What's wrong with Britain's urban planning?

This work challenges the kind of anecdotal policymaking which has brought us the challenges.
- Professor Paul Cheshire
Supermarket, Sean Gregor CC BY 2.0

Does Britain's built environment suffer from 'anecdotal policy-making'? Professor Paul Cheshire discusses his latest contribution to urban planning.

Urban planning is both a perennial challenge and a British preoccupation. Amid declining high-streets and inadequate and unaffordable housing, successive governments have imposed powerful policies with mixed results. 

Professor Paul Cheshire of the Department of Geography and Environment has studied Britain’s built environment since the early 1980s. He says: “In Britain, we don’t control new construction through markets; we do it through the planning system. And that has economic consequences; my work is about understating what those benefits and costs are. The planning policies we implement are surprisingly belief, rather than evidence, based.”

Professor Cheshire has published widely on the housing market, with a recent paper, Empty homes, longer commutes, highlighting where planning is more restrictive, more homes stand empty and people working locally have to commute longer distances as they seek a suitable house. In a recent article, he critiques a 20 year-old urban planning policy, supposed to help ailing town-centres.

In 1996, the UK government introduced the ‘town centre first policy’. The legislation directed new developments, especially retail, to ‘town centres’ and placed restrictions on new out of town developments. Although the policy included leisure facilities, office space and restaurants, its most notable effect was on the location of new retail outlets.

The town centre first policy aimed to facilitate ‘linked shopping trips’, where people could visit a number of retailers  and other ‘town centre’ facilities such as restaurants or hairdressers,  during a single visit, and increase the use of public transport, which tends to offer better connections to town centres.

In a 2014 study on the policy, Land use regulation and productivity, Professor Cheshire and colleagues found that the policy resulted in a 32% reduction in the total factor productivity for a supermarket retailer, while employment in town centres declined. This was attributed to forcing supermarkets onto less accessible locations and more inconvenient sites, while independent retailers in town centres were squeezed out by major chains locating shops nearby.

In his recently published paper, Take me to the centre of your town! Using micro-geographical data to identify town centres, Professor Cheshire and colleagues found a lack of consistency over how ‘town centres’ are defined undermined its application. He says: “The town centre first policy is compromised by inconsistencies and its highly subjective definition of what is a town centre. But people talk as though their definition was self-evident.”

“Town Centre First Policy is a strong, you might say, draconian policy but you cannot implement it consistently unless you have a consistent definition of where town centres are, and certainly you cannot evaluate its effects. But town centres remain just subjective and idealised areas. When we started to look into this systematically, as we tried to evaluate the policy, we found other countries with Town Centre policies such as The Netherlands had equally subjective and variable definitions.”

Professor Cheshire and his co-authors offered an alternative definition of town centres. They used a range of micro-geographical data (local information about specific areas), to capture all the dimensions of ‘town centeredness’, initially centred on the Ordinance Survey’s official town centres.

They then assigned to each point a measure of “town-centredness” based on the density of town centre characteristics. The characteristics included density of shops and employment in ‘town centre’ sectors, density of leisure and cultural amenities, and key infrastructure features. With this measure of ‘town-centredness’ they could then estimate the area and boundaries of the town centre, for any city, in a consistent way.

Professor Cheshire says: “The research develops an objective way of defining what a town centre is. When you have an objective method not only can you be sure that you are defining all town centres in a common way, but you can apply the method to towns for which no town centres have ever been defined. You can then move on to properly assessing how town centre policies affect people’s behaviour and wellbeing.”

Why was a policy that was intended to regenerate urban centres devised without even a clear definition of what town centres were? Professor Cheshire says that many people, and politicians, instinctively feel they know where a town centre begins and ends, but they may not be right and certainly such judgements vary from town to town.  He says: “Common sense is often wrong. This work challenges the kind of anecdotal policy making which has brought us the challenges.”

The work is a further contribution to Professor Cheshire’s efforts to improve the management of our built environments. “The point of this work is to help find ways we can manage our space more efficiently and achieve the best outcomes. Having an evidence-based starting point is vital.”

Behind the article

Take me to the centre of your town! Using micro-geographical data to identify town centres by Paul Cheshire, Christian A. L. Hilber, Piero Montebruno, and Sanchis-Guarner, Rosa was published in CESifo Economic Studies in 2018.

Empty homes, longer commutes: The unintended consequences of more restrictive local planning by Paul Cheshire, Christian A.L.Hilber, and Hans R.A.Koster was published by the Journal of Public Economics in February 2018.

Land use regulation and productivity - land matters: evidence from a UK supermarket chain by Paul C. Cheshire Christian A. L. Hilber, and Ioannis Kaplanis was published by the Journal of Economic Geography in January 2015.