Industrial Land – Breaking the Status Quo

shutterstock_129106388_pjhpixPerhaps the biggest pitfall for the planning system is what behavioural science calls “status-quo bias”. We overvalue how things are now, and assume change will make things worse. Nowhere is this more evident than with industrial land, where we fight to protect the land-use patterns of an economic age that is now long-gone.

(This post was first published on the British Property Federation Blog.)

Planning was once bright eyed with enthusiasm for change. But today change is driven by demand, leaving planners in control only of the brakes on that change. We resort to listing the things that must stay the same: Green Belts and strategic gaps to keep cities in their place, viewing corridors to keep things the height they are, conservation areas to keep things looking as they do.

Good controls can often produce much better outcomes than a free-for-all that ignores external costs. But, in the case of industrial and employment land, we really have fallen victim to status-quo bias – something that could be dramatically shaken up by the proposed changes to Permitted Development Rights.

But first a quick reminder of how we got here. For a start, manufacturing remains important and is notin absolute decline – we produce as much as ever (in terms of value), but the growth of services means industry’s relative significance has dwindled.

Secondly, manufacturing will never again provide the volume of moderately skilled employment it once did. No “march of the makers” will change the fact that manufacturing’s future depends on increasing productivity – creating more value with fewer people.

In 1947, you were about equally likely to be employed in manufacturing or services, but today manufacturing accounts for just 10% of jobs. Few land uses have changed as completely since the planning system was created.

These changes mean that, almost by definition, old industrial land tends to be in the wrong place. Industrial Britain originally built urban neighbourhoods, where large numbers of people could walk to work. Manufacturing was at the heart of our cities.

Now the need is often for larger sites, for scale and automation, or for warehousing and distribution. And the priority is no longer just access to lots of workers in a residential area, but may be access to the national road network, or to railways and airports (needs which may conflict with Green Belt policy in places).

Industry has moved on, but industrial land has not been allowed to move with it.

Employment Land Reviews rarely stray far from the status quo: an area just happens to need exactly the amount of industrial or employment land it already has, and the best location for such land just happens to be exactly where it is now.

London alone has 7,400 hectares of industrial land and a range of locally or regionally protected designations. Struggling to find industrial tenants, many unsuitable sites end up with a mixture of retail or services, or languishing vacant. Those who spend their Sundays on some of the more run-down urban industrial estates (I won’t ask…) will have noticed evangelical churches can now outnumber manufacturers.

The “managed release” of urban industrial land lags painfully behind economic reality. In most cases mixed use redevelopment could not only provide desperately-needed homes in accessible locations, but also actually provide more jobs for local people.

Meanwhile, where there is real need and demand for new land – for example for a strategic rail freight interchange in the South East – the planning system is failing to deliver.

We need to positively meet the real needs of modern industry, planning more new development in the right places, and letting go of more land in the old places. The status quo is not always the best of all possible worlds.

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