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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:33 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Rogers of Riverside Lord Rogers of Riverside Labour 12:33 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I declare an interest in Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and as a director of the River Café, Hammersmith. I join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Rooker on introducing this timely debate. I will discuss the effect that this national planning policy framework is likely to have on our cities and our countryside, which are two sides of the same coin. In fact, cities need to be contained by a belt-green or other-to optimise the benefits of both rather than letting the city sprawl.

I am a practising architect with considerable experience of planning systems around the world. I have advised presidents and mayors in the UK and abroad and retain strong views on planning for the future. Planning systems exist for the benefit and protection of the public good, and I believe that our existing planning system is one of the very best. However, it needs rationalisation. Economics drive the city, but culture is its heart. The urban renaissance is fragile, and if we are not to return to the failing cities of the 1980s, cities need careful love and attention. The proposed national planning policy framework does not recognise the nature and culture of cities. This is the age of cities. More than half the world's population lives in cities. It was 10 per cent 100 years ago and is expected to be 80 per cent in 30 years' time.

People move to cities to find jobs, to be creative and to mix. There is a correlation between prosperity and urbanisation. There continue to be strong economic and social arguments for prioritising the intensification of existing settlements over greenfield or otherwise remote development. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the use of brownfield or derelict land in the national framework, even though there is no shortage of brownfield sites. The Department for Communities and Local Government's own figures show that despite substantial reuse, there remains virtually the same quantity of available brownfield land as there was 10 years ago, when I chaired its urban task force.

I believe the only sustainable form of development is the compact, polycentric city, which is well-connected and encourages walking and the use of public transport, where public spaces and buildings are well-designed and the poor and rich can live in close proximity. The intensification of existing settlements is economically efficient because it optimises the use of existing infrastructure and the embedded energy within schools, hospitals, roads and homes. Cities such as Vancouver, Portland, New York, especially Manhattan, and compact European cities are more than five times as energy efficient as sprawling cities such as Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

The success of retrofitting cities and neighbourhoods has created an urban renaissance that has come about through relatively tight controls on out-of-town retail and commercial development and residential buildings. Over the past decade, the empty gaps in eroded cities and neighbourhoods have been filled in as people moved back into cities. This brings vitality, wealth and security to these cities, but this is a very selective and delicate situation.

Let us take the examples of some areas of Manchester, Liverpool and London. In 1990, there were 90 people living in the heart of Manchester; today there are 20,000. Over the same period, the population of central Liverpool increased fourfold, and London had three-quarters of a million people added to its population, all housed on brownfield land.

The new policy framework favours sustainable development, which I applaud, but it fails to articulate what it is beyond putting economic growth first. I believe that sustainability means social well-being, design excellence and environmental responsibility within a viable economic and legislative framework. Sustainability is about long-term thinking and ambitions. My noble friend Lord Hart clearly defined sustainability in his speech, and I agree with his other points.

The compact city is the only form of sustainable development where poor and rich can live side by side. By cutting over 1,000 pages of proposed legislation to just over 50 pages, careful, detailed advice has been abandoned in favour of generalities. There is a risk that the courts will decide planning applications rather than communities. For example, granting planning on the basis that local plans are absent or incomplete is totally unacceptable and certainly not environmentally sustainable. More houses need to be built, but there is no proof whatever that the fall in the number of dwellings over the past years has anything at all to do with the lack of buildable land. Currently there are 66,000 hectares of brownfield land in England, and this increases every year. Some 330,000 planning permissions for dwellings have not yet been built, and 750,000 homes are lying empty-well enough to meet all our housing needs. Dereliction and the fragmentation of towns where buildings stand empty create no-go areas, which is why we have to start building and retrofitting in these places.

The Government's attempt to give local councils and communities independence is attractive. However, it needs careful studying and long-term planning, as there will be a need for more decision-making bodies, which in turn will require well-trained specialists who even now are in very short supply. Even in London only a handful of boroughs are actually capable of performing planning tasks.

The good design of public spaces and buildings is critical to improve the quality of life. Bad design impoverishes and brutalises. Much of what we build today will last for hundreds of years. If the framework is not greatly improved, it will lead to the breakdown and fragmentation of cities and neighbourhoods and the erosion of the countryside. To conclude, retrofitting an existing city brings life back to that city, minimises the cost and allows the countryside to be used for pleasure.