Blog by Jenny Raggett, Transport for New Homes
There has in recent days been much talk about the Chesham and Amersham byelection, a constituency that has always been Conservative but has now been won by the Liberal Democrats. An important election issue was the Government’s proposed changes to the planning system, with fears that planning reform will reduce the voice of local people and that this distancing from what local people want will facilitate planning permission for yet more enormous housing estates on treasured countryside, including in Buckinghamshire.
The idea that new homes are needed is generally accepted. Rarely discussed in the popular press however, is the kind of development that we do want, the sort of homes to be built and for whom, and how to make sure that new housing is not car-dependent but walkable and furnished with modern public transport. Transport is not a detail. Building out-of-town, car-based estates presents a landscape of often small houses, deserts of parking lots and roads, these taking up valuable space where there might be gardens, trees and pavements and more spacious living accommodation. It also means that residents have to buy a car, or two or even three cars per household which may be unaffordable. Destinations also quickly become car-based in this new-built sprawl and drivers fill our roads with yet more traffic. Problems further arise as those living in the sprawling greenfield estates travel into cities in their cars, places where people are trying meanwhile to reclaim the streets for pedestrians.
Returning to the Chesham and Amersham byelection, the politicians are already on the case. Yesterday there was an opposition debate in the House of Commons, entitled ‘local involvement in planning decisions’, which debated the motion: ‘That this House believes planning works best when developers and the local community work together to shape local areas and deliver necessary new homes; and therefore calls on the government to protect the right of communities to object to individual planning applications.’
MPs were rightly concerned that local communities should be involved in planning their area and should not be ignored. However what was not tackled or debated is what happens when we build in the wrong location in terms of access to jobs and services, why we end up with monoculture ‘tarmac’ housing with land wasted on so much parking, and how we make it possible to travel in and out of the new area on foot or bike, or indeed by modern public transport.
The developments proposed around Chesham and Amersham are on countryside a long way from the station and, as campaigners point out, will compel any new residents to commute by car thereby further worsening local traffic congestion and the already bad air quality in the town. A local group advocating brownfield not greenfield has formed and has been very active in the Local Plan process; but it is the mention of the station that is interesting to us.
Chesham and Amersham are at the end of the Metropolitan Line, famous for its role in stimulating the development of new suburbs north west of London. Could a reformed planning system talk about the importance of new stations and new metros as the centrepiece of new development – an idea suggested also by the Connected Cities project who have done much work on this notion? Local services and employment would be then meshed in with homes and profit from the public transport accessibility, with stations a kind of centre for the development, just as they are in the various suburbs along the Metropolitan Line. With less need for parking and road access, altogether different places could be built. A pipe dream? Perhaps. But the Metropolitan Line did it and it was successful.
We have seen on our visits that many large towns and cities are growing substantially now with hundreds of thousands of new homes planned for areas with poor public transport. Forget housing around new bypasses, ring roads, motorway junctions and bigger roundabouts. The metro may well have an important role to play in the future. Why not?