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 2018 BLOG

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Professional Standards And Advocacy

The blog by Nigel Pearce yesterday, see below, has created something of a Twitter storm around the issue of just how objective should a planning consultant be when working for a client in support of scheme.
Well, it would be easy to say that you never hear of a consultant telling a client their scheme is so bad it should never see the light of day. Probably that does happen in practice, now and then, but we really shouldn't expect either client or consultant to publicize the fact.
Yet this is a serious issue and one the planning profession is extremely sensitive about, no doubt because so many Royal Town Planning Institute members now earn their corn by working in the private sector as consultants.
RTPI Scotland director Craig McLaren has pointed out the Institute imposes severe penalties for breaches of professional standards and I'm sure it does. Public confidence, he quite rightly says, depends on this.
But I do wonder if we're expecting too much of our planners.
It's all reminded me of an occasion about 30 years ago when, with colleagues, I was giving evidence at a planning inquiry on behalf of a local amenity group against a major urban development.
I always think one of the big mistakes developers make at public inquiries is to employ heavyweight barristers to bash up objectors. They may be very good at the courtroom games which catch witnesses out, but I suspect most experienced planning inspectors soon get pretty fed up with them.
Certainly that was the case with the senior QC at the inquiry in question. He gave me and my colleagues a thorough working over, despite the strength of our case. He singled out a passage in my written evidence where I had criticised what a major consultancy, working for the developer, had said about the scheme's traffic implications.
The QC obviously thought that asking me whether I believed consultants employ the highest professional and technical standards would coax me into saying something rash. I saw the trap he'd dug and simply answered, 'Yes', which made him look grumpier than ever.
Well, we comprehensively won the inquiry but the result was rejected by the then environment secretary on the grounds that he believed demolishing nearly all of a conservation area would improve its character and appearance. We didn't have the money for a High Court challenge, so down it came.
But ever since then I've regretted not answering that QC more fully and I believe I missed a trick. The opportunity surely was to point out that advocacy itself is a professional skill.
There before me was a man who made a very good living out of advocacy and no-one at all would question why that had put him at the top of his profession. Indeed, whenever he advocated a case successfully, people would admire his professional skills.
And I do wonder if something of the sort is true of planning consultants. It stretches credibility to imagine they're going to publish a report criticising their clients' schemes or to turn up at a public inquiry and agree with objectors that the scheme has major shortcomings.
So perhaps we should face the truth, unpalatable to some, that advocacy is a significant part of the professional skills a planning consultant must have.
True, that would significantly reduce the level of esteem in which these professionals and their advice currently enjoy throughout the planning system and end the pretence they present a similar level of objectivity to a planning inspector. On the other hand it would allow them more freedom to advance the cases of those who pay them.
But maybe that would all be for the best. It would reflect reality and so we would all be able to move on.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 June 2018

 

Structural Dishonesty In The Planning System

Underneath the topsoil of local councils and developers in England, and presumably elsewhere in the UK, lies a substratum of consultants, both national and international, who are making a great deal of money out of the planning system.
When developers employ consultants to carry out sustainability and a host of other more or less technical assessments, it would be a brave consultant that stuck its neck out and, despite commercial pressure, strongly advise that a particular development would be too damaging, or had too many constraints, to proceed.
That could gain the consultant a reputation that made it less likely to be employed by the developer, or other developers, again.
We know this about the private sector, and there is no need to get on a high horse and condemn it. It should be the duty of the public sector to counteract what is sometimes a perfectly understandable, if regrettable, consequence of market forces.
However, when local authorities act in the same way, they signally fail to do their public duty.
Yes, they may go through a tendering process, because they are obliged to do so, but it seems that the temptation to engage tame consultants who will give them the answers they would like, or consultants who are in touch with the developers and know what they want, can be too enticing to resist.
If local authorities were premier league football clubs, the equivalent would be a tendering process to choose their referee for home games, allowing them to select the one most likely to make favourable decisions at critical or controversial points in the game. If satisfied with the referee's performance, they could then continue to employ him on the basis that he had, to quote a council official, 'the quality assurance, relevant experience and capacity, and understanding of the project brief and price'.
For example, several local authorities in one English county have been employing the same company to supply various reports, while the company is also working for one of the major developers and even carrying out some of the practical project work deriving from its own recommendations. At the same time, one of the councils has continued to employ the same consultant for report after report, despite that consultant having repeatedly been shown to be subjective in its analysis and conclusions.
The strange thing is that neither the local authorities nor the consultants seem to understand the nature of what they are doing. As the American writer Upton Sinclair pointed out, it is very hard to make someone understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it.
So the best way to get round this might be for the Government to draw up a list of approved consultants who had proved themselves to be both thorough and objective in their work. That way, we would harness market forces to compete on quality and impartiality.
The Planning Inspectorate could fulfil the role of assessing the work of consultants, approving or removing them from the list, and appointing them for all developments over a certain size.
This would not wholly eliminate the problem, because temptation might be diverted into a new channel, but it would dismantle the planning system's structural dishonesty.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 17 June 2018

 

Why Land Squandering Goes On And On And On

One of the great mysteries of planning in this country is why the most densely populated country in Europe goes on squandering its land with the lowest residential density development in Europe.
I must apologise to readers outwith England here, as it's England I'm referring to, though land gets similarly wasted in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. But England's population density overtook the Netherlands about a decade ago and, despite significant population growth and a lack of land obvious to anyone outside HM Treasury, we go on with the land wastage the garden city movement has spent more than a century promoting.
But I don't think it's these ideals driving this any more, though they're useful greenwash for house builders. I think we must look elsewhere.
One obvious factor is that house builders plainly find building low-density developments most profitable. Even if they get less homes on a given plot of land, they obviously expect a better profit because, if they didn't, they wouldn't do it. And the current planning shambles in England means that if they are trying to build a given number of houses, the local planning authority must anyway release however much land they want.
Central government did, of course, impose an incredibly modest 30 dwellings per hectare net density requirement in the 1990s, despite the fact our Victorian forebears built attractive houses at more than twice that density. House builders grudgingly observed it on brownfield sites, but took more than a decade to get there, despite national policy, on greenfield sites and then only just.
At that point politics joined naked greed. Within weeks of becoming communities secretary in 2010, Eric Pickles had arbitrarily dumped minimum density standards for reasons that were never really clear. Perhaps he thought lower density developments were more likely to grow young voters who would vote Conservative. I'm not sure that's even true, but there must have been some motive to Pickles' destructive move.
I'm starting to wonder, however, if there isn't something else going on here.
Back in 2011, the Geospatial Research Laboratory of Rowan University in New Jersey conducted a study of why, despite state planning policies encouraging higher density residential development, builders were still being allowed to squander the state's increasingly scarce building land on large-plot, low-density homes far from employment.
The study concluded that exclusionary zoning policies were undermining the state's Smart Growth policies. But it also suggested other factors could be at work.
One of these might have been the old problem of 'white flight' but they also noted another problem beyond racial politics. It raised the issue of whether local authorities were preferring large, low-density homes because it saved them money.
Council spending is obviously reduced if you have less people, and hence less school children, and hence less need to provide school places. Fewer people means fewer costs in other areas like waste management too. And richer people impose less costs on social welfare provision.
But maybe there's even more to this. A while back I asked in a tweet whether anyone had done a comparative UK study of the council tax yield of large, high-rated homes with a greater number of lower-rated homes on the same size site. I didn't get an answer, though surely someone has done this work. But I continue to wonder whether such comparative council tax yields aren't playing a part in council thinking in this era of desperate local authority shortage of cash.
What it all points to, however, is the urgent need for some mandatory residential density standards in national planning policy. Not the feeble blanket 30dph of 20 years ago, what we need is a range of standards, some of them much higher than that, depending on individual circumstances.
Until we get them, you can ignore ministerial protestations about trying to maximize the number of new homes built.
There are many other factors in play.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 June 2018

 

Our Precious Landscapes

It was perhaps a bit unfortunate that the Government decided to launch its consultation on national parks and AONBs in the same month it decided to trash a chunk of the South Downs National Park with a new dual-carriageway and closed its consultation on a new NPPF which perpetuates destruction of AONBs for housing development.
Of course the pass on building motorways in national parks was sold long ago with the so-called Okehampton By-pass, opened in 1988. The town needed a by-pass, but what it didn't need was a five-mile dual-carriageway through the Dartmoor National Park, forming part of a high capacity route between Exeter and Cornwall.
Roads policy remains untamed, while recent years have seen a full-scale assault on several of our AONBs by house building, not only up to their boundaries, but within them, together with associated road building.
No-one in government should be surprised that it has provoked a degree of cynicism about its new consultation which is supposed to be about landscapes and biodiversity.
Predictably, the section that got the most initial attention was the suggestion there could be new national parks or AONBs in England.
A few years back, SGUK put forward a list of proposed AONBs, some of which it's quite astonishing they've never been so designated.
The Yorkshire Wolds
Salisbury Plain
Central Northumberland between coastal AONB and national park
Central Devon between Dartmoor and Exmoor
The Pennines between Peak District and Yorkshire Dales
The Eden Valley
There are plenty of alternative suggestions and it's time to start designating before the house builders move in.
Also up for discussion is AONB boundaries, some of which are ridiculous and result from ancient special interests when they were designated. Take the North Pennines AONB for instance. Its northern boundary ends it abruptly in some glorious country like the Devil's Water Valley. This is because there was potential opencast coal under that outstandingly beautiful landscape. Now that need has gone, there's no reason not to extend it. Likewise there's no excuse now to perpetuate the exclusion of much of upper Weardale, now the cement industry no longer needs it.
Quite a few people have suggested it's time to upgrade several AONBs to national park status to increase their protection in the face of very real threats.
I would be extremely wary of this, however. While national parks do enjoy stronger protection on paper, this is undermined by the requirement that they encourage recreational use.
Look at the Lake District, say, on a summer weekend and you will see this provision seriously undermines the protection of their landscape and biodiversity. It's responsible for a very high level of greenhouse gas emissions too.
Indeed, the Campaign for National Parks has been campaigning for sustainable access to the parks and all power to its elbow.
The Campaign's initial response to the new consultation was to call for more resourcing, better wildlife protection and a greener, safer future for the parks.
But while it will be important to put up a strong response to the AONB/national park consultation, we must not let it divert attention from protecting the whole rural landscape of England. Cynics will suggest that that is its purpose, given the timing.
I don't know about that. What I do know is that we very urgently need to protect England's landscapes and biodiversity from the presumption in favour of unsustainable development that is the NPPF. And we need to do it for reasons that go far beyond landscape and biodiversity.
There is a much better way of doing things and getting the houses we actually need.
It's called Smart Growth.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 May 2018

 

The Outer M25

I suppose one should be grateful for the candour of the National Infrastructure Commission when it admitted the purpose of its proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway is to facilitate car-dependent urban sprawl.
In its proposal for the gherkin-shaped sprawl corridor last November, it said decisions on the new motorway would have a fundamental impact on the potential for major new settlements.
'The proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway will therefore play an important part in the arc's growth story, ' said the report.
But, to be fair to the Commission, it did admit that, as well as allowing people to drive to massive new greenfield developments, it would also fulfil the traditional role of a new motorway, i.e. generating traffic.
'As well as providing strategic connectivity between the existing strategic road network running through the area, such as the M4, M40, M1, A1M and M11, the Expressway offers an attractive and efficient route for freight and long-distance trips, and enhanced connectivity between key local and regional growth areas in the arc,' it said.
Quite so. Indeed that is presumably what persuaded the Department for Traffic, sorry Transport, to include the first half of the Expressway, between the M11 and M1, in its multi-billion pound Roads Investment Strategy 1.
Of course the new motorway wouldn't be just a route to destroying farmland and raising the value of house builders' land. It would, in fact, start fulfilling a long-cherished dream of the Roads Lobby.
The Outer M25.
With the inner M25 congested and actually forming quite a long way round for many lorry journeys, the idea of a relief road for the road which was once supposed to relieve other roads has long been a twinkle in the eye of petrolheads. Now, a powerful quango has proposed making a big start.
The Expressway would form a link from the M11 to the A1M, M1, A41, M40 and A34. It's interesting to see the Commission also claiming it would link to the M4 which the current proposal wouldn't.
It would in fact simply disgorge lots more traffic on to the already overloaded A34 to Southampton, somewhere near Didcot. That would create immediate pressure to extend the Expressway to the M4 and M3.
That, in turn, would overload the M3 in both directions, and probably the southern part of the M25 too, so the Expressway would obviously need extending east to the M23 and M20, offering a new link to the Channel Tunnel.
Then an obvious continuation would be a link to any new East Thames Crossing and Tilbury. That, of course, would clearly need a link to the Haven Ports and the M11 at Cambridge.
And then, oh look, we've built the Outer M25. And only added another measly 20 or 30 billion pounds or so to the national debt.
Don't worry, no-one will notice.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 May 2018

 

A Matter Of Principle

About a hundred years overdue, we could finally be seeing a serious national debate over whether garden cities are a good thing.
This is an issue the planning profession has treated with kid gloves ever since its inception, thanks to the role garden city enthusiasts played in its foundation and the very strong moral tone enthusiasts adopted in response to the ethical demands of Ebenezer Howard.
That tone is still on display in the Joint Statement recently launched by Howard's heirs at the Town and Country Planning Association. It claims a commitment to 'garden city principles' in national planning policy is 'the starting point to unlocking a new generation of highly sustainable places'.
Last month Smart Growth UK published a further report on 'garden communities' demonstrating what the communities who face having such a 'highly sustainable place' dumped on their local farmland actually think of them. You can tell they've hit the spot from the accusations of 'NIMBYism' from vested interests.
Now the Better Way group, which is joining together opposition to major greenfield developments, garden or otherwise, has launched its own statement demanding 'garden city principles' be kept out of England's revised National Planning Policy Framework.
In reality, however, what is meant by 'garden city principles' is cynically and deliberately ambiguous.
The TCPA provides a set of principles in brief as a link from its statement. There are nine of them and none of them actually sets out what the physical characteristics of a garden city should be, apart from things no-one could possibly object to like beautiful design, green infrastructure, cultural, recreational and retail facilities and accessible transport.
The statement has, at the time of writing, attracted support from 68 bodies including local authorities and a handful of institutions and advocacy bodies. Together with quite a few bodies with a direct commercial interest in developing large-scale greenfield sprawl.
I can't help feeling most of the latter are not at all attracted by principles urging land value capture or community ownership of land. We all know that, in reality, what they want is the type of new greenfield settlements at remote countryside locations urged in Chapter 1 of Garden Cities of Tomorrow.
Indeed, the sole reference to the principles in paragraph 52 of the existing NPPF only mentions the principles as a way of facilitating new settlements or urban extensions.
The infrastructure such developments need makes them expensive to build, but the reason they're incredibly profitable is a result of the uplift in land values. But land value capture and community ownership of land would drive their profits down to vanishing point.
All over the country we're now seeing the downside of the pursuit of 'garden city principles', the spatial ones anyway.
In Leicestershire there are new plans to destroy 400 hectares of farmland beside the M1 for a 3,500 home 'garden village'. As well as being beside a major motorway, it could also benefit from a new billion pound 'expressway' some want to see built. Car-dependent sprawl as ever.
'Whetstone Pastures' is so called presumably because it would destroy pastures near Whetstone. Blaby District Council says it is working with land owners on the scheme. I'm sure they'd be absolutely delighted to see the huge profits they stand to make wiped out by land value capture and community ownership..
Meanwhile in the increasingly megalomaniac Oxford-Cambridge Arc, a bizarre green gherkin-shaped region on NIC maps, plans for no less than five 'garden communities' are racing up Whitehall's invasion plan for rural England.
Together the five blobs on a yet-to-be-revealed map would house over one million people. But, as one planning commentator this week noted, the Oxford-Cambridge Gherkin is 'by far the best site for 1.2 million houses'. You have been warned.
Meanwhile let us hope the ministerial team at HousCLoG takes a radical look at its 'Presumption in Favour of Unsustainable Development' also known as the NPPF.
And kicks 'garden city principles' into touch.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 May 2018

 

Election Fever

You may not have noticed it, but this is local election time in large parts of England.
Election fever, however, has been hard to spot. I visited my own local authority website a couple of days ago to find out who the candidates are in my ward. The council had not even bothered to upload them. It took ages even to dig out the results from last time.
All of which is a pity because there are some big issues at stake in many local authorities. The big one, from a Smart Growth point of view, is planning and related transport matters.
The key question to ask is whether your council is one of those that is pursuing megalomaniac ideas of growth based on building houses, building roads, building garden communities, building huge motorway distribution sheds or whatever.
Of course pretty well all English councils are presently having to find land for huge numbers of new homes whether they need them or not. That's not their fault, it's just Government policy.
But some have discovered you can get more money out of Whitehall if you sign up for some unsustainable growth scheme based usually on houses, houses, houses.
This isn't a party-political point. Councils controlled by all the main parties somewhere are pursuing this madcap policy. No names, but you know who you are.
Most people in local elections, I suppose, tend to vote for the party they support nationally but, as I suggested a while back, maybe this is time to forget the national or even European issues which normally determine your vote and ask just what the parties intend in your neck of the woods.
I expect most readers of this blog already know what their council's stance is.
So go out and vote, and vote for the things that matter locally.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 May 2018

 

Sacred Or Profane

The Internet Sacred Text Archive is an intriguing website which contains, as it says, the text of numerous books about religion, mythology, folklore and the esoteric.
In a section headed Utopia, is a book many consider sacred, namely Garden Cities of Tomorrow by Sir Ebenezer Howard.
I've been a bit critical of old Ebenezer over the years, as he was, undeniably, one of the prime movers in the Century of Sprawl we've just endured.
But I do think people ought to read the book, especially those who bang on about their support for 'Garden City Principles'.
Just last week saw 50 companies and other bodies sign up to a statement calling on the Government not to remove 'Garden City Principles' from English planning policy, despite that being one of the few positive proposals in the new draft National Planning Policy Framework.
The current list of what purports to be the Principles consist of nine bullet points, some of them unexceptional, and which bear little resemblance to the powerful vision of 'Garden City' laid down on tablets of stone by the Blessed Ebenezer.
Read the book if you really want to know what they were. Most of it is actually about how Howard thought the economics and governance of Garden City should work. I suspect the world would have been a better place had they been widely followed, but even Letchworth struggled to implement them.
But Howard's opening chapter gives us a picture of the planned physical form of his ideal town. And those who believe he didn't want to build on remote greenfield sites at low-densities are in for a big disappointment.
Garden City would occupy 6,000 acres 'which is at present purely agricultural' and the town would take up 1,000 acres at the centre. Sounds like a remote, greenfield development to me.
He's a little vaguer about densities, but we have a population estimate of 30,000 to occupy the 5,500 building plots, which probably wouldn't have met current Government house building targets. But, Howard says, the average plot will be 2,600 square feet, that's 242 square metres in modern money.
That would mean about 41 homes to the hectare gross, but the net figure would of course come right down thanks to the roads, landscaping, services and open space in Garden City.
And what grandiosity Howard envisaged for those aspects of his utopia. Six 'magnificent boulevards' 120 feet wide radiate from the five acre park at the centre of the town which is itself surrounded by a huge shopping mall. There are four wide orbital roads and Grand Avenue circling the town towards its edge is a 420 feet wide park.
Well it all sounds like a perfect recipe for low-density, car-dependent, greenfield development to me. And I think that, when developers and growth-hungry local authorities sign up to 'Garden City Principles', it's that vision they envisage, not the 'community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets' in the current set.
So let's have a little reality about old Ebenezer Howard. He deserves our respect as a remarkable man who was one of those who played a part in creation of the planning system.
But his ideas on spatial development have proved little short of disastrous.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 19 April 2018

 

Garden Communities And Why Communities Are Saying No

This week sees the launch of two important publications on garden communities.
Most important, of course, is the Smart Growth UK report on garden communities with the affected communities themselves saying just why they are saying no. No less than 10 of the local opposition campaigns have come together to set out their views and a very cogent and professional job they have made of it.
Just let those planning to make barrow-loads of money from building garden towns or garden villages start their usual attempt to belittle the opposition. Read this report, then go away and think seriously about it.
But this week also saw a statement promoted by the TCPA with signatures from 50 interested parties trying to persuade the Government not to drop 'garden city principles' from England's National Planning Policy Framework.
As this proposal is one of the very few positive things in the draft NPPF, you wonder why they bothered, but there are some who still sustain a sentimental attachment to the movable feast they like to call 'garden city principles'. But while the current crop don't seem to bear too much resemblance to the low-density, greenfield sprawl traditionally associated with the term, promoters who find such sprawl most profitable needn't worry. That's what everyone understands by 'garden city principles'.
That's clearly evident from our report where opponents of six of the Government-sponsored garden communities and four of those simply so dubbed by their promoters have examined them in forensic detail. And what a disgraceful mess they've uncovered.
The case against garden communities was set out in detail in our report on them last year. The local groups campaigning against them aren't necessarily supporters of Smart Growth, but it's amazing how often core Smart Growth principles feature in their concerns.
Protecting the countryside from development, brownfield-first policies, transit-oriented, rather than car-dependent, development and the need to make best use of existing infrastructure and to provide new infrastructure where it's needed are constantly recurring themes.
So next time someone tells you that garden city type developments are an essential part of the sprawl we need to house our nation, or even that sprawl is needed, read our report.
This is unsustainable development at its worst.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 April 2018

 

Housing Targets And The Death Of Oxfordshire

First of all we heard from the Oxfordshire Growth Board, which includes the six Oxfordshire councils, that 100,000 new homes were needed 'to address the county's severe housing shortage and expected economic growth'.
Then we found out that a new Government method of calculating housing need meant that Oxfordshire, in fact, needed 68,000 houses, a substantial proportion of which were specifically to meet Oxford City's 'unmet housing need'.
The Government added, however, that it would encourage local councils that had more ambitious plans for housing and growth.
Not much later, we learnt that the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge expressway (duplicating the new railway connection from Oxford to Cambridge) would need about a million new homes to help fund it, about 300,000 of which would be in Oxfordshire.
We wondered if that would that take care of much of the county's severe housing shortage and all of Oxford City's unmet housing need. After all, there would be two super new means of commuting into the city. Apparently not, though it wasn't clear why.
We wondered whether it could be growth for growth's sake in response to certain powerful interests.
And finally, we were told about the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal, which 'will provide 60m for affordable housing and 150m for infrastructure improvements, including road and rail to support the ambition of building the 100,000 new homes' originally announced.
It is by no means clear how many of these or the 300,000 will be genuinely affordable, for example in the form of permanently affordable social housing for rent.
So farewell, then, Oxfordshire. Welcome to the New Middlesex.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 08 April 2018

 

Look To The Centre

There has been some talk recently about setting up political parties to stand for local authority elections on a platform of opposition to the greenfield sprawl now threatening so much of our environment.
I do actually have a certain amount of sympathy for many local politicians who know very well that resistance to Whitehall is largely useless. Central government has passed around a hundred pieces of primary legislation since the 1980s restricting council power and Heaven only knows how much secondary legislation.
The resulting democratic deficit, with councils mostly told what to do by the Civil Service and then having to do it, is something we should be very angry about.
Sadly, few people are.
That sympathy for councillors has its limits, however. Even if a fight is hopeless, it's still worth pursuing. As Churchill said, 'Never give in, never, never, never.'
And, meanwhile, let's not forget those councils, under the control of a variety of different parties, who are pursuing megalomaniac schemes for growth, even including huge employment growth in areas without enough homes and huge housing growth in areas where there aren't enough jobs.
Yes, I can see the attraction of having your own party. Some have been created and a few have even gained council seats.
But I can't help remembering back to 1970 when a political movement called Homes Before Roads was set up to fight the Greater London Council election on a platform of opposition to the scheme to knock down much of the capital to build four massive Ringways.
It would be easy to dismiss its efforts as futile, as it won just 2 percent of the vote. Yet the campaign had its effect and Labour swung from supporting the Ringways to opposition and won a big majority in the 1974 GLC election as a direct result.
But before anyone gets too euphoric at the idea of a knit-your-own party, remember one thing. The GLC may have dropped the Ringway idea but it never really went away.
Parts of the inner Ringway 1 had already been built and still blight east and west London. Much of Ringway 2 was built as massive upgrades to the A406 North Circular Road. Part of the western Ringway 3 was built by borough councils after GLC abolition as the Hayes By-pass. And a hybrid of Ringways 3 and 4 was built by the Government as the M25.
OK, so let's suppose you've taken control of your local authority and told the Government to stuff its housing targets.
What would happen then, under current arrangements, is that either you'd be forced to accept nearly everything developers throw at you, under the grotesquely misnamed 'presumption in favour of sustainable development', as you don't have an 'up-to-date' local plan.
Or your local plan would be modified beyond recognition by the planning inspectorate.
Or control of it would be taken over by the secretary of state.
That's the reality, I'm afraid. It's at the centre we need to effect political change.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 30 March 2018

 

Mutually Supportive Outcomes

Almost everyone agrees that pursuit of sustainable development should be the point of departure for planning policy.
The trouble is, no-one agrees what constitutes it.
In England, HousCLoG has, as we all know, published proposals to tinker with the National Planning Policy Framework and much else, with the explicit objective of building more houses in unsustainable places. And maybe even a few more in sustainable places.
Its consultation paper is attempting to limit debate to a series of questions about the draft, suggesting, whether accurately or not, that the final result is pretty much a foregone conclusion. That may be so, but the more of us that do say what it ought to say, the nearer comes the day when it does.
Sustainable development gets more urgent with every year that passes and it really is time to say where the point of departure should be.
Some useful ideas are provided by the American Planning Association's Sustainable Communities Division which provides a definition of sustainable community planning.
'Sustainable Community Planning is a dynamic process by which public, private, and community based stakeholders plan to meet the needs of current and future generations,' it says. 'It does so in a manner that meets economic, environmental and social needs as mutually supportive outcomes, reflects the community's unique history and assets and evolves as the character of the community changes, priorities shift, and new challenges and aspirations are defined.'
Mutually supportive outcomes. Just hold on to that thought as you make your responses to the consultation.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 25 March 2018

 

A Funny Sort Of Crisis

The blog by Nigel Pearce suggesting we rethink the language of planning set me thinking about the way we do indeed use, and misuse, language.
Nigel was particularly scathing about misuse of words like growth and sustainable and he is right. I must admit the phrase that currently sets my teeth on edge every time it gets used by politicians or journalists is 'The Housing Crisis'.
In one sense, housing has always been in crisis, thanks to the evolving long-term demands of a growing, and changing, population. But now it has become part of everyday political discourse and far too many journalists are content to parrot it, either through laziness or, more likely these days, because they simply don't have time to think about it and research alternatives.
If we do really have a 'housing crisis', there are many aspects to it and it's a funny sort of crisis.
1. What ministers mean by it, as they explicitly keep telling us, is the inability of young adults to buy their own home pretty much as soon as they're launched into the jobs market. One should not dismiss this, particularly those of us lucky enough to own our own homes. But, on the other hand, the period where very young adults were able to buy easily in areas like the South East and London really only lasted between 1977, when building societies stopped 'red-lining' pre-1914 property and the mid-1990s when freely available credit started to cause house prices to spiral. This aspect of the crisis will certainly not be addressed by building vast numbers of costly market homes on greenfield sites, much of which simply provides more fodder for the buy-to-rent brigade.
2. The most acute aspect of this crisis is the shortage of social housing. Councils and housing associations are able to build only a minute proportion of the homes needed by those on low incomes who are struggling to survive against high rents in the private sector and sub-standard housing, let alone those who are stuck in temporary accommodation. Right-to-buy has clearly outlived any usefulness it may have had and fails to provide the funds for replacements. The country urgently needs to build a great deal of social housing, mostly at sustainable locations in larger urban areas. The expenditure would certainly add to the national debt but would, on the other hand, to stimulate economic activity that would help us to pay it off.
3. Buy-to-rent has become a monster devouring our market housing stock. For a long time now, buying and renting out houses has been a very good investment and millions have taken advantage. The shine may be coming off that now, but we're stuck with the problem. Those are the homes that ought to be available to young buyers and ministers need to work out which aspect of the market, freedom to let to others or freedom to buy for yourself, is more politically and economically important. Then they need to act.
4. Using the London residential property to park overseas funds, at least until our next financial crash, has robbed the capital of thousands of the homes it needs and they lie empty. It's currently a good place to launder money.
5. So-called 'affordable housing' is rarely very affordable and only to relatively well-off buyers. And developers are finding endless ways around it through the wretched viability provisions in national housing policy. The whole idea needs a rethink or it will be dismissed as a con-trick.
6. We are building the wrong kind of homes for the sections of the population where the growth in the number of such households necessitates it. Around three-quarters of the households the Government itself expects to form over the coming decades will be elderly people. We actually already have a huge surplus of what politicians like to call 'family housing', though much of it isn't occupied by families. But we need to have a serious conversation about housing for older people, bearing in mind that their desire to move somewhere remote is seriously at odds with their needs once they're too old or infirm to drive. And most of the other quarter of the new households will be single people. Again, they're most likely to need or want homes within existing urban areas, not the car-dependent suburbs far from everywhere that present policy supports.
7. We also need to have a conversation about how we build in towns. The Government is to be commended about finally readdressing the question of density, however reluctantly. But builders responded to earlier density standards in towns by bunging up rabbit hutch flats. There are many ways of building at much higher densities than today's norm in other ways, including terraced houses. Ask any Victorian builder, if you can find one that's still alive.
8. Another serious conversation needs to be about design. This is a desperately complex issue and needs a complex but subtle and flexible approach. We need designs that work for people as a whole because, even when a building is privately developed, we are all consumers of it, probably for the rest of our lives. Community needs, vernacular standards, human scale, respect for the existing local buildings and much else should always trump architectural egos. Sadly they don't at present.
9. Heritage is under colossal pressure at the moment. Old buildings, and not just listed ones or those in conservation areas, are a massive asset for any place. The heritage bonus is just becoming well understood in regeneration terms and old buildings, especially those built before 1914, should normally enjoy protection. They attract the young and economically active people that every community needs whereas the eyesores that often replace them will simply repel everyone for the long term. Just as we don't protect the majority of our countryside, we don't protect the majority of our towns. It's time we did.
There are no doubt plenty of other challenges and difficulties that we need to address, but that will do for starters.
But like I say, it's a funny sort of crisis.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 March 2018

 

Rethinking The Language Of Planning

In many spheres of human activity, the vocabulary used by insiders and then taken up by those looking in from the outside, tends to drift over time into a kind of linguistic fuzziness.
It then needs renewal to restore rigour to the underlying concepts and to ensure accountability if the concepts become practical realities. As George Orwell said of the English language, it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
In the language of planning and development, renewal is long overdue, and the worst culprit is the word 'growth'. It has lost focus. It means different things to different people. It is used to obscure all kinds of interests, from economic and social to political and ideological.
With the exception of Smart Growth, which is clearly defined and has a coherent philosophy behind it, the word growth should be dropped from planning discourse.
The American ecological philosopher Edward Abbey said that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. This is a little harsh, since nature itself is all about growth, but it is usefully challenging. Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter of 2015 Laudato Si' On Care for Our Common Home, is more measured and said talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.
Incidentally, 'sustainable' is another word which, through sloppy overuse and misuse, is rapidly becoming hollowed out of any meaning.
The UK Government recently introduced a new phrase, 'clean growth'. In the Executive Summary of its Clean Growth Strategy in October 2017, it defines clean growth as 'growing our national income while cutting greenhouse gas emissions'.
In this restricted definition, it makes some sense, but it doesn't cover such areas as non-carbon pollution, biodiversity, landscape and habitat, higher-grade agricultural land, or flood risk and water stress. And in no time at all you can bet that 'clean growth' will be trotted out and misused as a universal term to cover, and justify, all types and sizes of development that make some effort, however small, to be environmentally friendly. Such catch-all woolliness should be rejected.
Instead of using 'growth' as an all-encompassing term, the language of planning would benefit from something more precise, six things in fact, economic maintenance, economic improvement, social maintenance, social improvement, environmental maintenance and environmental improvement.
Deterioration would not be allowed.
The advantage of this mini-matrix, or something like it, is that it would allow the focus to shift to need, rather than what would be nice for land owners, or what developers would like to do to maximise their profits, or what politicians would like to achieve to make their mark. Improvement is a more useful common term because it includes those aspects of development that are not reliant on 'growth'.
The matrix could thus be used to force development to adhere to three of the six criteria.
For example, in a depressed but largely unspoilt rural area of the country, a development might need to demonstrate economic and social improvement with environmental maintenance.
In a wealthier part of the country, economic maintenance would be sufficient, but there may be scope for social improvement in parts of the area, while environmental improvement could restore habitats and readjust the balance between intensive and non-intensive farming.
In another area, it might be important to safeguard social maintenance while improving the local economy and the environment. The aim would be to bring areas up to a standard (for each of the three criteria) and maintain it, itself a difficult thing to achieve.
In this context, improvement would be continuous in a non-linear rather than linear sense. The priority would be constantly to direct efforts wherever deterioration was detected or an acceptable standard was not being met, rather than continuing to improve something that was already in good shape.
To finish on a linguistic note, it is interesting to see how often arguments in favour of growth are wrapped up in fine and fulsome words, often uttered or written by politicians or public officials.As Brandon Robshaw has pointed out, 'The connection between prose and politics is made clear, puffed-up prose allows one to defend the indefensible by means of euphemism, obfuscation and cliches that glide by without attracting notice'.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 14 March 2018

 

Inter-varsity Mismatch

The rivalry between the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge has given us many spectacles like the Boat Race and varsity cricket or rugby matches, but the two have more in common than their rivalry would suggest. That may one day include a belt of low-density petrolhead suburbia, stretching from one to the other.
Back in November the National Infrastructure Commission published its proposals for what it called the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc. This, apparently, is necessary to ensure the huge jobs boom around those two old cities can continue and would result in every citizen in the UK becoming billionaires.
All right, I made the last bit up, but you get the picture. According to Lord Adonis this belt of productive farmland contains some of our most productive and innovative places, delivering growth and prosperity for the whole country.
But note that word some.
Earlier this week I was at a seminar to discuss certain aspects of the Arc, notably plans for huge urban extensions to Oxford and Cambridge, to be given a veneer of sustainability through linking them by light-rail to the cities. Well, Oxford has yet to commit itself to any such policy, though it's pursuing the sprawl, while Cambridge let the side down by admitting it favours frittering one and a half billion pounds away on extending its pointless guided busway, partly in tunnel, in preference to a useful light-rail network.
But this Arc is a monster, the Beast from the Eastern Counties. Not only would its car-dependency be guaranteed by the Oxford-Cambridge expressway these alleged proponents of sustainable development decree, they demand sprawl on the grand scale.
This includes a million new homes by 2050 and the document admits it would need more than the usual large urban extensions, garden towns and garden villages. Much was made of the likelihood of four new garden towns in the arc, less mention was made of the statement on page 9 that it could include new city-scale developments of up to 150,000 new homes.
Exactly where a New Milton Keynes would be dumped is not exactly specified, though somewhere between Oxford and Milton Keynes is one possibility and the Bedford-Cambridge grain belt is another. Page 36 is a bit more specific, mentioning Bicester-Bletchley, the Marston Vale, expansion of Bedford and around Sandy. Oh yes, and it trots out yet again Milton Keynes' failed ambition since the 1960s to grow to 500,000 souls.
In the end I asked the assembled luminaries why this Arc had to be Oxford-Cambridge. Not surprisingly, I didn't get an answer.
Well, if it's old cities with international technologically based companies and innovative universities you want, I wondered why not Coventry, Birmingham, Derby, Manchester or indeed dozens of other cities with fine technological universities.
And come to think of it, if Oxford-Cambridge fits the criteria, i.e two ancient cities with technologically advanced universities linked by a zone accommodating many high-tech firms, plus a high demand for market housing, obviously we need a Reading-Guildford Arc. Maybe an Edinburgh-Glasgow Arc would fit the bill.
Or, if it has to be in the northern Home Counties and south Midlands, why not a Coventry-Ipswich Arc which at least would replicate the huge flows of goods between Felixstowe and the Midlands.
I'm afraid I also asked if Oxford and Cambridge had been chosen because that's where those who dreamed up the Arc had gone to university.
Even less surprisingly, I didn't get an answer to that one either.
But it used to be said you could walk from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving land owned by one or other of their ancient universities and page 41 of the publication offers a clue as to another effect of the Arc. On assembling land for the sprawl, it urges negotiating positively with land owners to assemble land for new settlements, including Oxford and Cambridge colleges.
And that could be a nice little earner for the almae matres of some of those who govern us.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 March 2018

 

Wise Councils

One of the accusations you sometimes hear levelled at local authority members, or even officers, is that they have bowed to undue influence, or worse, to approve planning permissions or local plan allocations.
Frankly, these days, it's quite easy to see why the public should think like that but I have to say that, although it certainly happens and it's hardly ever detected, outright corruption in the planning system is fairly rare.
Over the course of a 40-year career working with, engaging with and writing about planners and planning I have certainly seen examples where there was ample grounds for suspicion. But, as I say, it's rare and has probably become more difficult over the past 30 years as we moved to a plan-led planning system.
That's not to say that particular process has all been beneficial, however. One of the big downsides of the primacy of local plans over straightforward case-by-case development control is the way it restricts the public's engagement in the process.
Objecting to a planning application is relatively easy, but all too often those who do so discover the pass was sold long ago in a local plan process they may have been only dimly aware of, if at all. The new process of permission-in-principle will only exacerbate that.
And no-one gets involved in the local plan process lightly. It could have been designed to deter public involvement, however much consultation figures in the process. Local planning authorities and examiners have a pretty clear idea of where they want the process to go, without worrying about what tiresome amateurs think. And the Government is ever more strongly forcing councils to do what it wants, however destructive.
Today, all local planning authorities have to adopt codes of conduct and professionals also have codes imposed by the professional bodies. A decade or so back the codes imposed on councillors got completely out of hand and were preventing them getting properly involved, and it was depressing watching ward members having to declare an interest when an item in their ward came up for discussion. That was ridiculous.
Corruption will always be a danger, but I'm not saying we don't have any problem beyond that. We do, in fact, have two problems.
One is that members do sometimes succumb to levels of influence that don't actually infringe the codes, but which can raise eyebrows when revealed. The recent self-reference by Westminster's deputy leader to the Council's monitoring officer followed publicity surrounding the entertainment, much of it from the property industry, he had enjoyed in the course of his planning work.
It reminded me of a reception I attended in Westminster's City Hall some decades ago with a previous deputy leader. In a room stuffed with property industry figures, the then incumbent said he judged the economic health of the City by the number of cranes he could see from his office window.
As an approach to planning an historic city that was a complete disgrace but that doesn't mean it was actually improper. People had voted for him and I don't suppose he had said anything much different in his campaign.
As ever, the message is, be careful what you vote for. The principle must surely be DON'T VOTE ON NATIONAL ISSUES IN LOCAL ELECTIONS.
It's far from clear today's deputy leader had actually overstepped the mark. I remember a discussion with the former Greater London Council's first chair of planning in the 1960s, Jane Phillips. She said that, no sooner had she accepted the job, than a tide of invitations to events like Ascot and Wimbledon, expensive meals and much else besides poured in. She spent several months refusing all of them and eventually the flood ceased. None was actually a bribe, though those might have followed had she accepted them, but I suppose most people would be concerned if they knew those sort of things were occurring.
Of course worse does sometimes happen and it's very rarely detected. We still remember T Dan Smith and John Poulson in Newcastle more than half a century ago because bribery in planning is so hard to detect. Once upon a time the popular method was envelopes stuffed with cash pushed through letter boxes late at night. I imagine that, when it happens today, it's altogether more sophisticated.
But as a past president of the Royal Institution of British Architects once told me, we all know it happens. Indeed we do.
However, the second half of the problem is surely altogether more frequently the cause of ill-feeling and suspicion among the public whose noses are pressed to the window of the committee chamber and are left feeling that something is not quite right.
And that's the erosion of the link between the public and planning. The plan-led system has many virtues but, as we've seen, public engagement is not one of them.
That's exacerbated by the move from traditional council committees to what we might call government by cabal, you know, cabinets, executives, elected mayors and the rest of it. It might produce faster decision making and it may produce the sort of extreme decision making Whitehall promotes.
But I don't think it produces better decisions. Sorry.
That's made much worse by the destruction of the planning system by central government via expenditure cuts which have left planning departments threadbare and by the planning guidance which is supposed to be lighter touch but which in reality imposes draconian policies such as the flood of unsustainable and unnecessary greenfield sprawl imposed by Whitehall diktat on England.
A handful of local authorities seem to have succumbed to the view that the way to manage this tyranny is by chasing a hopeless spiral of population and economic growth. Politics has always attracted a few egotistical megalomaniacs and elected mayoralties could have been created for them. Such people are always going to be attracted to mad ideas about growth.
We're now expecting a revised National Planning Policy Framework fairly soon and it's too much to hope the current almanac of weasel words will be dumped and radically reformed.
But it really does need to be.
It's no wonder the public is fed up and vents its anger on councils. Sometimes, as with those greedy councils pursuing garden communities, it's quite justified.
But do spare a thought for those many hundreds of hard working men and women struggling as members or the thousands working as officers of councils stripped of the money and powers they need to do the job by a central government that has spent almost 40 years relentlessly attacking local democracy.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 26 February 2018

 

A Five Billion Pound National Disgrace

Having watched the progressive degradation of Government policy on planning and transport in England over the past 15 years, I thought I was beyond being shocked. But a quick analysis of the Government announcement on its five billion quid Housing Infrastructure Fund left me speechless.
Well, almost.
The HIF capital grants announced last week covered the first allocation of no less than 866 million pounds which, allegedly, will unlock the construction of up to 200,000 new homes. That's a subsidy of over four thousand pounds per house. As they're mostly market homes, this would mean some nice returns for developers, though the cynics will probably say it's dwarfed by the profits they'll make, not by building the homes, but by securing planning consent.
But I hope some environmental NGOs are taking a very close look at the announcement as it's very far from what it seems. It takes a bit of time, but Homes England has helpfully provided an interactive map of the projects. Just click on the pins and a few sparse but revealing details appear for each.
That 866 million pounds will be allocated to 133 projects among 114 English local authorities. And no less than 83 of these are wholly or partly devoted to road construction.
So, on top of the Department for Transport's road building programme which plans to spend tens of billions of pounds to increase congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has found a way of throwing a substantial chunk of another billion quid in the direction of unsustainable transport.
You might imagine sustainable transport would also feature. You'd be wrong. Only three of the projects do anything for public transport, and not very much at that. It funds local roads, but not local transport.
People tell me we must continue to be positive even in the face of all this provocation and they're right. But positives in HIF funding are hard to spot.
The main one is the 30 projects involving land reclamation and remediation. This funding will go some of the way to making up for the almost 20 million a year formerly provided by DEFRA for land remediation.
Beyond that, there's a bit of cash for utilities, public realm, flood control, land assembly, healthcare and schools. But not very much.
In entry after entry the word Unlock appears in relation to some huge, usually greenfield, housing plan in an unsustainable location. We are spending the better part of a billion pounds, therefore, to unlock housing which currently fails the National Planning Policy Framework viability test.
Indeed, a handful of entries even say that's about all they intend to do. Like the 8.7 million pounds in Wiltshire to overcome the viability challenge of an access road to a 2,600 home greenfield development which is currently held up by a population of Bechstein's bats.
No, they're not canning the whole destructive development or taking it somewhere else. They intend to raise the road to accommodate bat underpasses.
I promise you, I am not making this up. It actually says this redesign leaves an 8.7 million viability gap.
And to be honest, you couldn't make it up anyway. No-one would believe you.
There are several other mentions of viability gaps. This is quite simply a gap in profitability for the developer of course. So we taxpayers will be funding those profits directly, instead of the usual indirect route.
This whole business demands scrutiny. I hope the NGOs concerned with sustainable transport will take a good look at it, as I hope will those concerned with countryside protection.
But so much money is being spent so wastefully by this Fund, which I can't help describing as batty, it surely demands scrutiny by a Parliamentary committee.
The term National Disgrace trips across one's mind.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 February 2018

 

Transformational Dreams

Thanks to a quirky coincidence, I was in a small town in the north of England when Transport for the North launched its Strategic Transport Plan, setting out its aspirations for what it grandly called transformational growth over the next third of a century.
Well, quite a lot of the north is in need of transformational growth, its transport infrastructure included. And certainly one could endorse its aspiration for a step change in rail connectivity there.
Ironically, the town where I was watching the snow come down used to have a rail service. It survived the Beeching cuts, only to succumb to transport ministry rail butchers a decade later. This was justified on the basis that one of the roads to the town had been so improved that the town would not, in future, be cut off by snow.
Well, of course, the improvements were pretty invisible and it's frequently been cut off by snow since then. Particularly at risk is the replacement bus service, now reduced to just two a day and facing an uncertain future. Snow halted it altogether on Thursday.
On Friday I was able to use it and was deeply impressed by the skill of the driver who, confronted by an impassable sheet of ice up a steep hill, was able to reverse a quarter of a mile down a narrow lane and turn the bus in a muddy farmyard. It's ironic, given the small fortune that's spent on keeping local A-roads open with gritter lorries operating round the clock, that they couldn't treat all of the bus route.
But at least it reminded me what a skilful bunch bus drivers are. A fresh lesson, if any were still needed, of the pointlessness of guided buses.
TfN's Strategic Transport Plan is, like the Government's 25-year environment plan, strong on vague aspirations and weak on specifics.
It's nice to see the idiotic Pennine Road Tunnel has gone, but mega-projects still dominate the thinking.
The work is full of plans for road building, improving airport access and stimulating development around them. There are only four vague mentions of climate change and five of greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting this is another body where the intention to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 has yet to gain more than lip-service.
Indeed, there's still a feeling the 1960s haven't yet gone away around the region. The lesson that the massive roads investment in, say, North East England, failed to head off the massive decline of its economy has yet to be learned.
I was reminded of this on a visit to Carlisle. It already has some of the best rail-connectivity in the north of England, with six lines converging there.
Despite this, plans are being pushed forward for flights from Carlisle's small airport to London later this year. By rail you can get from central Carlisle to central London in a little over three hours, with minimal carbon emissions. Flying will be no quicker, but will contribute substantially to emissions.
Carlisle City Council, meanwhile, is celebrating the Government donating it 275,000 pounds of public money to push forward its huge and unnecessary St Cuthbert Garden Village. This in a town where houses can be bought for well under 100,000 pounds.
What Carlisle needs, like so many other places in the north, is not houses but jobs. TfN recognises the economic challenge, at great and repetitive length, in its Strategy but local interventions can do quite as much as strategic.
Mundane stuff like restoring local railways, however, gets altogether less interest despite its potential for transformational change. Pacer trains still blight local services, expansion of the Tyne and Wear Metro is still awaited and a great scheme to relink Keswick by rail lacks official support.
The world has to move on from this 1960s bubble. Sustainability needs to be brought in and small-scale projects such as light-rail in the cities and local rail outside them need to be recognised as at least as important for the economy as strategic plans.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 January 2018

 

An Egregious Future

Few elephants live in this country and most of those that do live in zoos. So conservation of them is unlikely to figure in any 25-year environment strategy, which is a pity, as the Plan published by the Government yesterday must have had two very large pachyderms roaming silently around the launch room.
I'm referring, as regular readers of this blog will have guessed, to urban sprawl and car dependency. They are certainly hinted at, big-time, in the Plan but there is no significant action proposed to deal with the former and the strategy explicitly says it intends to do nothing about the latter.
The 25-year Environment Plan, A Green Future, begins with six goals, four additional goals and six policy areas. It's a grim omen that mitigating and adapting to climate change is one of the additional goals rather than Number 1 and many of the report's aspirations are pretty abstract and full of loopholes.
You will only find one mention of urban sprawl in the report, page 35 noting the important role of green belts in preventing it. Nor will you find mentions of greenfield land or soil sealing.
Let's say from the outset that there are many positive things in the strategy, not least the commitment to improving soil health and protecting peatlands. But as ever, actions speak louder, and the proposed actions on soils are minimal and include nothing to prevent soil sealing. Peatland action is even more limited and the commitment to phase out horticultural peat use only by 2030 is, frankly, pretty pathetic.
But the elephants do make a little bit of noise, even when straying near the Treasury's sacred beast, house building. A section on housing and planning admits we are building on 17,000 ha of undeveloped land every year. That's 170 square kilometres of land destroyed, but it claims 12 percent of the UK is green belt and there is the usual, increasingly unreal, commitment to protecting it. Green belts will be enhanced, apparently.
But commitments to protecting much else, namely ancient woodland and grassland, high flood risk areas and the best agricultural land should be judged on performance so far. Enough said.
The usual weasel words about positive environmental outcomes reducing opposition to development, however, should serve as a warning for where we're heading, i.e. protection not of the environment, but of Dumb Growth.
The key commitment on development is to embed a Net Environmental Gain principle. This sounds good, but it pretty soon becomes apparent that it's the current Net Biodiversity Gain principle given a bit more oomph in guidance.
The State of Nature Partnership has already shown how damaged UK biodiversity is and it plainly needs all the help it can get. But it's just part of the country's natural capital and protecting it is only one of the ecosystem services to which the report gives occasional polite nods.
NEG rapidly becomes NBG on page 33 and this is dangerous as it's plainly aimed at buying wildlife groups off, perhaps the lobby the Government fears most. Behind it lies an unspoken belief among several of them that intensively managed farmland is environmentally worthless and not worth protecting.
Yet even the most intensively worked arable land provides a range of ecosystem services that we lose at our peril, like production of food and water, flood control, more biodiversity than anyone likes to admit and even a small amount of carbon sequestration. And open land of any kind contributes to the intangibles offered by the countryside.
So, despite a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use change, developers will be perfectly free to go on destroying huge areas of countryside, secure in the knowledge they can put in a few sad plots dubbed as nature conservation areas amidst the concrete, the brickwork and the lawns. Dumb Growth as usual.
More than 15 years have now passed since the Treasury launched its crusade against the rural environment and separated Whitehall control of planning and transport. If A Green Future is weak to the point of pointlessness on housing development, then it's positively harmful on transport.
Mondeo Man has probably moved on to an Audi by now, but he's still exercising unhealthy control of transport policy.
The grandly named Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, er, challenges us to encourage new modes of transport, whatever they might be, and to seize opportunities for zero emission vehicles. These, of course, don't actually exist.
We also, allegedly, have to prepare ourselves for autonomy and a blurring of the distinction between private and public transport. In practice I presume this means getting killed by driverless cars and using Uber instead of public transport.
Although the strategy admits transport now accounts for 40 percent of UK final energy use, it fails to admit it's now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is pathetic stuff, designed to perpetuate the view that cars and lorries can somehow be turned into an environmental free lunch, instead of the planet destroying monster they have become.
But it fits perfectly with the ambition go on promoting urban sprawl. Dumb Growth Nation as ever.
Despite the prime minister having given her authority to the report, it remains very much a DEFRA strategy, with farming featuring prominently. These are important areas, of course, and the report does contain many good proposals, even if closeness to sheep farming has ensured many are pretty wooly.
But, as a 25 year plan for the nation's environment, it fails at the first hurdle, namely tackling our addiction to Dumb Growth and driving. The Smart Growth alternative is as far from Whitehall thinking as ever.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 January 2018

 

A Property Desiring Democracy

All but the most avid free-marketeers today accept there are instances of market failure and that these require government intervention now and then. But I am beginning to wonder if the current level of debate about English housing policy is starting to mark a sort of democracy failure.
It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms tried from time to time. But no-one, he said, pretends democracy is perfect or all-wise.
And, of course, he was right. Representative democracy gives us huge benefits which massively outweigh its disbenefits, and one of those is that the people we elect periodically have to face the electorate to justify their actions and their plans.
One of the things politicians try to do is attract young voters, and that's perfectly healthy. But recent decades have seen that impact on housing policy, with young adults' ability to buy their home as early as possible becoming a central plank of all the main political parties.
Economics, however, is no respecter of political ambition and young adults' ability to buy has been contracting, despite political obsessions. The average age at which they can buy has now risen to 32.
Whitehall's response over the past 15 years, and the response of its more obedient followers in Westminster, has been to blame the planning system for failing to yield enough of our vital greenfield land for destruction for low-density market housing. You know, the sort young adults can no longer afford to buy and many of which are hardly aimed at first-time buyers anyway.
But that period has seen another phenomenon which has nothing to do with ability to own your own home, namely the huge mushrooming of buy-to-rent. There are no doubt many reasons for this, including the ups and downs of the housing market, the vast disparity in UK incomes and lenders willingness, at a time of low interest rates, to finance it.
Yet the huge growth of the private rented sector that has resulted is one of the principal reasons younger people are unable to buy. I recently suggested, entirely facetiously, that if the Government wanted to improve ability to buy, they should extend Right-to-Buy to the private rented sector.
That would be politically impossible of course, but any Government has plenty of levers it could push to make private renting less commercially attractive and to encourage those who own rental properties to sell them.
Instead, however, it continues to waste billions on Help to Buy which has Helped To Push Up Property Prices and Helped To Finance Huge Bonuses For House Builders' Directors.
All this assumes that politicians' need to secure young peoples' votes is the only really important aspect of housing policy. And, before you ask, yes I am a home owner, although I didn't buy until I was in my 30s which is how things used to be. And yes, buying your own home is a perfectly legitimate and sensible ambition for anyone.
But many people will never be able to buy given the current way our housing market operates and the ever growing level of income inequality.
Sajid Javid's recent suggestion of fifty billion quid of borrowing for social housing was a recognition of this, though he must have known the Treasury would simply dismiss it. But that's the scale of the challenge we face and the only way house building numbers are ever going to rise significantly.
And recognising it would be another nail in the coffin of the current dysfunctional planning and housing regime which is geared to building expensive, low-density, greenfield housing at remote locations, for sale or rent, which is actually doing very little for first-time-buyers' aspirations.
Now England is, apparently, promised a revised National Planning Policy Framework. That is a major opportunity for a Smart Growth approach to tackle these problems or, at the very least, to voice opinions in support of one.
Democratic involvement in the planning system was supposed to have been enshrined by the 1947 Act and sustained ever since. But all that's been sustained recently has been increasing Whitehall control.
So, here is an opportunity to help reduce at least some of our democratic deficit. Too much of that can lead to democracy failures.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 January 2018