Marooned in the Suburbs

When planning laws are relaxed, it is the poor who suffer most.


By George Monbiot. Published in the Observer, 27th May 2007.


It is not hard to see why big business wants the planning laws relaxed: there is a staggering amount of money to be made by building on greenfield land. It is much harder to see how it would benefit the rest of us. A relaxation of planning laws will make everything bigger and further away. It will accelerate climate change and the decline of global oil reserves. It will increase the time we must spend travelling and make it harder for the poor to obtain public services.

The Confederation of British Industry and the other big business lobbyists claim that all they want to do is to build the houses and the other services we need, and create wealth which everyone will enjoy. The idea that they could be seeking to enrich themselves at public expense is beyond contemplation.

There is no question that Britain needs more housing. There is also no question that this housing must be carefully planned, which means taking a wide range of considerations into account, rather than just the demands of the construction industry. Otherwise new housing estates will end up like those I visited beside a motorway in Northamptonshire recently. No one I met there was able to do without a car or constant taxi rides: to get to work, to the shops, to the doctor or to school. It was a source of universal discontent.

If you are seeking to house people at the bottom of the economic ladder, a planning failure of this kind is a source of profound deprivation. Have you ever wondered, when you see the vast sprawling cities in the US or Brazil or Australia, what happens to those who are too old or infirm or weak of sight to drive? They are marooned, dependent on the goodwill of friends or neighbours, unable to go anywhere under their own steam.

The less dense a development is, and the further from the urban centre, the harder it is to serve with public transport. Bus or train or tram services are simply not viable in sprawling suburbs. A relaxation of planning rules is good for the rich. It is a disaster for the poor. This is why planning laws are weakest in the most unequal countries.

It also makes tackling climate change impossible. If people are dependent on their cars, they cannot change their habits even if they want to. And what happens when global oil supplies peak and go into decline? What do people in the car-dependent suburbs do then?

Careful planning means democratic planning. The way our land is used is a crucial political question, for it is one of the key determinants of our quality of life. Big businesses want to monopolise this process, by curtailing public consultation, centralising decision-making and insisting on a presumption in favour of the developments they want. The government – as its new white paper shows – agrees. All those who believe in democracy should resist it.

I think the CBI and the construction industry are right to claim that a relaxation of planning laws would accelerate economic growth. But to what end? Having more money is supposed to enhance our quality of life, but this scheme would have the opposite effect. Even without a change in the planning laws, the UK is on course to be some 15-20 times richer by the end of the century than it is now. What will the captains of industry do with this extra money? Can they honestly claim that they need it? At what point do we decide that we have enough?

If you are a member of the CBI, the answer is never. These people are insatiable. Even if the government grants them all the concessions they demand, they will be back in five years’ time, wanting more. If we let them, they will take all our precious wild places and all the ease of living which compact settlements and local public services permit. Why should we support this programme by surrendering our democratic rights to them?