Lessons from Europe: how planning can stimulate housing development

New studies from Europe show how France, Germany and the Netherlands have successfully tackled housing and regeneration by using planning skills and tools to stimulate, not just regulate, development in a way that is markedly different from the UK, says the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

Housing in Hamburg

Researchers from the University of Liverpool have identified five specific tactics – seldom used in the UK - that have led to faster and better development, especially housing development in Western Europe:

  • upfront infrastructure investment to shape future development;
  • this investment builds support for urban extensions, so tackling ‘NIMBYism’;
  • land assembly and readjustment whereby an overarching body actively seeks out and temporarily pools together private development rights
  • strong planning institutions to coordinate this development;
  • regional coalition-building and strategic planning across administrative boundaries to reflect functional economic areas. 

“The experience in Europe shows that planning tools such as upfront infrastructure provision and land readjustment are essential to building the kind of places with access to jobs, good infrastructure and green spaces, at the kind of scale and density required to tackle the UK’s pressing housing crisis. We aren’t making enough use of them in the UK,” said head of research at RTPI Michael Harris.

“Planning is so much more than just about regulating the use of land, but somehow this has become the dominant thinking in the UK and has led to the perception that planning is anti-growth, cumbersome and bureaucratic.

“This paper offers timely and powerful evidence that when used in a more proactive and positive way, planning can shape better development and is one of the most powerful unused weapons we have to support the UK economy and improve quality of life.”

The study explains how the markets for land and property, when left to operate without intervention, are inherently incapable of delivering either the quantity or quality of places needed in the UK for sustainable economic growth.

In-depth case studies from Hamburg, Lille and Nijmegen illustrate how planning can overcome market failure and deliver superior economic outcomes for people and places. In all three cases, the planning system plays an enterprising role in negotiating with, shaping, and stimulating the market. In particular, its intervention as a “first mover” to animate the development process in large, cross-boundary or problematic projects through the abovementioned tactics has enhanced the certainty and preconditions for private investment.

The RTPI-commissioned study “Planning as ‘market maker’: How planning is used to stimulate development in Germany, France and the Netherlands” has been undertaken by Dr Alex Lord and Dr Phil O’Brien at University of Liverpool. It is funded through the RTPI’s Small Projects Impact Research (SPIRe) scheme. The full report is available here 

The five planning strategies

The study identified five specific planning strategies and tools commonly used in Europe to shape development and provide stimulus to the market:

Upfront infrastructure investment to shape the form of development

Transport infrastructure, if developed as part of a well coordinated plan, has a strong ability to shape the form of a development for the achievement of social and economic goals. Investment in infrastructure in the UK is typically reactive and regressive, responding to developer site development proposals and thus failing to achieve wider objectives. The case studies show how proactive, upfront infrastructure investment, especially in public transport, can be used to increase density, viability and hence quality of development.

Urban extensions to tackle NIMBYism and housing shortages

Urban extensions, when underpinned by infrastructure investment, are a popular solution to meeting housing needs in European cities. The current ‘Green Belt’ debate in the UK is predicated on limited ambition about how the housing crisis could be solved, assuming that only one, reactive model of development is available. Many European cities also are keen to protect their countryside, need to deal with strong NIMBY movements, but also need to meet high demand for new housing. The infrastructure-supported, urban extension model enables more holistic planning of density and quality to tackle these challenges in concert.

Invest in strong planning institutions to coordinate development

The case studies show that at the heart of these models of development are institutions with the resources and capabilities to deliver this kind of proactive planning. The creation of high quality places that can enable sustainable economies to flourish require the coordinated management of infrastructure development and the form of the surrounding built environment. Cuts to UK local authorities, and rhetoric in favour of further ‘liberalising’ the planning system are hindering the ability of UK planning institutions to oversee the delivery of good development.

Regional planning to increase the efficiency of local economic investment

Functional economic areas often operate on a scale that is larger than the local jurisdictions tasked with overseeing their economic development. In Europe, we see how a culture of coalition building and strategic planning across relevant jurisdictions allows pooling of resources for important planning inputs like infrastructure, joint plan making for wider-area priorities, and ultimately delivering economic results of greater individual benefits to areas than those that could have been achieved from operating in isolation. With the continued devolution debate ongoing in the UK, we need to make the most of the opportunity to develop structures which can plan at the most effective level for achieving positive economic results.

Land readjustment to help deliver value from planning

Land readjustment can be used as an effective tool to increase the economic value of the built environment. Densification and infrastructure provision within already developed spaces can lead to increases in value to existing property owners. Temporary transfers of property rights to undertake such investments circumvent the need for top-down, cumbersome processes such as compulsory purchase orders, and ensure that value uplifts can be captured to cover the costs of investment.

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email