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Three changes we’d like to see to the plans for the planning system

By Steve Chambers and Jenny Raggett, Transport for New Homes

When the government consulted on proposed upcoming changes to the planning system in August 2020 we responded based on what we’d learned from our visits to new housing estates, which is summarised in our 2018 and 2020 reports.

We don’t think the current planning system is working, especially when it comes to transport, so we were excited to learn what the government planned. But we had some concerns about the policies proposed. In short, we didn’t think they would make things better.

The government has now suggested that proposals as consulted are far from the final outcome and the new planning system is as yet unwritten. With that in mind we thought we’d bring together the most important changes we think should be brought forward in upcoming planning reform.

1. Change how infrastructure is funded

When new buildings are proposed the planning system ensures any negative impacts are mitigated by planning obligations and contributions. This should ensure that new homes have pavements and other transport options available as soon as they are occupied. This is either provided by an obligation where the developer provides the infrastructure or a cash contribution that funds the work being carried out by or on behalf of the local authority.

The consultation suggested the replacement of planning obligations and contributions with a flat rate infrastructure levy. This change might have brought simplicity but it would also have created inequity. New communities or extensions of old ones would be built without the most basic infrastructure because of lack of contribution and mitigation from developers. For example we already see new homes built without pavements connecting up to nearby bus stops and shops. Further reducing planning obligations and contributions risks exacerbating this problem.

Whilst we do not think the infrastructure levy could ever be a complete replacement for existing systems of planning obligations and contributions, we do think transport provision at new homes must be properly funded. Local and combined authorities should be able to set appropriate local rates of levy in order to fund sustainable transport. Whereas the flat rate system would have ignored local context, the setting of infrastructure levies locally would ensure local needs are met.

And what do we mean by infrastructure? Many people take ‘infrastructure’ to mean ‘roads’ and indeed we have seen how new or wider roads are assumed to be essential to take the new traffic generated by large greenfield housing estates. This emphasis we think is associated with an outdated model of development and future investment needs to be different. This could be the basic things like connecting smaller urban extensions to town centres by safe and convenient end-to-end walking and cycling routes or more ambitious plans like rapid transit systems for significantly expanding towns and cities. When we looked at garden towns and villages these were the top two shortcomings of them. The money wasn’t there. Light rail and rapid transit are especially important to pull together newly built and existing urban areas. However substantial funding is needed. If central government cannot supply the funds, then a local level levy with contributions pooled from several large developments may be a way forward.

2. Give the chance to consider developments so that sustainable transport is not forgotten

One of the aims of the reformed planning system is to build more homes and quickly. Whilst this is a laudable approach in a housing crisis, we already know that lack of proper planning consideration is causing developments to be built in the wrong places far from basic amenities and without sustainable transport options.

Several mechanisms have been proposed to streamline planning. These include moving the decision-making part of planning to be much earlier in the process, at the local plan stage, or instructing local authorities to designate areas for growth where scrutiny will be reduced.

Typically under the current system a larger site is considered three times in the planning process: at the local plan stage, at outline planning permission and at final planning permission. Each stage operates at a different scale and provides opportunities to ensure the development integrates well with existing towns and villages. Removing any of these strategies entirely runs the risk of forgetting about sustainable transport. New roads and easy access are often top priority but the walking, cycling and public transport connections in and out of the estate are considered secondary or left out completely.

We propose that the future planning system continues to provide opportunities for consultation and deliberation of development at the local plan, outline and final permission stages in relation to frequent and modern public transport and safe overlooked walking and cycling routes in and out of the development, even if the principle of new housing on the site has already been agreed.

3. Improve the local plan making process

New technologies could make plan making better, but proposed changes to the plan making process could jeopardise the opportunity.

Planning new homes and other development is often done piecemeal with several large new housing estates proposed without consideration of the interactions between them, other kinds of development, and nearby urban areas.

Plans often stop at the local authority border rather than being genuinely coordinated with those of neighbouring authorities. The result may be several large new urban extensions or ‘garden villages’ in the countryside uncoordinated in terms of better public transport provision or cycling and walking routes.

Each development comes with a complex transport assessment which models the effect of that development on the road system, and to a very limited extent, sustainable transport. However, the way people will travel around the area as a whole without a car, is not considered.

This uncoordinated approach is something which our future planning system may correct by the use of technology.

One of the most promising parts of the planning proposals is the use of data and geographic information systems (GIS). This, the government suggests, should inform every part of the planning process. By using maps in combination with data, different scenarios can be tested and a proper perspective achieved on a whole area, with the maps working seamlessly across local authority boundaries and the ability to zoom in and out to understand the implications of new build, whether it is in the right place, and how to get the associated infrastructure right. In terms of sustainable transport, the coordination of land use with new stations and/ or rapid transit can then be examined and options for where to build logically decided. The cycle network needed for a whole area can be discussed and mapped out with clarity. The disadvantages of choosing the wrong parcel of land to build on become apparent and mistakes avoided. With GIS the process of planning can become much more accessible to ordinary people because a shared interactive map means discussions can take place in an open way.

GIS has the big advantage over paper in that it can bring into focus a number of datasets and overlay them graphically. In terms of building in the right place and in the right way, data from many sources can be taken into consideration and viewed together. These datasets might cover anything from wildlife records to sustainable transport, from landscape to favourite walking areas, from air quality to type and density of housing. Maps can test out different scenarios so that the knowledge and expertise of our planners can be put to good use and the public can genuinely participate. The availability of data and GIS gives the opportunity to make much better decisions about planning generally, and especially about sustainable transport.

But planning authorities will need adequate time and resources to take advantage of these new technologies. Otherwise the opportunity to make better local plans will be lost in the rush to comply with arbitrary deadlines.

The planning system is in need of reform and new housing is desperately needed. But speeding the process up won’t necessarily make things better. In order to get more equitable and sustainable outcomes from the planning system we need to see infrastructure properly funded, automatic permission tempered by realistic expectations about transport provision and a plan making process that has the power to guide the places that are created.

We are crowdfunding for our Homes Without Jams campaign, which works to influence the government’s planning reforms, making the case for a green transport future for new homes. Please support our crowdfunder which closes in a matter of days.

It’s difficult to produce sustainable travel patterns if you don’t build in the right places

Guest blog by Gordon Stokes, Visiting Research Associate at Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford

Finding the right places to locate large numbers of new homes and jobs in crowded areas of the South East will need great care if we’re trying to encourage modes other than the car. New mapping shows graphically how people travel to work using 2011 census data, which recorded people’s usual residence location, and where they normally worked, and also asked the main mode of transport that they used. It’s by far the best available data available for looking at how travel to work varies between areas, even though there are many caveats about its accuracy.

I’ve mapped the data in a number of ways, and have recently produced a ‘traffic light’ form of mapping that shows the areas where large amounts of car travel are generated, and where there is much less. The two maps below show the relative distance driven to work, for residents (left hand map) and for each job (right hand map).

Kilometres driven per resident (left) and per job (right) in Oxford to Milton Keynes area. Green circles show low mileage and red/mauve high.

Residents near the centre of Oxford are in the lowest quartile of distance driven (green) while those in Bicester are all in the highest quartile (red and violet). While Milton Keynes fares averagely for residents (yellow and amber), for jobs it creates mileage in the highest 10% (violet). And while central Oxford seems relatively sustainable the workplaces to the South and West produce high mileages.

The maps above are part of a series with commentary relating to the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Expressway’, a sort of outer M25 proposed which would come with 1 million extra homes built before 2050. You can interpret the maps in different ways, but to me they show that the problems of locating those homes and related jobs in a way that could be described as sustainable are immense. Oxford and Cambridge are unique in their makeup and ‘traditions’ of cycling, and it’s difficult to replicate that elsewhere. The maps can be viewed on my website. The pages take some time to load and are pretty useless on a phone, due to their complexity and scale – sorry about that if you’re a phone user!

You can remove the introduction and then view different layers of the map, and read about the patterns shown. More general national mapping can be found at the link at the bottom right, or here.

The Oxford-Cambridge maps show the difficulties for the proposed road and building, but other areas of the country show different issues. London’s well developed public transport network, large scale and centralised jobs (in conjunction with the impossibility of high numbers reaching the centre by car) shows that low driver mileage can be achieved there. Other major conurbations don’t fare so well, with strong centres and strong economy being a key issue. Residents in most large cities use cars less, but jobs in centres such as Leeds and Manchester with strong economies produce much more car travel than Liverpool, Hull, Blackpool and others. But it tends to be those with weaker economies and least developed public transport and least centrality that have the highest rate of travel by modes other than driving, active modes and public transport (which mainly means high levels of travel as a car passenger).

My next stage of this work will be to measure how factors such as distance from motorway, and relative concentration of jobs affects driver mileage, which may help provide better explanations for some of the ‘surprises’ in the maps. At the moment, from this mapping, it’s difficult to say how new development and sustainable travel can be synergetic – it just helps show where not to locate. Hopefully more analysis will provide some pointers as to where it should be.

Guest blog by Gordon Stokes, Visiting Research Associate at the Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford