Solution to planning'fiasco' lies in the the past

Article in "The Scotsman" by John Blundell

Solution to planning'fiasco' lies in the the past

WHY do the most pleasing parts of Scotland’s townscapes pre-date the arrival of municipal planning? Is Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town so pleasing by accident or was it because the builders were conforming to private covenants?

All the most grotty parts of urban Scotland were devised, designed and specified in detail by local authorities and their professional planners.

The prettier country towns seem to have emerged before the malignancy of town planning. Dunkeld is charming. Melrose is a gem. Inveraray is handsome. All of the 20th century new towns are places to avoid.

At a superficial level it seems only sensible that committees of town hall professionals must come up with more harmonious and coherent results than the "chaos" of the market. It is just that experience shows planning is a disaster without a cure. The solution may be to relax the powers of the Town and Country Planning Act and revert to the subtle practices of the past, which were obliterated by legislation.

The men who erected the New Town used a mix of third party contracts to ensure integrity to their designs. The squares and circuses admired around the world are clear evidence that Scots Law feu was an ingenious way to create contracts that were binding.

Stepping outside of Scotland, we can appreciate readily that some of the finest townscapes, or even entire cities, emerged through the market’s processes rather than by the taste of councillors or their officials. Regency Bath is the creation of third party covenants. Venice was not planned by a central authority. Nor was Bruges or Amsterdam.

The assumption that our urban landscape has to be designed by the municipal mind is only one remnant of the highwater mark of socialism that has yet to recede. It is time to restore the successful mechanisms employed in the past to create beauty and elegance.

There is no need to abolish the legislation - only to operate it in a more enlightened way. A quick dip into the past shows how major landowners or developers built the parts of our cities that enjoy acclaim still. The Heskeths built Southport. The Devonshires built Eastbourne. Cubitt erected most of Bloomsbury.

Perhaps we might hope a major surviving magnate such as the Duke of Buccleuch be entrusted to build any new communities in the Lothians. If His Grace were allowed some latitude, success would not depend on his own good taste. It would become a matter of his own self-interest to ensure buildings were of a harmonious and proportionate nature.

This can sound cranky, but just look at the surviving Ducal urban estates such as Grosvenor in London or Norfolk in Sheffield. Of course, I’m posing this perhaps upside down as the dukedoms often followed successful building projects.

It may well be that major companies would be the better at planning new communities, but the point is that third party rights would be far better enforced and applied than seems to happen under municipal provision.

My hunch is that the most successful projects would be collaborative ventures with banks or building societies filling the roles once performed by the great landlords.

Most of us do not want to live in cities but in villages. These are better evolved over time with a slow accretion of new buildings, but we all know a few entirely "new" villages. The Prince of Wales’ development at Poundbury in Dorset has to be far better than anything authorised by Lothian planners in the past 20 years.

The entire economics of our property market would be transformed by liberalising or ignoring present restrictions. One surprise might be that prices would fall. The present high prices are only a measure of the constrictions of planning. Councillors love to commission three-bedroom homes on the suburban fringes. Is that what we want?

The demographic truth is much smaller households with single residents as a rising proportion of real demand.

We all know intuitively "planning" has been a fiasco. What we lack is an appreciation of how Scots Law has already evolved more effective techn