The Barker Review of Land Use Planning

| 8th March 2007
Last December's Barker Review replaces democracy with economic growth. Ex <i>Ecologis</i>t editor Simon Fairlie claims our land is being sold to the highest bidder

In 1997 Tony Blair set out to make the planning system more amenable to industry, commissioning a report from McKinsey, the US neo-liberal consultancy, and in 2001 installing Stephen Byers as Secretary of State with responsibility for planning. Byers set about his brief of streamlining the planning system by publishing a Green Paper called Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change, but then got sacked for burying bad news, and Blair was forced to reinstate John Prescott as Secretary of State.

Instead of scrapping the whole process, Prescott stumbled on with it, but got rid of the controversial proposal to take major infrastructure projects out of the planning system; and he re-injected the concept of “sustainability”, which Blair and Byers were keen to weed out. Eventually he steered through the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which introduces a load of pointless and muddled procedural changes to the planning system, without delivering any of the reforms that the neo-liberals were seeking. Prescott paid for his act of sabotage by media exposure, disgrace and dismissal. 

With Prescott out of the way, but the planning system in a state of chaos, the neo-liberals have now launched another assault, this time employing a new weapon, Treasury economist Kate Barker. Barker looks like the woman who compères the TV quiz The Missing Link, but is twice as formidable and has an intellect like a Stealth bomber. Her work is full of astute observations, and free of the waffle which permeates most government reports. She cut her teeth on the Barker Review of Housing in 2004, where her recommendation that a new vehicle to address inefficiencies in the market led to the introduction of REITS in the UK. In December 2006 she published her follow up: The Barker Review of Land Use Planning.

The thrust of this document is to promote economic growth, by getting rid of as much messy, time-consuming democracy as possible and replacing it with cost-benefit analysis and market forces. Her actual recommendations only go as far down this road as she thinks she can get away with but you can tell we are dealing with a full-blooded, Hayekian economist by the gusto with which she advances ideas like this:

“Planners could be required to take into account the prices of land for different uses as a material consideration, and only reject a change of use when there is evidence that the social costs exceed this price discrepancy. If a plot of agricultural land, for example, is worth £10,000, but the adjoining commercial land is worth £800,000 then after adjusting for infrastructure costs the change of use should occur unless the social value is over £790,000.”

In other words land to the highest bidder, but the environment can put in a notional bid. This reduces planning to nothing more than cost benefit analysis of the environmental and amenity value of land - a process which everybody except economists recognizes to be a nonsense. Even Barker admits that it is fraught with “difficulty” - though that doesn’t stop her citing the value of wetlands and forest at £1.3 million per hectare, compared to around £800,000 for business use and £2.6 million per hectare for residential land. “Prices are important signals of demand” she says, omitting to point out that they are an expression of demand from the people who have the money.

Several of Barker’s recommendations take us some way down the neo-liberal road by attempting to dispel the matter of “need” from the purview of the planning system. For example, she advocates that planners should no longer be permitted to refuse applications for large retail developments on the grounds that there is no need for them. The requirement to demonstrate need, introduced by Prescott’s underling and buddy, Richard Caborn, a few years ago, is one of the few direct arguments that objectors can put forward to prevent Walmart and Tesco superstores pursuing a policy of swamping out smaller competition.

The issue of major infrastructure projects, which foundered in the Green Paper fiasco, has inevitably resurfaced, and here again Barker is keen to take the question of need out of the public domain. Instead of echoing Byers’ proposal that nuclear power stations, container ports, new motorways and the like should be permitted by Act of Parliament, Barker proposes that decisions about them should be made by a “new independent Planning Commission, comprised of leading experts.”

We can guess who these “experts” will be. Worse still, the experts will not be allowed to question whether there is any need for the power station or the road, since need will be predetermined by non-specific government Statements of Strategic Objectives “drawn up following full public consultation”. The presumption will be in favour of the development.

This means that if you are opposed to a major project you will have no opportunity to contest it through the relatively accessible and exhaustive arena of a public inquiry. If you are permitted to voice any opposition at all, it will only be on the grounds that the scheme ought to be moved somewhere else - while the people who live there will be arguing equally vociferously that it should be dumped in your backyard.

Barker’s planning system is a place where NIMBY’s - who figure in her cosmology as an environmentally-conscious reincarnation of homo economicus - can fight it out between themselves. Objectors who unite to challenge the need for any such development will be ruled out of order by a government policy statement made years before, which they may not even have been aware of.

Concern for nimbius economicus is particularly in evidence in Barker’s proposal to encourage developers to buy off local objectors with cash bribes which she euphemistically calls “community good will payments” — although good will is the last thing likely to be generated between those who opt to take the developers’ money and those who spurn it.

There are also a string of proposals for streamlining planning policy and planning process. Barker recommends that a number of Planning Policy Statements — including PPS7 on the Countryside — should be scrapped, and their content taken over by an over-arching general Planning Policy Statement (as in Wales). What in practice this means can be seen by the recent scrapping of PPG21, the policy guidance on Tourism, described on page 52. All the detail formerly in the PPG is now supplied by a Good Practice Guide, the main difference being that while a PPG is subject to a public consultation process, the Good Practice Guide was drawn up behind closed doors in consultation with an industry lobby. If PPS7 is scrapped, then all detail relating to rural planning policy will be presumably be drawn up by civil servants in collaboration with the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and the National Farmerts Union.

There are similar proposals all the way down the planning hierarchy, such as taking away the right for appellants to choose public inquiries, and delegating an even greater proportion of planning application decisions to officers, all of which are fundamentally undemocratic. This comes as no surprise. Democracy is by its nature a cumbersome business, so any set of proposals to streamline the system is likely to be anti-democratic.

Barker’s proposals (and those of the Eddington report on Transport, which in respect of major schemes are identical) are supposed to be being taken forward in a White Paper later this year. With a bit of luck the process will be kicked into touch by another round of ministerial scandals and resignations, or the ousting of Labour at a general election. But if it does get pushed through, the government may find that the changes do not bring the smooth and speedy delivery that Barker anticipates.

People do not take kindly to having their rights taken away, and we only have to go back to the road protests of 10 and 20 years ago to see how effectively a popular movement can disrupt undemocratic procedures. In an era when the acceleration of economic growth becomes a matter of secondary importance in the face of environmental imperatives, the concerns of New Labour and its tame economists will seem dated.

This article first appeared in The Land.

Barker Review of Land Use Planning Final Report, HM Treasury, December 2006

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

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