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Riverside development

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

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.

Building site

Let us know how changes to the planning system are affecting your area

Planning and the making of planning decisions have not stopped because of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis. The Coronavirus Act 2020 gave councils the ability to run planning committees remotely. However, even before this legislation became law many authorities were making new arrangements for planning decisions, including delegating decisions to officers and council leaders rather than scheduling committee meetings in a council chamber where the public could submit questions and statements and also speak.

Councils are acting under pressure from central government to keep planning consents and development going. You might have seen in the news or noticed in your own community that site work continues. This is because planning and development are not on hold.

We know that good planning decisions with committee scrutiny and public involvement are crucial for getting new homes with good sustainable transport. We are concerned that changes to the system might have an impact on the quality of what gets built.

Can we ask you to spend a few minutes answering some questions about how your local council is adapting their planning decision making process? If you let us know about any big developments that are due to be decided soon that would really help too.

Once we’ve got a picture of what is going on we hope to produce some advice on challenging large developments that come through planning at this time, with a view to ensuring sustainable transport isn’t forgotten when new homes are built.

It would be great to get your input by 18 May.

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