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Fawley Power Station site

Sustainability Through the Looking Glass

Richard TamplinGuest blog by Richard Tamplin

”When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Of course, we all know what sustainability means – don’t we? It’s now almost 40 years since the United Nations, concerned by the rapidly deteriorating natural environment, established the World Commission on Environment and Development to devise a plan for achieving “sustainable development”. The Brundtland Report, named after its Chairman, defined the term as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The United Kingdom signed up to the principles of the Brundtland Report by endorsing the Rio Declaration of 1993. And, when the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published in 2012, it announced, “The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.” (para 6)

That being so, how it is possible to describe as sustainable development one of the latest proposed ‘garden villages’, to be built at the end of the A326 described locally as ‘the longest cul-de-sac in Europe’, over 18km from the closest train station and served by one bus per hour taking about an hour to reach any significant centre of employment? But that is how the two Local Plan Inspectors described the proposed allocation of land comprising the former Fawley Power Station for up to 1380 dwellings plus business uses when approving the New Forest District Local Plan in 2019.

Perhaps they were thinking of the proposed re-opening of the passenger service on the Fawley branch, which ceased in 1965; a good idea in principle. But today the line ends in the Exxon Refinery, an HSE Major Hazard, so on safety and security grounds impossible for a public passenger service. And if the line ends short at the former Hythe station, would occupiers of the “garden village” use the service? Fawley Waterside is to have a yacht basin and boat stack able to take up to 60m long superyachts, with neo-Georgian town houses or bijou cottages along green ‘droveways’ where ponies will wander freely, not to mention almost 4,000 parking spaces. (Artists’ images of the proposed development – complete with ponies – can be seen on the Fawley Waterside website.)

These occupiers will shop, dine and be entertained in the mega-centre of Southampton’s West Quay or in gastro pubs and restaurants in and around the New Forest. None of these is easy or convenient by public transport as users of Southampton station know. Worse, the existing but financially fragile Hythe to Southampton ferry is likely to close as Hampshire County Council would probably move its subsidy from the ferry to the branch passenger service. Already Hampshire have miraculously found money to ‘improve’ the A326, after denying for years there is any possibility of such funding.

Yet why do this when anyone familiar with this part of the New Forest knows that the everyday situation cries out for fewer cars, not more, when all roads are single carriageway, often single lane, and used, not only by walkers and cyclists, but also as of right by cattle, sheep, pigs and the well-known New Forest ponies, none of the latter having learned the Highway Code. Consequently, satnav predictions of 23-minute journeys between Fawley and Brockenhurst Station via Beaulieu are hopelessly over-optimistic, especially during summer holidays and in bad weather, when the journey may take an hour or more. On the A326 frequent road works and accidents cause similar long delays for commuter journeys to and from Southampton.

The answer to why this is now ‘sustainable development’ is to be found in the updated NPPF of April 2012 which introduced “The presumption in favour of sustainable development … which should be seen as a golden thread.” (para 14) On its face, this phrase appears to be a move closer to Brundtland and the Rio Declaration, but things are not how they appear in the looking glass world of Government. For plan-making this means that, “strategic policies should meet objectively assessed needs”, while for decision-taking it means, “approving development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay.”

This guidance was tightened in the NPPF 2018 to require “objectively assessed need” to be met as a minimum (my emphasis). Henceforward, sustainable development meant local plans must provide enough land for housing, irrespective of local circumstances. Yet the provision of land is a supply side issue, whereas need expresses the demand for homes and in a market economy must relate that demand to price. And to discover what “objectively assessed needs” means we must turn to Planning Practice Guidance, the on-line document of several hundred pages which can and does change frequently, with little or no notice, and without leaving a record of its earlier versions. This says the first step of the procedure for calculating the minimum local housing need is to identify the baseline using the household projection growth of 2014.

Why 2014? Because since then, despite biennial updates by the Office for National Statistics, the 2014 figures showed higher household growth than in any subsequent year, but Government has refused to recognise this changing situation. Therefore, projected housing needs for many local authorities to 2030 are now over-inflated by significant amounts and nowhere near that amount of housing land is required. This is particularly true in the South-East where ever-rising housing costs have choked off new household formation.

In the New Forest this absurd situation has led the District Council to seize any chance of land for housing, despite most of it in or adjoining the National Park, nature conservation sites of international importance, extensive safety protection zones or liable to serious flood risk due to climate change. The former Fawley Power Station site has all of these characteristics. However, as ‘brownfield’ land, it is a gift horse not to be turned away. But sustainable development it is not.

Guest blog by Richard Tamplin
Richard was inspired to go into planning when still at school after encountering Eric Lyons’ Span Developments in the early 1960s. Following a planning degree at Newcastle he worked for local authorities and for himself, taught planning, established an eco museum, and represented community groups. He became a Planning Inspector in 1986 and since retiring has sought to promote good planning as a public benefit.

So, what else could we build?

In our recent report, Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions and Reality, we explain that, although the visions for garden communities are often very good, we fear ‘business as usual’. Rather than enabling people to walk, cycle and use public transport to go about their daily lives, these developments will generate high levels of traffic by condemning their residents to car-dependent lifestyles. Local shops, cafes and other amenities will fail to materialise because people will just get in their cars and drive off!

This is because new homes are often built in the wrong locations, and without consideration of the very important role that transport plays in shaping a place.

In this blog we set out to demonstrate some of the things that our report talks about by using a sequence of annotated images from Google Maps, and to show different ways that settlements have been planned, both in the UK and beyond.

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These are just some examples – we are very interested in any others. We invite readers to contact us with any other examples of good and bad practice that could be added to our discussion.

By Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator

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

Roof trusses

Planning and COVID-19

Back in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic we noticed that planning and development were continuing. We asked you to get in touch about what was happening in your local area, to tell us how decisions were being made about new housing. We worried that changes to oversight of planning might mean that proper transport provision for new homes might be neglected.

Thank you to the many of you who got in touch. We had replies from all over the country. You told us that councils approached the problem of planning in different ways. Some moved to online planning committee meetings right away and others delayed decisions. It was difficult to keep up with the volume of applications for some authorities, so more decisions were delegated to officers.

Online planning committees were sometimes reserved for the biggest applications. As we were busy finalising our Garden Communities report we were interested to know if any of them were going through planning and affected by COVID-19. Many Garden Towns and Garden Villages are progressing through the planning system.

Just before our report launched a planning inspector approved some and threw out other new Garden Communities as part of a local plan in Essex. On the day our report launched, Buckinghamshire Council met to approve the garden town plan in Aylesbury.

One thing many of you told us that is concerning was the reduction or complete elimination of the opportunity to speak at planning committee because of COVID-19 and remote working. The reasons for this varied from the limited amount of time available, technical limitations or because a decision had been delegated to officers.

Overall, we found a mixed bag of council planning responses to COVID-19. But what linked them all was a reduction of the ability for residents to make their voices heard. It is harder now to make the case against car-based sprawl and for sustainable transport. We think councils should return to their previous ways of working as soon as is practical and restore public involvement as soon as they can.

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.