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Photo: cyclists seen from above

‘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.

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