Over the summer Transport for New Homes presented ‘Upside-down Geography‘ at events in London, Birmingham and Bristol. The geography of planning has become upside-down because of a failure of national strategy. Locations for new housing are not considered in terms of sustainable transport, access to services, employment or environmental impact. Instead, achieving local authority housing targets has led to a dispersed pattern of development that is very difficult to serve by public transport or other sustainable modes of travel.
In an ‘upside down geography’ world, we build new homes according to algorithms that place very high housing in rural places, where the car ends up the only way of getting about, and where employment, education and other services are in short supply. The ‘cowpat’ developments then results, built around new roads and car-based living, an english interpretation of US-style car-based sprawl. A different more modern approach is needed, much less orientated around the car.
On this theme, Transport for New Homes ran two workshops at the Transport Action Network conference in Birmingham. This was primarily a conference for campaigners against road schemes but we showed another aspect of major road construction, which is that it lays the foundation for greenfield development, opening up land for hundred of thousands of new homes in car-dependent estates. The problem is so widespread that the 2021 census now shows that our urban areas are losing population to rural and mainly rural areas, in the south west, south east, midlands and eastern part of the country.
A better model: transit-oriented development
It seems that we have missed out in England on choosing sites for new development integrated with mass transit systems, either existing or extended, and development of small and large brownfield sites. As part of a ‘zero carbon’ solution we seem to favour development off new roads instead, but a different model is possible.
A better way of building is along new or improved public transport corridors. One way of achieving this is with land value capture. We were delighted to have George Hazel speak at our Manchester event on the success of the Northumbria Line. This approach appears popular with land owners and developers. Land and property within 1km of the construction of a new metro, light rail or heavy rail station increases in value and developers are keen to build once they know that new infrastructure and services are coming soon. Six stations are proposed on the line, and Northumberland Park passengers will be able to change onto the Tyne and Wear Metro.
Twenty minute neighbourhoods
One much discussed topic recently is the idea of “20 minute neighbourhoods”, the idea that people will be able to access all the services and goods they need within a 15 or 20 minute journey on foot or bike. This is very laudable in principle, but as TfNH has been pointing out is far from the reality in many of the places it has visited. In some cases councils and developers are measuring the 20 minutes by straight lines (as the crow flies) rather than by real roads and footpaths, and there isn’t much of a check on the quality of those walking and cycling routes, or indeed access to public transport. TfNH adviser Stephen Joseph gave a presentation to Leeds City Council, in which he set out the origins of 15-20 minute neighbourhoods and some of the issues to consider.
Planning is (still) all up in the air
Our planning system has been in a state of uncertainty, reflecting the recent political turmoil nationally. Local Authority planners have been similarly unsure about how to proceed. We have heard of delays in local plan work over housing requirements and uncertainty of national policy. Some reports say that Local Plan making has ground to a halt. Some campaigners might have been happy to hear Boris Johnson speak out against greenfield development but this idea did not find itself translated to planning policy or legislation. There seems however to be little or no talk about the important contribution made by transport and the way that our continuing emphasis on road building to open up land is not helping matters.
Liz Truss campaigned on the notion of abolishing ‘stalinist top-down housing targets’ in the run up to the election of a new Prime Minister. The planning press then reported that Whitehall-led housing needs figures will be dropped under the new Truss administration. However the 300,000 homes per year national target appears to remain. In late November 2022 roughly 50 Conservative MPs rebelled against housing targets on the basis these are so high in many rural and semi rural places that they force large swathes of the countryside to be covered in car-dependent sprawl.
However at Transport for New Homes we have noted that there is little talk about building in a different way, for example around mass transit systems, sustainable modes and so on, although the concept at least, of building on brownfield sites is popular. The Department of Levelling Up Homes and Communities (DLUHC) needs we think, to integrate sustainable transport provision much more into the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) than is currently the case. Where and how we build is key.