ConLib coalition and public space

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Given our new coalition government in the UK, what are the implications for public space? Planning isn’t mentioned in the draft agreement document, except for the nuclear power station variety.

Our recently reviewed book, Ground Control by Anna Milton, positions the Liberal Democrats historically as sometime defenders of the public realm and community life.

During a controversial run-in between political protesters and Marks & Spencer in 2004, Peter Rothery of Manchester City Council’s Lib Dem opposition is credited with saying, ‘Anyone has a right to protest in a free society’. And, again in 2004, the incoming Lib Dem administration at Newcastle City Council played its part in stopping the heavy-handed ‘Going for Growth’ programme. The demolition of hundreds of homes had been proposed to make way for more desirable properties to kick-start the local housing market.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are cast as the misguided champions of planning reforms that ultimately led to a private-sector land-grab.

Out-of-town shopping centres proliferated in the eighties thanks to the Thatcherite attempt at non-planning, until the damage to cities was so apparent that John Gummer, Conservative sectretary of state in the nineties, changed tack. At the same time, their knitting together of private sector development and social housing provision didn’t prevent insufficient supply or vulnerability to bad economic conditions.

The same kind of polarisation hasn’t necessarily come to the surface in the recent election campaign.

The Conservative Manifesto talks about reforming planning, not only by abolishing the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) and making Ministers responsible for final permissions on infrastructure projects, but also by ‘giving neighbourhoods greater control of the planning system’. This is all presented as part of the party’s community empowerment and Big Society policies.

Supposedly, neighbourhood plans will be able to be drawn up and will be brought together to form local plans. Immediate neighbours will be given more influence in planning housing developments and other local projects. Local housing trusts will be charged with granting planning permission for new housing.

The Lib Dems Manifesto is thinner on detail. Again, there’s the promise to abolish the IPC and ‘return decision-making, including housing targets, to local people’. There was to be a closing of loopholes on playing field development, a new designation to protect green areas of value to communities, and ‘landscape-scale’ water resource management policies.

But does the urgency of dealing with the deficit mean that public space decisions will only be addressed in economic terms?

Will the kind of approach recommended by Anna Milton be seen as idealistic in a period of austerity?

Do the economic dire straits mean that these discussions, and even the RIBA priorities for the new Government, are in danger of falling a bit flat?

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