use of Community Land Trusts. If a DC is needed to deliver this plan-led approach, then so be it but it should not be the default mechanism and any changes to the legislation should reinforce the role of local interests and strategic planning in DCs rather than undermining them.




(3) Following the New Towns, the Thatcher era UDCS, New Labour’s use of UDCs to deliver the Sustainable Communities Strategy in the mid-2000s , Mayoral Development Corporations (MDC) set up by the Localism Act in 2011 and the Locally-Led New Town Development Corporations (LNTDC) enabled in 2018. In addition, a UDC was set up at Ebbsfleet in 2015 and plans for four UDCs along the Oxford/Cambridge Arc were put forward in the Spring 2020 budget


(5) Brownill S (1990) Development London’s Docklands, Paul Chapman Publishing


(7) See, for example, Town and Country Planning Association New Towns and Garden Cities: Lessons for Tomorrow - Stage 2 Report: Lessons for Delivering a New Generation of Garden Cities, 2015

(8) Raco M (2005) ‘A Step Change or a Step Back? The Thames Gateway and the Re-birth of the Urban Development Corporations Local Economy, Vol. 20, No. 2, 141–153, May 2005