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‘Beauty’ alone won’t solve the climate crisis

This guest blog by Cycling UK’s policy director Roger Geffen argues that the Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework makes it commendably easy for councils to reject planning applications which aren’t ‘beautiful’, but creates massive hurdles for councils wishing to reject developments that would entrench car-dependence. The blog was first published on the Cycling UK website.

“The Government is strongly in favour of ‘beauty’. And who wouldn’t be? I certainly am. It’s one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie things that surely everyone agrees with.

In recent years though, ‘beauty’ has become something of a ministerial obsession. Some ministers seem to think you can build pretty much anything, pretty much anywhere – motorways, coal-mines, airports, power stations – so long as they are ‘beautiful’.

I recall a recent transport minister opening his address to a meeting of environmental campaigners by declaring: “I am an aesthete”. He wanted to build lots of roads, but he also wanted them to be in tune with nature – which meant providing plenty of trees and badger crossings, and even cycle crossings (so that kept me happy!). He wanted to build the most beautiful roads possible. I recall an energy minister saying something similar about nuclear power stations.

Two years ago, the Government set up the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It was co-chaired by the late Professor Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boyes Smith, founder of the charity Create Streets. Its final report to Government, Living with Beauty, was published 2 years later, and makes some very sensible recommendations.

It talks about the importance of creating places (not just houses), integrating nature into the built environment, regenerating ‘left-behind’ places, the importance of local democracy, and the achievement of ‘gentle densities’, where people live close together without requiring high-rise blocks, and where it is therefore easy to get around without depending on cars.

“Highway design can help reclaim streets for people, with the provision of cycle infrastructure or public transport supporting more humane and popular places. This now needs to become the norm, not the exception”
– ‘Living with Beauty’ report by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

It notes how “highway design can help reclaim streets for people, with the provision of cycle infrastructure or public transport supporting more humane and popular places. This now needs to become the norm, not the exception.”

Unfortunately ministers have taken the report’s title and shorn it of much of the excellent supporting argument. Instead, they proposed in the Planning White Paper that any development deemed to be ‘beautiful’ should get a near-automatic pass through the planning system, almost regardless of where it is located.

This is an absolute recipe for entrenching car-dependence. As I said in a previous blog on the Government’s planning reforms: “A beautiful development in an unsustainable, car-dependent location is still an unsustainable development”.

This flawed thinking also reappears in the Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It is instructive to compare the paragraphs from the chapters on design and on sustainable transport, setting out the grounds on which local councils can or should refuse planning permission.

In the design chapter, paragraph 133 is admirably clear: “Development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance on design.” It goes on to say that “significant weight should be given to […] outstanding or innovative designs which promote high levels of sustainability”. This is all good stuff.

However, contrast this with paragraph 110, the equivalent paragraph in the sustainable transport chapter. “Development should only be prevented or refused on highways grounds if there would be an unacceptable impact on highway safety, or the residual cumulative impacts on the road network would be severe.”

In essence, local authorities cannot refuse planning applications, even where the development’s location means that there will inevitably be significant increases in traffic, unless they can prove that the “residual” impacts (even after providing improved public transport etc) would be “severe”. This is a very high hurdle.

Councils know that if they try to reject an application due to the extra traffic it would generate, the developer would probably use these words to bring a legal challenge, and would probably win. Very few councils have the strength to stand up to car-dependent developments.

So the growth in car-dependence continues. And we hurtle on, out of control, into an increasingly urgent climate crisis – not to mention the crises of urban congestion and pollution, physical inactivity, road danger and lack of mobility for children and other non-drivers.

Cycling UK’s consultation response to the draft NPPF and the accompanying National Model Design Code (a much better document) contains several recommendations for improvements. However, if I could have just one change, it would be to reword paragraph 110. It needs to say, as clearly as paragraph 133 does, that developments whose location is likely to increase dependence on motor-vehicles should simply be refused.”

Roger Geffen, Cycling UK

Cycling UK recently signed a joint letter to Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick – together with Transport for New Homes and other organisations – asking the Government to focus its planning reforms on reducing car dependence.

Bus

Planning for transport demand through the Decide and Provide Approach

What will the likely transport impact of a new development be? How many trips is it likely to generate? To work this out, transport planners use TRICS, which is a database of information about the trips generated by past developments.

In the past, TRICs has been used as part of a ‘Predict and Provide’ paradigm, which tends to mean ‘predict how many people will want to drive places, and provide road space for them’.Lynn Basford

But this year the consortium behind TRICS released new guidance calling on transport planners to instead ‘Decide and Provide’: decide on the preferred future and provide the means to work towards that. In this guest blog, Lynn Basford of BasfordPowers Ltd, which helped to produce the guidance, explains its implications.

 Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
– Jane Fulton, a character in Rita Mae Brown’s “Sudden Death”, 1983

The way that we think about planning for the future is beginning to change and needs to change in light of the UK’s commitment to decarbonising its economy, the Covid-19 pandemic and the digital connectivity that we are now presented with.

As Professor Glenn Lyons recognises in his Foreword to the new guidance released by TRICS this year, “We live our lives within a “Triple Access System” comprised of different and interacting means of being able to access people, jobs, goods, services and opportunities” (the Triple Access System refers to the transport, land-use and telecommunications systems). This needs to be reflected in the way we approach planning for homes and services.

We as land use and transport planners need to embrace the requisite for change and ensure our Local Plans and site specific plans reflect these societal shifts.

The tools that we use in land use and transport planning, and how we use them, need to reflect changing consumer and travel behaviour.

A very well used tool in transport planning is TRICS. TRICS has an ever growing database (some 7,150 transport surveys) of observed trip rates associated with different types and scales of development. It has been a well-used if not default source for supporting the estimation of trip rates associated with new developments. Such measurements have guided the requirements for transport infrastructure and services.

 If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.”
– Henry Ford, American Industrialist and Founder of the Ford Motor Company

The common use of the ‘Vehicle Only’ TRICS calculation which looks at vehicle and cycle trips can conspire against sustainable development if not used carefully and can lead to the over provision of highway capacity and the potential under provision of walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure and services. This common use (whilst heavily guarded against in the TRICS Best Practice Guidance 2021) equates to a Predict and Provide approach to planning new development.

TRICS does provide multi modal data (walking, cycling and public transport trips), and it is this information along with the analysis of historic trends data that needs to be used to shape developments and plan for sustainable developments.

So how do we stop being insane and planning the same over and over again?

In February 2021 TRICS launched its new Guidance on the Practical Implementation of the Decide and Provide approach. This approach starkly constrasts with the Predict and Provide approach. Its focus is upon deciding on the preferred future and providing the means to work towards that which can accommodate uncertainty. The Decide and Provide approach provides the opportunity to meaningfully prioritise a modal hierarchy giving greater upfront consideration of walking and cycling and asking the three key questions:

  • What sort of place are we creating?
  • What kind of activities do we need or desire to travel for?
  • How will we provide for mobility?

Visioning is central to the Decide and Provide approach. It is essential that transport and land use planners jointly vision development proposals, whether in private sector planning or the public sector development management.

The TRICS new guidance provides us with a detailed methodology for applying the Decide and Provide Approach. For those out there who say that this approach can’t work, TRICS has helpfully provided a set of worked examples including for food retail, discount food retail, large residential, medium residential, residential brown field sites and small residential. Something for everyone!

One of the key take-aways from the guidance is that the TRICS data is showing that trip rates associated with developments are changing and we can change them further by the way we plan new developments.

I believe that we can avoid insanity by embracing this new approach in transport planning which supports the new paradigm of Decide and Provide and we can genuinely get sustainable, adaptive development planning that supports social, economic and travel behaviour change.”

Lynn Basford
Director and Founder of BasfordPowers Ltd

Cyclists

If Active Travel England is set up right it could increase walking and cycling for residents of new homes

On 28 July 2020 the UK Government announced the creation of Active Travel England, a funding body for walking and cycling provision in England and also an inspectorate of the work of highways authorities. This formed part of the Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking plans set out the same day.

The document endorses our findings. It notes that “developments often do little or nothing meaningful to enable cycling and walking. Sometimes they make cycling and walking provision worse”, and includes the welcome statement that “we expect sustainable transport issues to be considered from the earliest stages of plan-making and development proposals, so that opportunities to promote cycling and walking are pursued”.

Transport for New Homes welcomes the creation of Active Travel England to put these ambitions into practice, and in particular the powers it will have over the planning of new homes. It will be vital if the government is to release the potential of walking and cycling to achieve their transport decarbonisation plan.

We’ve been acting as an active travel inspectorate of sorts ourselves for the past few years with our many site visits to new housing developments. We’ve learned a lot from what we’ve found and have some tips about how to do things right.

The new body will be a statutory consultee for new developments over an as-yet unspecified volume of homes. Very large single applications are rare. When we looked at the garden village proposals we saw applications in the low thousands. And in the larger garden towns the area is divided into smaller developer areas, each with their own applications. The threshold needs to be set low enough to capture enough applications.

There is also the question of resources. The organisation has many functions and will need to be properly funded to deal with the volume of work anticipated. We’ll have some sense of how serious intentions are when the new National Cycling and Walking Commissioner is announced. They’ll need to be a true active travel advocate prepared to fight for the money and people required to do the job right.

Responding properly to planning applications takes time and expertise. The organisation will need to be properly funded and have the right skills to fulfil its town planning and transport planning role. The task of reviewing every highway authority annually is a substantial undertaking. Reviewing planning applications, as we’ve found, can eat up a lot of time.

There is concern about the weight Active Travel England consultee responses will be given. The planning authorities cannot ignore the rules of planning no matter what a consultee says. Planning rules are getting more light touch, with an expectation of further deregulation on the way. It would be a shame to set up an effectively powerless new body.

That said, the greatest power of Active Travel England could be its grant giving. We know from our recent report Garden Towns and Garden Villages: Visions and Reality that the number one thing holding up good active travel provision in new housing isn’t the planning system or stakeholder will. It is money. If Active Travel England can step in at the planning stage to fund active travel in new developments it could be transformative.

The plans for Active Travel England suggest it will have £2billion to give on walking and cycling grants. This sounds a lot, but will soon get used up. If you divide by the number of highways authorities it isn’t very much per area at all. The plans talk about further funding being available down the line. It would be transformative if some of that money was committed to new housing developments.

Perhaps one of the more interesting roles of Active Travel England is the envisaged role as a centre of excellence, providing both technical advice and expertise on stakeholder management. These are appropriate but resource heavy undertakings that will require a number of skilled practitioners within and perhaps outside Active Travel England. We’re available if they need a hand!

By Steve Chambers, Sustainable Transport Campaigner

The vision and reality of Garden Communities

Green promises broken: Garden Villages and Garden Towns will be dominated by the car

Press release: 16 June 2020

Far from being vibrant, green communities, Garden Villages and Garden Towns [1] are at high risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates, research by Transport for New Homes [2] has found. The group examined plans for 20 Garden Communities [3] and found that they will create up to 200,000 car-dependent households, generating high levels of traffic on surrounding roads including motorways.

Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator at Transport for New Homes, said:

“Put forward by the government as an alternative to characterless estates, Garden Villages may well end up with more tarmac than garden, limited public transport, and few ‘village’ amenities to walk or cycle to.”

The coronavirus outbreak has placed new emphasis on walking and cycling, with wider pavements and new cycle lanes springing up in cities. The benefits of living more locally have come to prominence. By contrast, Transport for New Homes found that Garden Villages will be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling due to their remote location, their layout and their lack of safe routes in and out of the estate. Local facilities may well never materialise in these car-based developments: non-driving residents will be forced to walk up to seven miles to the nearest town centre [4].

Looking to the future, the need for modern bus, tram and train networks to avert climate crisis is expected to come to the fore [5]. But rather than new or improved public transport, the group found that plans for Garden Villages and Garden Towns promise major increases in road capacity to cater for a massive expected rise in car use. Garden Communities are not being planned with new metro stations at their hearts, nor are high-quality bus or tram routes assured to serve them in the future.

Many Garden Communities are backed by Government funding, the criteria for which are laid out in the MHCLG’s Garden Communities Prospectus [6]. Communities should “be largely self-sustaining and genuinely mixed-use” with “public transport, walking and cycling” enabling “simple and sustainable access to jobs, education and services”. Instead, Transport for New Homes found strong evidence that:

  • All 20 of the Garden Communities examined in detail will encourage car dependent lifestyles with the car the primary mode of transport at every single one.
  • These 20 settlements will create up to 200,000 car dependent households.
  • Only one settlement (Aylesham – although itself not funded by Homes England) offers amenities and a railway station within 1 mile of every home, though the train service is infrequent and there are no safe cycle routes to access it.
  • All other settlements failed to provide access to amenities and a railway station within 1 mile of all new homes with safe walking and cycling routes.
  • None of the 20 settlements will provide bus services to all households all day, all week.
  • Cycle routes from Garden Villages into nearby towns will often be long and dangerous.
  • Residents will have to walk up to 7 miles to access a railway station or go to the nearest town centre.

Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator at Transport for New Homes, continued:

“It looks like Garden Communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid. Rather than seeing the emphasis on public transport that the Garden Communities Prospectus promised, with new stations funded at the heart of the development, or firm investment in modern bus rapid transit, light rail or trams, nearly every Garden Community comes with a long list of road improvements such as bypasses, link roads and new motorway junctions. Although the theme of the ‘local’ and ‘self-sufficient’ is the official line, the language adopted in the promotion of Garden Villages makes great play of their strategic location for long-distance commuting. It is doubtful, given this emphasis, that local shops and services will flourish.”

Steve Chambers, Sustainable Transport Campaigner at Transport for New Homes, said:

“Our visits to sites of Garden Towns and Garden Villages highlighted the chasm between the proposed visions and the built reality. We found that because of remote locations, public transport was rarely already provided and funding had not been secured to make it available when residents move in. Walking and cycling were clearly afterthoughts and even in the better examples did not provide safe and convenient routes to basic amenities beyond the development boundary. Garden Villages were typically too small to support any amenities and are not being built on a sustainable scale. Larger Garden Towns typically located new housing beyond a ring road, on the edge of an established town and poorly connected with it. Car dependency is being built into the Garden Towns and Garden Villages by design.”

Steve Gooding, Director of the RAC Foundation and a Chair of the Steering Group for Transport for New Homes, said:

“The vision for garden developments is laudable but is at grave risk of being missed – far from being delivered in a way that would encourage us to leave our cars at home the reality looks set to ingrain car dependence.

“Living completely ‘car-free’ is probably a pipe-dream outside the centres of our towns and cities – the reality is that many of us will still wish to own and use our cars but not want to be forced to get behind the wheel for every trip we make.

“Good road connections matter: they’re vital for buses, bicycles and, as we’ve learnt in recent weeks, delivery vans too, not just for the private motorist. But they have to be designed with a sensible layout, including wide footways so that walking to the local shops or to school is a safe, practical and appealing proposition.”

The recommendations in Transport for New Homes’ report include:

  • Commission an urgent reassessment of the sustainability in transport terms of all planned Garden Communities and do not give outline planning permission until it is clear that sustainable transport elements in each vision are fully funded and specified.
  • Build close to existing town centres or create strings of developments along public transport routes, rather than scattering developments around the countryside.
  • Direct Government funding to public realm, place-making, and sustainable transport including Dutch-style cycling networks, local rail, rapid transit, buses and trams.
  • Make sure that sustainable transport infrastructure is funded to extend beyond the site boundary.
  • Put kickstart funding and other financial incentives in place to establish shops, cafes, pubs, shared workspaces and other local facilities with the development, creating a walkable community.

Case studies

Case Study 1: Long Marston Garden Village

Long Marston is a proposed 3,500 home Garden Village within the Stratford-upon-Avon District of Warwickshire. It is typical of Garden Villages in that it is far from major population and employment centres. Located on a former airfield, this Garden Village will be particularly remote and without a sustainable scale will not support amenities, jobs or public transport. It is seven miles from the nearest railway station. Residents will have no option other than the car to see friends, get to work or to the nearest town centre. Visions of ‘express bus connections’ are without funding. There are also unfunded aspirations for new safe walking and cycling routes from the development, but even if they were provided there is little other than open space nearby. This is a good example of a new development in the wrong place.

Case Study 2: Aylesbury Garden Town

Aylesbury is the long established county town of Buckinghamshire. The acquisition of Garden Town status is attached to a transformative vision to create 16,000 new homes. Aylesbury is typical of Garden Towns, with the new housing developments located on the outskirts and without attractive, safe walking and cycling routes to amenities. This Garden Town is like many of the others in that plans are heavily reliant on road building, in this case the completion of a coveted ring road. Bus services are better here than in many places, but all day, all week services to every home lack committed funding. We think Aylesbury could realise its potential by scrapping the community-severing ring road plans, prioritising walking and cycling over car journeys in the way roads are designed, and by funding a rapid transit system for the whole town.

Contact details

For more details please contact Jess Fitch, Communications Coordinator, Transport for New Homes: jess.fitch@transportfornewhomes.org.uk

Notes to editors

Photographs from Garden Communities can be downloaded from Flickr.

1. Drawing from Ebenezer Howard’s vision of the Garden City more than a century ago, Garden Communities today are central to the Government’s plans to increase housing supply. Building in rural and semi-rural areas – where housing targets are high – is unpopular. To avoid objections to more estates on the edge of market towns and at the same time exploiting cheaper land to build on, the Government proposes instead building vibrant, healthy and green ‘Garden Villages’: self-contained communities with everything to hand and minimal need to travel. ‘Garden Town’ status similarly puts the emphasis on a lot of new housing, but this time near an existing urban area. The idea is that sustainable travel and green lifestyles then become central to the whole area as the housing is built.The concept is supported by a Garden Communities Prospectus (MHCLG, 2018) and £3.7 million in funding specifically for Garden Communities, as well as a share of the £2.3 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund.

2. Transport for New Homes believes that everyone should have access to attractive housing, located and designed to ensure that people do not need to use or own cars to live a full life. Transport for New Homes is a project funded by the Foundation for Integrated Transport, a registered charity (115 63 63).

3. The report, Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions and Reality, can be read online. Datasheets from the 20 developments examined in detail are also online. Transport for New Homes examined master-plans, visions, infrastructure delivery plans, transport assessments and other documentation for a varied range of 20 Garden Communities around England, as well as visiting existing towns with Garden status and sites proposed for Garden Villages. Close examination was made of the funding and policy landscape underlying Garden Communities, including how the Housing Infrastructure Fund is being spent.

4. See Case Study 1, Long Marston, above.

5. In the Department for Transport’s March 2020 report, Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps writes: “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

6. The MHCLG’s Garden Communities Prospectus can be read online.

New Checklist to help root out car-dependent housing developments

In the rush to build new homes, too many estates are being built without public transport, local facilities or even pavements, leading to car dependence, congestion, pollution and unhealthy lifestyles. Now Transport for New Homes, a campaign group seeking to halt the spread of such car-based development, has produced a Checklist to enable local authorities, neighbourhood groups and others to easily identify housing plans that are likely to result in car-dependent lifestyles.

Conversely, the Checklist will help good housing plans to gain recognition for giving residents real, sustainable travel choices.

The lead author of the Checklist, Tim Pharoah of Transport for New Homes, said:

“Our country desperately needs more homes, but these must be located and designed to ensure that residents do not need cars to live a full life. Our visits to recent housing developments around the country revealed that too many had been built around car use. When housing is built on green fields, far from jobs, shops and services, with inadequate public transport and poor pedestrian and cycle links, residents are forced to drive for almost every journey.

“With traffic and air pollution blighting neighbourhoods, and transport being the UK’s main contributor to climate change, banishing the scourge of car-dependent housing is long overdue.”

Developed with input from bodies representing planning and transport professionals, as well as planners, academics and neighbourhood groups, the Checklist identifies, under ten broad headings, elements that make up a non-car-dependent housing development. These include:

  • A location within or closely connected to an existing settlement that has a clear centre
  • A welcoming environment, not dominated by car parking
  • Local facilities easily accessible without a car
  • Frequent public transport services in place from Day 1 of occupation

By considering each of these criteria, users of the Checklist can rate a housing plan as either Red, Amber or Green for how well it will avoid car-dependency.

Lynda Addison OBE FCIHT MTPS, Chair of the CIHT Sustainable Transport Panel, said:

“CIHT welcomes this important contribution to the radical changes needed in the way that homes and transport are designed to ensure that people can chose to live healthier and more active lives as part of their daily routine. This complements the forthcoming advice on ‘Better planning, better transport, better places’ that is about to be published by CIHT in partnership with TPS and the RTPI.”

Written without jargon, the Transport for New Homes Checklist is intended for use by local authorities, developers and neighbourhood groups alike to root out car-dependent housing plans. The Checklist will help to identify how such plans can be improved, or why they should be rejected altogether. The Checklist can also be applied to developments that have already been built so that lessons can be learnt.