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Planning reform is on the way

Planning reform is on the way. But will it lead to better development in the right places, and stop car-based sprawl?

From the point of view of Transport for New Homes, and the many others who are appalled at the spread of car-dependent new housing dominated by roads and parking, planning reform should be about enabling positive planning. It should be aimed at bringing about new development in locations where it will be well served by, and will encourage the use of, sustainable transport – walking, cycling and public transport – and where people will not feel dependent on using cars to meet their everyday needs.

So far, however, the reform the Government has in mind is focused on getting more homes built, and involves the slackening of planning controls to make this happen. This might well boost the housing numbers, but will it address the problem of poor quality?

Transport for New Homes agrees that more housing is needed, much more. The shortage of homes, and especially affordable homes, is clear. But boosting the numbers is not enough by itself. We are pressing for quality as well as quantity, namely:

  • Building in the right places, with good public transport connections
  • Creating mixed communities with a good range of local facilities
  • Ensuring that people are not dependent on the car
  • Designing places that are attractive for all stages of people’s lives, not soulless estates dominated by roads and parking

Delivering this kind of diverse and high-quality growth does not have to involve more planning, but it does need the right kind of planning. The most important requirement is for development to be in the right place. That means having a plan which coordinates development with sustainable transport options, and prioritises sites within existing urban areas over greenfield sites. The drive for sustainability requires compact development, not suburban sprawl or remote estates. It also requires the building of communities, not just houses.

Making it easier for developers to convert offices and other buildings to residential use could have a positive impact, re-purposing space made redundant by increased home working since COVID-19. Such conversions are also likely to be in locations well served by public transport. But controls are needed to ensure that we don’t end up with sub-standard, cramped flats without adequate daylight or outdoor space or facilities. If anything, new homes will need to be bigger, to provide for greater homeworking.

At the moment, the planning system is largely reactive to private sector initiatives and lacks ways of coordinating development with sustainable transport measures. At a minimum, reform of the planning system needs to address this problem. Under the current system transport considerations are mostly confined to building road capacity to deal with extra traffic from new developments. This is completely at odds with avoiding car dependent housing, and decarbonising transport to meet climate change targets.

A way must be found to plan sustainable transport measures alongside new developments, on the same timescale, and with coordinated and fully committed funding. It is not rocket science, nor does it need to involve more bureaucracy and red tape. It does mean creating more certainty in what gets built where, and when. The benefits of this approach can be seen in other countries. Transport for New Homes have visited, for example, Copenhagen (Denmark), Freiburg (Germany), Montpelier and Nantes (France), and Almere and Ijberg (Netherlands). In these places new developments follow an integrated transport and land use plan, based on high quality public transport such as tram or urban railway. Even in some car-dependent north American cities we can see a move towards this approach.

Local authorities should certainly facilitate housing growth, but they should also be required to determine what gets built where. Instead of waiting for landowners and developers to bring forward development sites that suit their interests, local authorities should be given powers to assemble sites in accordance with their plans. Local Plans should be prepared and scrutinised alongside Local Transport Plans, and funding should be arranged to fit the timetable for transport and development schemes. The plans themselves should be based on the principles of “brownfield first”, and transit-oriented development (TOD). This means developing in locations that are or will be made accessible by public transport. In areas of high growth especially, there should be statutory plans covering wider areas, with a duty on local authorities to agree both the spatial distribution of future development and the transport facilities that will serve it.

We are therefore calling for reform of the planning system that will rectify deficiencies in the current system. In particular:

  • End the reliance on centrally-determined housing targets that pay no regard to transport or other impacts;
  • Decide development locations based on actual or planned accessibility, rather than wherever land owners are willing to sell at huge profit, and private developers see a market;
  • Integrate planning processes that currently are carried out in separate silos, in particular the planning of sustainable transport and land use;
  • Fund active travel and public transport facilities in advance of development taking place, not just roads.

This programme of planning reform is urgently needed to bring development practice into line with environmental and community objectives. It does mean wider powers for local authorities, but it shouldn’t mean adding layers of bureaucracy. Instead the focus of planning effort should shift from the scrutiny of private sector proposals towards pro-active involvement in the location and shaping of new development.

Meanwhile, plans for hundreds of new car-dependent housing estates (including those dressed up as “garden villages”) remain on the table, and are in need of urgent review.

By Tim Pharoah, Transport and Urban Planning Consultant