smart growth uk

Contributors

Jon Reeds
Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability

 

Nigel Pearce
Nigel Pearce is a former civil servant, now grappling with local planning issues as a member of the Eynsham Planning Improvement Campaign EPIC.

 

Blog Archive

SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2019 BLOG

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A Critical Moment For Climate Change

We environmentalists are usually better at dishing out criticism than taking it, but that may have to change now issues like climate change are shooting up the political agenda.
Whether this last week does prove to be a turning point in governments, businesses and ordinary folk accepting the challenge of climate change remains to be seen, but there's no doubt it will have had a powerful impact.
David Attenborough's documentary, unequivocal about the threats we face, will no doubt have altered may people's perceptions, even those long prepared to accept soothing words from mendacious newspapers about climate change being merely a plot dreamed up to increase science budgets.
For the first 50 minutes or so, I sat enthralled, even though anyone who has spent 30-odd years banging on about this won't have been surprised by the content.
After that it got to what we should be doing and quite rightly said we ought to focus on things like renewable energy, rewilding etc..
So far, so good. Then it got to transport.
Here, all we have to do apparently is switch to electric cars and electric aircraft. That's all. Nothing else.
The issue of electric cars is a contentious one and I'll park it here for now, but electric aircraft?
Finally someone has managed to fly a single-seat electric aircraft across the Channel, something Louis Bleriot managed with a fossil-fuel powered plane in 1909. It took another half century for mass airline traffic to take off and we could be at least as far away from commercial airliners.
So if you see a flying unicorn, it's probably an electric airliner.
The other big issue this week was the Extinction Rebellion protests in London and elsewhere. Opinions will vary on the efficacy of street protest on people's hearts and minds. Some will be persuaded, others alienated.
But why is it that sustainable transport is always the poor relation of environmentalism? I know people who are passionate about climate change who will happily jet off across the globe on holiday.
One of the most depressing features of the week, the Notre Dame fire apart, was a handful of idiots climbing on top of a DLR train or glueing themselves to it.
I've spent years arguing that rail-based public transport is a key part of our response to climate change, yet here were people delaying thousands of people on their journey to work or whatever.
Commuting in London by any mode is a pretty miserable experience and hold ups make it much worse. I know some will disagree with me on this, which is fair enough, but I'm afraid I have to say that holding up trains as a protest about climate change is pretty damned stupid.
The whole protest also brought many of central London's roads to a halt. That's obviously effective campaigning, not only because of its visibility to so many people, but because of the proximity of the media.
But while Oxford Circus may be close to Broadcasting House, it's also a key junction on London's bus network.
Central London is also one of the few places in the UK where traffic is seriously controlled and has a brand-new ultra-low emission zone. Was this really the place to blockade?
I know even mild criticism of campaigners will disappoint some and I accept that, but the point really does have to be made that we need radical solutions in transport as well as in the other things people are concerned about.
We do need to accept criticism (yes, that includes me). It's a sign we are being taken seriously. I will tweet this blog and you can always throw things at me if you like.
But please don't hold up any more trains or buses.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 April 2019

 

The Vision Thing

Planners are sensitive folk, hardly surprising given the abuse they get in their everyday work and the 15 year onslaught on the practice in England by Whitehall.
But more than a few planning feathers have been ruffled by an article by URBED director David Rudlin which argues that 72 years of the planning system have not produced the kind of quality in our cities we would like. He writes that the suburban estates, retail parks and highway schemes are an unwitting result of planning rules that led to results no-one foresaw.
Prof Rudlin's feature presents a lengthy argument which is too long and complex to sum up in a short blog. He attempts to present a positive alternative which applies complexity theory to the development of successful towns but says planning has dissolved the pattern of traditional towns and turned them into retail parks, suburban cul-de-sacs and industrial estates, albeit unintentionally.
By way of example he puts the blame for the form of suburban sprawl on a 1977 Government document called Design Bulletin 32 which set out the road layout for new estates.
It was superseded by the Manual for Streets as long ago as 2007, but most local authorities continue to use it. Exactly why is unclear, but it's always been popular with the more petrol-headed highway engineers and with house builders who find ultra-low density sprawl most profitable.
Prof Rudlin cites, as an alternative to rule-governed planning, an area in the Netherlands where plots are sold to individuals to develop their own homes subject only to a simple set of codes covering one side of A4. Given the interest in codes in America and probably in the Government's Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, whatever its current travails, this is interesting stuff.
The whole article is worth a read and makes some interesting points. I certainly don't want to dismiss it out of hand, but I think one or two caveats are needed.
An obvious point to make is that, before you chuck out most planning rules, you should ask whether the problem is simply that the wrong rules are being followed. Design Bulletin 32 is a clear case in point.
Another issue is the whole ethos of planning. It's always tempting for planners, like architects and civil engineers, to want to scrawl a legacy of their life and work across the landscape. No-one can blame them for wanting this but, like some of the rules Prof Rudlin cites, it can lead to bad outcomes.
One could cite a couple of big examples in planning and architecture: the Modern Movement and the Garden City Movement.
'This is not an argument against modern architecture, ' writes Prof Rudlin. 'I love modern architecture and, with the possible exception of the council estate, it can't be blamed for the problems of the place where you are now. '
Oh yes it can. I'd suggest he goes back and looks at some of the Modern Movement's visions for destroying our cities and rebuilding them in concrete and glass that flourished in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Where they were allowed to let rip, they did at least as much damage to our towns and cities as the Luftwaffe did in the Second World War. Probably more.
And while it's easy to blame a wretched set of rules like Design Bulletin 32 for the low-density, car-dependent suburban sprawl that squanders our scarce building land, its origins, progress and current adulation lie in the Garden City Movement which continues to promote it.
A key recent moment was the award of the Wolfson Economics Prize in 2014. Entrants were asked to answer the question 'How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular?'
The winning entry proposed that 40 large towns should be doubled in size to provide 3.5 million new homes over 35 years by huge urban extensions. These would have been provided under garden suburb principles and would have required a new Garden Cities Act.
The winning submission came from the URBED consultancy and its lead author was David Rudlin.
Of course it's easy to be critical, but one should be careful about blaming a whole profession for outcomes which a wide range of players were involved in. It would be easy to blame civil engineers for the motorways which undermine our urgent response to climate change, but civil engineers also design and build the railways and tramways that could provide us with sustainable, low-energy transport.
Obviously the planning profession also has those who want to scribble their signatures across our rural landscape with new garden towns or whatever. But we shouldn't demonize all planners. Just think of those heroic planners who hold the line in local planning authorities in the face of gruesome expenditure cuts and rules which attempt to shackle their ability to do a good job.
I've never really understood why planners hate being called 'regulators', but although that's been a dirty word in politics for 40 years, better times are coming. There's nothing wrong with being a regulator, indeed it's an admirable thing.
It's using the wrong rules and the visionary thing on the landscape scale that do the damage.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 April 2019

 

Opacity And Secrecy

Anyone who has followed the planning system in England over the past 15 years will be aware that central government has been slowly but surely strangling the rights of local planning authorities and citizens to make a meaningful contribution to the decision making process.
Sadly this has cut across party lines and the process has been relentless since early in the new century when HM Treasury decided to take effective control of planning.
The process has, of course, been dressed up with the usual PR about how keen the Government is on participation etc.. Politicians and Whitehall are usually quite good at this.
But a ministerial decision last week suggests they think it's hardly worth bothering with dressing up their increasing autocracy. It's pretty much now a case of 'Suck it up, losers'.
Last year the highly effective SAVE Britain's Heritage group successfully took the Government to the Court of Appeal over the Communities Secretary's refusal to give reasons for not calling in the controversial Paddington Cube development.
SAVE's case rested on a Commons statement made by the then Attorney General, Lord Falconer, in 2001 that reasons would be given for not calling in applications. That policy had never been rescinded but, in 2014, ministers just simply stopped giving reasons and the Court agreed with SAVE this was unlawful.
Whitehall hates it when its authority is questioned, even by the highest courts in the land, particularly when it's required to reveal what it's up to. It bided its time then, last week, with attention focused on Brexit debates, Communities Secretary James Brokenshire made a little noticed Commons statement effectively making not giving reasons a matter of formal policy.
Much of the statement explained, quite reasonably, why call-in powers are seldom used. But then it got to a ludicrous claim that the Government supports the need to be transparent and open and it acknowledged the rationale of the 2001 statement.
You sense, however, there's a 'but' coming, don't you?
'But a decision on whether to call in a planning application, or not to do so, is inherently about process and not about the merits of the application, ' claimed Mr Brokenshire. 'I am concerned that to give reasons in either eventuality risks blurring this distinction and, as there is no duty in this respect, I will call in those applications where I conclude such a decision needs to be taken by me and I will not call in applications where I conclude that the decision is best left with the local planning authority. '
Of course such decisions have everything to do with the merits of the application and the only bit of process in play is the ministerial right to ignore what everyone else thinks.
SAVE's director Henrietta Billings described the move as a major step backwards for open government.
'The 2001 policy of giving reasons was made expressly by the Attorney General in the interest of transparency, good administration and best practice,' she said. 'It's common sense that ministerial decisions should be justified and stand up to scrutiny. Surely these basic values of an open, 21st century democracy are as relevant today as they were 18 years ago. What does the Secretary of State have to hide? '
But, of course, as anyone involved in environmental issues in planning well knows by now, this isn't an isolated case. A Government that can prepare, and then approve, a plan to dump a million homes and a 150km motorway on farmland without a trace of public consultation plainly doesn't give a stuff about transparency and openness.
And central government will continue getting away with this opacity and secrecy until it's stopped.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 April 2019

 

Murder In Midsomershire

Readers who enjoy a good mystery story should hasten to read the latest Government public relations exercise on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
The latest one was slipped out as part of the Spring Statement which itself got very little coverage while MPs brawled and battled over Brexit. And it really is full of mysteries.
The new document claims to set out Government ambition on the Arc and contains a joint declaration with 'local partners'.
This looks like an important case for Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby and his murder team to get their investigative teeth into. After all, most of the long-running TV series is filmed in the Arc so perhaps it's time they remembered their crime prevention duties.
The first mystery in the new document is a classic whodunnit. Who actually are the 'Arc Leaders Group'? They're defined as 'local authorities across the Arc, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, the four LEPs and England's Economic Heartland'.
Whether all the Arc's local authorities have succumbed, or just some, is unclear. Only Cherwell District Council's leader Barry Wood admits in the document to joining this collective surrender to the Government's destructive demands in return for a spoonful of cash for their council. No doubt others have, but they aren't name-checked.
The second mystery upon which the detectives could exercise 'the little grey cells' is what's happened to the M11 corridor. As recently as the previous Arc promotional document, issued by HM Treasury as part of October's Budget, the Arc was defined as including the M11 corridor. The new document contains no mention of it.
Could it be that the fierce and effective opposition to the garden sprawl communities proposed for north Essex is frightening the Government off? If so there is a lesson here. This monster can be defeated with effective counter-argument.
The third mystery, surely one for the Midsomer Murders team, is exactly what the new document means by its promise to 'embed natural capital thinking' in its approach to the Arc.
Helpfully, 'natural capital' is defined as 'the sum of our ecosystems, species, freshwater, land, soils, minerals, our air and our seas'.
Important things indeed, and murdering them should attract the attention of DCI Barnaby and his colleagues.
Just take one aspect of this natural capital, the Arc's soils. The detectives will have a job on their hands working out how HM Treasury and its satellite departments will build a million new homes, a 150km motorway and sundry other development including, no doubt, massive lorry distribution sheds in the Arc while still protecting the enormous natural capital in the Arc's soils.
We're still in the dark about how this will happen. There's still no mention of the destruction of farmland in the document, despite this being a major part of England's bread and vegetable basket.
All the document says is that the natural capital approach will involve 'a shared environmental evidence baseline, to help inform growth proposals'. And, despite the parlous state of the Nation's finances, 1.2 million quid will pay for development of 'local natural capital planning'.
Well, as DCI Barnaby well knows, investigations often involve following the money.
But perhaps the biggest mystery of all of this Arc work is why the Government is wasting so much money on a destructive development in an already overheated area that lacks the housing and infrastructure to support it, one which stands to have a vast amount of natural capital destroyed. And why the other parts of the UK that have the Arc's qualities but which both need the growth and are so much more able to accommodate it are being ignored.
There is still time to prevent this gruesome murder of Midsomershire. Crime prevention is always the best form of policing.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 17 March 2019

 

Spring Is Here, Time To Stop Birds Nesting

You can tell spring is coming. All over the country house builders are wrapping hedges in nets to stop birds nesting in them, so as to prevent bird lovers from delaying their plans for profitable, low-density, greenfield sprawl.
Early spring is, of course, the time of year to do this before that pesky biodiversity gets in and increases the natural capital of the site you are about to build on. It's been going on for a while, but some influential people are starting to notice.
'The netting of trees & hedgerows seems to be an increasingly common tactic by developers seeking to prevent the 'inconvenience' of nesting birds, ' tweeted writer Robert MacFarlane. 'Are people seeing examples of these dismal shrouds in other parts of the country at the moment? '
Well, to judge by social media, people are. All over the country. Wildlife campaigner Chris Packham has been retweeting examples from all over the place. Builders' PR departments Alert.
Well, I suppose people are still surprised at behaviour of volume house builders who have spent several years looting the funds of their supporters at HM Treasury through the Help-to-Buy process, a fund which has helped some of their major shareholders to buy bigger yachts.
They move in on threatened areas like a medieval invading army, set up camp and fly their flags from the site office. Peasants should not try to revolt, because resistance is futile.
Ah well, I was just reminding myself that 2019 marks the fifth anniversary of the UN adopting its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
'Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss, ' says Goal 15.
Funny, I don't see anything about netting hedges to prevent birds nesting in them prior to their destruction to make way for unsustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.
This is despite the fine words of Goal 15, however, being reflected in DEFRA's '25 year Plan to Improve the Environment' and its thoughts on 'Biodiversity Net Gain'.
Words, however, are cheap. It's what actually happens that counts.
So come on, Whitehall. Spring is here. It's time to help me buy a huge yacht.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 March 2019

 

The Arc Is A Fight That Must Be Won

So, the race is on to build the first stretch of the London Outer M25 and it looks as if the top-quality farmland in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire could play host to the first 10-mile stretch of the new High Carbon Collar around the capital.
Highways England this month announced the route for its wholly new dual-carriageway between the A1 at St Neots and Caxton Gibbet near Cambridge.
It plans to spend up to 1,400 million pounds of public money on increasing carbon emissions and traffic congestion across a huge area of southern England. Yes, you did read that right, up to 1.4 billion pounds.
The new road is, of course, also the first part of the Cambridge-Newbury Expressway, itself a major part of the Outer M25 the Roads Lobby has salivated over for decades. The Lower Thames Crossing, also expected to suck up billions in Highway's England's exciting plans to exacerbate climate change, is another candidate for the new Ringway.
The Expressway is also a central plank of the Treasury's imaginative plan to further overheat the economies of Oxford and Cambridge, in the form of the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
The new Smart Growth UK report on the Arc, published last week, has been favourably received by those who care for sustainable development and ignored by those who fancy enriching themselves by trashing the environment across five whole counties.
I'm reminded of a quote attributed, possibly wrongly, to Mahatma Gandhi. He may not have said 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win', but whoever did say it hit the nail square on the head.
To propose concentrating economic growth in areas acutely short of housing and labour, at a time industries are warning of coming labour shortages, is as stupid as concentrating it in areas of full employment and prosperity when large parts of the country suffer from weak economies and unemployment. Or, indeed, building on huge areas of our most productive farmland at a time a heavily indebted country that needs to import nearly 40 percent of its food is turning its back on free trade.
Well, we're certainly not ignoring the Arc's promoters and we are attacking them. But it's really no laughing matter.
I do hope you will take the time to read all or parts of our report on the Arc. It will be followed by a second part which puts forward ideas for other places in the UK where the Arc idea might work sustainably, assuming it's a good idea in the first place.
But honestly, the Arc is such a destructive idea, we must win.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 February 2019

 

The Hunt For Unicorns Goes On

It would, said communities secretary James Brokenshire, set out a vision of a planning system that delivers the homes we need.
That was just six months ago as he launched what was supposed to be a new long-term National Planning Policy Framework to replace the disastrous 2012 version, although in reality there was still very little vision and lots of lolly for house builders.
And the impact of that one was pretty much blunted by its publication on what Whitehall calls 'Take Out The Trash Day', the last day before the summer recess when no-one will notice bad news amidst the flood of other bad news.
Well that long-term vision lasted just six months before the latest NPPF was launched in what should have been MPs' half-term, if they hadn't been given a detention for bad behaviour.
This time MHCLG was so ashamed of its new NPPF they didn't even press-release it. Not even a tweet.
Well, mightier minds than mine will pore over the new Framework and see what fresh horrors been slipped into it.
I fear, not having read it yet, that it will mostly be an attempt to disguise the final collapse of any intellectual credibility for its continued use of the 2014 household projections to justify the house building targets it forces on local authorities. This despite the fact the 2016 projections were significantly lower, low enough in fact to ensure MHCLG got leant on by the Treasury and reminded its job is building lots of the wrong sorts of homes in the wrong places, not sustainable planning.
But if you really want to see how Government works these days, have a read of the 'Government Response to the Technical Consultation on Updates to National Planning Policy and Guidance' which came out with the NPPF.
I can summarize the document quite succinctly. It pretty much says, 'Most of you didn't like it, but stuff you. The house builders liked it, so suck it up, losers'.
Read it yourself if you don't believe me.
'A key consideration of the standard method is to provide a degree of continuity between assessments of housing need over time, ' it says. It accepts the 2016 projections are methodologically sound, but it's sticking to the colander-tight arguments in its consultation paper that the 2014 ones should continue to be used.
OK, let's remind ourselves what the 2014 projections said, if they're so ideologically sound. You'll have a bit of a job finding them as, despite their alleged continuing importance to national planning policy, they've been moved to the National Archives website.
Never mind, here they are, the 2014-Based Household Projections in England, 2014 to 2039.
Well let's see, the Government's house building policy is based firmly on providing homes for young families with children. They were, however, expected to account for just 19 percent of household growth. Much of the growth was expected to be single person households, around 33 percent, and childless couples to be about 22 percent.
But the real growth was expected to be elderly people and that accounts for much of the growth in single people and childless couples.
Over the 25 year period of the projections, over-65 households were expected to increase from 29 percent to 37 percent of all households and were predicted to account for no less than 75 percent of all household growth.
And the over-85 households were expected to account for almost 26 percent of the growth in households, so there would be almost double the number in 2039.
So, when I do bring myself to read the new NPPF's thinking on house building policy, I hope to be delighted by its radical new thinking on the massive challenge of housing our burgeoning elderly population. Surely, I tell myself, seductive headlines for young voters and development-besotted YIMBYs will be a thing of the past.
I'm also joining the national hunt for unicorns.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 February 2019

 

A Sewing Lesson

Pretty well everyone in the UK who is not either a volume house builder or one of their consultants now accepts that our natural environment is badly fragmented.
So the DEFRA 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, published last February, is particularly interesting, containing as it does ideas for addressing this. Some have implications for its current Landscapes Review which it spawned.
The prime minister noted in her foreword to the Plan that our natural environment is our most precious inheritance and that the UK is blessed with a wonderful variety of natural landscapes and habitats.
The document, helpfully entitled A Green Future, promises a Nature Recovery Network to 'complement and connect our best wildlife sites' as part of action on biodiversity loss.
So far, so good. The proposal to create this additional 5,000sq km of wildlife habitat is welcome, although it's not that big when spread across the UK. But there we are, we live in densely populated islands where competition for land is intense.
Yet DEFRA could be missing a trick here, and it's one that its Landscapes Review which consulted recently and to which Smart Growth UK contributed, could provide some useful input.
The 25 Year Plan says a Nature Recovery Network could more effectively link 'existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure'.
There is a long list of designations covering nature, landscape and other things. But before we get carried away, let's just look at the landscape designations, a primary focus of the Review.
The 25 Year Plan does admit that our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty 'provide a patchwork of stunning, and protected, landscapes'.
Yet herein lies the problem.
Patchwork quilts are pieces of material sewn carefully together. But take a look at the designations section of the DEFRA Magic Map and you quickly see this is a patchwork quilt that has huge holes in it. Few of the patches are actually sewn together.
Of course much of the country would never qualify for a landscape designation as the landscape is not of sufficiently high quality. But once you start looking, you realise there are large areas that are the equal of, or even superior to, some of the places which are quite rightly designated AONBs thanks to their fine landscapes.
In our evidence we suggested seven areas in England which could and should have AONB status.
The Yorkshire Wolds.
Salisbury Plain.
The Eden Valley, Cumbria, south of Wetheral.
Northern central Northumberland, i.e. the area between Northumberland NP and Northumberland Coast AONB, north of Rothbury and Alnwick.
The area between Exmoor and Dartmoor, roughly the Taw catchment between Barnstaple, Crediton and Okehampton.
The Bronte Country, the high Pennines between the Peak and Dales national parks.
The Forest of Dean.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and no doubt other commentators will add to the list. Nor is it the end of the problem. Whatever process may have denied these areas the protection they deserve has also left several AONBs with borders which exclude areas which could, and should, have been included.
There is no doubt a range of reasons for this mess which could perhaps be summed up as 'special interest pleading'. There are quite a few such interests, some of them completely obsolete, like an intention to allow opencast coal extraction.
But just colour in some of these areas on the map of existing AONBs and national parks and you can see that, in places, the scatter of protected areas starts to look like a genuine patchwork quilt.
The Bronte Country, a remarkably omission, would complete protection of the high Pennines and fill a bizarre gap. The beautiful countryside of north Northumberland could link its fine coastscape with the Cheviots. The glorious countryside of central Devon would form a fine quilt with the two moorland areas. Salisbury Plain would sew the downland of the south country together.
The designation process for national parks and AONBs is tortuous and needs to be simplified, but it can be done. Recent years have seen the Howgill Fells added to the adjacent national parks to link the Lake District with the Dales.
If DEFRA means what its 25 Year Plan says about more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, then this is surely a must.
There are huge landscape and biodiversity benefits were we to seriously link more of these areas together. No doubt there would be genuine objections, as well as others who simply fear any change. All their doubts would need to be addressed.
But the Landscapes Review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address these issues. It needs to be taken.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 January 2019