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

 

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SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2017 BLOG

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Greenfield Sites Have High Environmental Value Too

Over the years Wildlife and Countryside Link has provided a great way of joining environmental voices together and also mediating in those cases where countryside and wildlife protection come into conflict. So it can only be a matter of great regret that it has, once again, decided to take sides in the debate over whether to sterilize brownfield land from development.
Link is currently making a lot of noise about its latest set of guidelines which, it says, aim to reduce the number of inappropriate developments on brownfield sites.
There is, unfortunately, a lot of history to this and the guidelines reflect just one side of a serious environmental debate.
Four years ago the State of Nature Partnership, a coalition of most of the UK's wildlife organisations, published its first State of Nature report. It was a fine piece of work which highlighted the shocking decline in wildlife and wildlife habitats in this country.
But it had one great drawback. Invertebrate charity Buglife had persuaded it to include a chapter it had largely drafted itself attacking the concept of brownfield reclamation. This, the report argued, was damaging some sites of high biodiversity value, some of which supported some very rare invertebrate species.
No doubt this was true in a handful of cases which were given huge prominence. Wildlife doesn't arrive overnight and the fact that some derelict sites had been derelict for so long they'd begun to support a few plant and invertebrate species, was testament to the shocking failure to reclaim and regenerate derelict land.
The threat this idea posed to urban regeneration and to those communities seriously blighted economically and environmentally by derelict and contaminated land quickly became obvious to brownfield organisations. They wrote to the Partnership setting out their support for its report, apart from the brownfield chapter.
The letter set out their belief that brownfield-first policies are beneficial to wildlife, that the shift to greenfield development is doing great harm to wildlife and that there are wider sustainability concerns.
The State of Nature Partnership initially rejected the approach but the brownfield bodies sought a meeting which eventually took place. Despite the obvious fundamental disagreements, it proved surprisingly constructive and a range of ways forward was tentatively discussed.
Both sides at the meeting agreed that the obvious umbrella body to take discussions forward would be Wildlife and Countryside Link, given that one of the main reasons it was created was to reconcile issues where protection of countryside and wildlife come into conflict.
Link was approached and agreed to do this, but the further discussions never took place. Despite the brownfield bodies spending weeks trying to set up further meetings under Link's auspices, they were rebuffed. Instead, Link effectively took the side of the handful of wildlife bodies that supported big restrictions on brownfield and began work on a set of guidelines which claimed to define high environmental value on brownfield sites to restrict it.
The inevitable row that followed, albeit behind closed doors, merely delayed publication of these guidelines but, in the end, Link decided to stay on one side of the debate and ignore counter-arguments.
Now it has produced a second set of guidelines to try to limit the number of sites included on the new brownfield registers. And significantly it says land should be excluded from registers, inter alia, if it contains priority habitats under S41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.
This sounds innocuous until you realise that two specifically brownfield habitats had been added to the list of priority habitats in 2007 after a long history of lobbying by Buglife.
One of these was calaminarian grassland which is, typically, the vegetation-poor spoil tips from metal mining. Remediation of some of these sites is currently being deterred by this designation, even though some are causing acute pollution of river water.
The other was called open mosaic habitat on previously developed land. Its definition is actually a very wide one, albeit imprecise, and it can be used to sterilize development of potentially large numbers of brownfield sites.
Natural England, which is supposed to protect England's environment, was lured into the mess, with a publicly funded inventory of open mosaic habitat.
This matters. The Government has finally admitted that, if you want to maximize the number of homes built, you have to maximize the number of brownfield homes built. This is tacit acknowledgement of the huge damage done by the abandonment of brownfield-first in 2012 and the powerful support to greenfield sprawl offered by its NPPF.
But, so far, measures to help brownfield have proved weak and fall far short of what's needed, namely restoration of brownfield-first.
One of the few measures the Government has proposed is brownfield registers. And now here is a lobbying body, and not one with a vested interest in greenfield development for once, working hard to restrict brownfield development.
It matters too because there is a fundamental myth in the campaign waged by this handful of wildlife bodies against brownfield development. This is that most greenfield sites are environmentally worthless because they are intensively worked farmland.
There are undoubtedly big environmental shortcomings to intensive agriculture but, even so, such greenfield land contributes a huge range of ecosystem services like food and water production, flood control, groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration and the intangible but real psychological benefits that open countryside confers. It also, actually, supports a lot of wildlife, just not as much as other parts of the countryside.
The current flood of unsustainable car-dependent greenfield sprawl is no respecter of high environmental value on greenfield sites and every bit of brownfield land pointlessly left to dereliction, contamination, anti-social behaviour and invasive species means a greater area of greenfield land will be destroyed.
Brownfield land offers very limited space for valuable wildlife and usually only accommodates any until invasive vegetation moves in, but its usefulness for ecosystem services is near non-existent. Significant restrictions on brownfield development are environmentally disastrous.
It's a shame the intensity of this campaign against brownfield development should have been conducted so publicly and should have got an important and valued organisation, one of whose jobs is to reconcile wildlife and countryside challenges, involved.
But perhaps it's significant that only 11 of Link's 46 member bodies have signed up to the new guidelines. There has been unease right from the start.
Nevertheless, four years of near public silence by those who disagree is probably enough. There are two sides to this debate.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 September 2017

 

Fixing Our Brokered Housing Market

The grandly named new Government policy for Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places raises far more questions than answers, but the big one ministers will be asking is whether it will head off hostility from the rank-and-file at the upcoming party conference.
Certainly the new methodology has produced some radically different house building targets for DCLG to impose on English local authorities. Yet the Government is no nearer addressing actual housing need than it ever was.
The old system was claimed to be based on Objectively Assessed Need but, in reality, just generated Subjectively Guessed Market Housing Demand. The new system is different, but little improved.
Any system which claims to assess housing need and which ignores local housing waiting lists is plainly not fit for purpose.
That obviously doesn't much worry ministers. What might, however, is whether the figures for the number of new homes each English local planning authority will be obliged to grant planning consent for each year will buy off increasingly vocal opposition. The answer, I suspect, is yes, but only in a very few cases.
The new methodology has certainly changed the figures, in some cases substantially, a tacit admission the system imposed five years ago by the National Planning Policy Fiasco really was unfit for purpose.
Leaks in sympathetic newspapers in recent weeks suggested the new system would fearlessly impose even more staggering levels of building in the constituencies of ministers, even the Prime Minister's Maidenhead constituency.
Well, Windsor and Maidenhead's allocation has gone up, from 712 to 778, but it's hardly dramatic.
The new system, which matches local incomes to house prices, inevitably reduces some of the absurd targets imposed on northern and midland councils where housing is plentiful and which need jobs, not bricks and mortar. Even the two councils in Cheshire, ambitious for housing growth to draw life out of the cities to their north, get big reductions.
What may be more significant, however, is that some relatively rural councils in southern England where opposition is fierce and pressure for building intense, will actually see their Government-imposed targets reduced.
Oxfordshire and west Berkshire have done pretty well. While many cities' targets have risen sharply, Oxford's is down from the current 1,200-1,600 to 746, Vale of White Horse from 1,028 to 689, West Berks from 665 to 545, South Oxfordshire from 725-825 to 617 and West Oxfordshire from 685 to 605.
Other substantial reductions include Cambridge, from 700 to 583, Shepway 633 to 490, Southampton 1,115 to 942, Watford 577 to 364, Hart 382 to 292, East Devon 981 to 844 and Shropshire 2,518 to 1,270.
On the other hand there have also been some steep rises in places which may still prove politically uncomfortable for Mr Javid. Essex and north-east Hertforshire come off badly, with Basildon up from 972 to 1,024, Braintree from 716 to 835, Broxbourne 454 to 559, Chelmsford 805 to 980, Colchester 920 to 1,095, Harlow 268 to 466 and North Herts 690 to 996.
Other eye-watering increases include St Albans 639 to 913, Stroud 448 to 635, Tandridge 470 to 625, Central Beds 1,600 to 2,553, Tendring 550 to 749, Thanet 857 to 1,063, Worthing 636 to 865 and Wycombe 641 to 792. As a strategy to get people off ministerial backs, it's a non-starter.
Driving the plan is the aim of delivering 266,000 homes annually in England, a figure that seems to have been plucked out of thin air and bearing no relation to the industry's desire to build homes. But it would make land speculators even richer.
To deliver these vast numbers, the big increases dictated by the new system come in some big cities, especially London. We are obviously on another planet when Greenwich's target goes up from 350 to 3,317, Bristol's from 1,450 to 2,420, Southwark 1,472 to 3,089 and Wandsworth 738-1,238 to 2,414.
Croydon, bizarrely, falls from 2,440 to 1,414.
Anyone expecting a brownfield bonanza, however, will be disappointed. Big rises in some southern cities are matched by big falls in some northern.
The new system is supposed to be clear and transparent and to make every community understand the scale of the housing challenge they face.
It won't do that of course. At best it could make some a little more aware of the need to build more homes for house purchasers, as a way of attracting young voters.
Its basis is assessments of baseline household growth projections for each council. That headline figure is pretty meaningless, as what's needed is some kind of breakdown of which sectors actually need more homes, such as the elderly, single people, those in need of social housing etc.. But there ins't one.
An arbitrary one percent figure is then added to achieve the Government's 266,000 figure.
Then there's an adjustment for what are laughably called market signals. Based as it is on the ratio between local house prices and earnings, it doesn't even take into account the affordability of privately rented property, let alone the need for social housing. And even as a measure of demand for homes for sale, it really doesn't work.
Its definition of local housing need depends on a complex formula comparing median house prices to median earnings and then calculating a local target to impose on local planning authorities. This could produce some pretty perverse results.
Let's imagine a place called Lalaland and the target to be imposed on Lalaland District Council.
Lalaland is dominated by one big employer, as many districts still are. Let's suppose then that the big employer decides to dramatically downsize or close. It does happen, ask them in Redcar.
The closure has an immediate and massive impact on local incomes as people lose their jobs. But the impact on local house prices is slower. Many of the employees lived in rented property anyway and anyone selling a house is always reluctant to reduce the asking price, fondly remembering what their house used to be worth.
So Lalaland's ratio has changed for the worse. Earnings have fallen much faster than house prices and, according to DCLG, affordability has worsened. The Department would then have to impose a much bigger house building target, even though people are leaving the area and demand for market homes has fallen off a cliff.
That's one big drawback but, underlying both the old system and the new and indeed all Treasury-imposed housing policies of the past 15 years since the Barker reviews, is the assumption that building more homes will bring down house prices.
The well-known planning commentator Andrew Lainton argues there is much evidence to demonstrate such a link. One disagrees with such an internationally well-informed expert as Andrew at one's peril, but I think we have to here.
The evidence he actually cites comes from that most unconvincing of sources, New Labour's Housing and Planning Advisory Unit, abolished in 2010. This, he reminds us, said a 12 percent uplift in housing stock improves affordability by 20 percent.
The NHAPAU was set up as part of the Barker process to provide some justification for Whitehall's fantasy house building targets and proved unconvincing. Read the piece I wrote in Planning Magazine some years ago if you want the full dismal background.
But I don't believe even the high levels of building the Government wants to impose are going to have any visible effect on what is a very noisy market.
Councils are curiously reluctant to say how many homes they actually have at present, but a few core strategies do mention a figure.
One such is Aylesbury Vale District Council which has 78,591 homes. The current assessment of need is for it to add 965 new homes each year. That's just 1.2 percent of its total housing stock. The Council is one of the big losers on the new system, but even with its target upped to 1,499, that's still only 1.9 percent of its stock.
I can't believe that would have any discernible effect on the affordability of market housing. Such small changes are lost in the ups and downs of the market and there are other factors in play.
Affordability is affected by the national economy. Just remember the change between 2007 and 2010. Local economic changes can have a big effect too.
And we don't live in the Middle Ages any more. Today's mortgage serfs can choose which manor they live in. If Aylesbury Vale's housing did appear to get more affordable as a result of long-term building then more people would move there and the Invisible Hand of the Market would throttle any benefit.
So the new system has nothing to do with need and little or nothing to do with markets or affordability.
Whether it will do anything to head off the gathering criticism of the Government's pursuit of unsustainable house building is open to question. But it isn't obvious.
Mightier minds than mine will examine the new proposals in more detail. But sadly, we remain as enmired in Dumb Growth as ever.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 September 2017

 

Forever, For Everyone

Defending the environment for everyone, forever, is a pretty big ambition but that, at its most basic, is what sustainability means. But challenges do not come any bigger than promising things to everyone, forever.
That ambition is, of course, what drives the National Trust and has done for more than 100 years now. But it does potentially detonate some very big debates.
An AGM voting form arrived from the Trust this week, inviting me to vote on two important and complex environmental issues.
Firstly, there's to be a vote on whether the Trust should allow hunting with hounds on its land and, secondly, whether it should oppose the Government's plans to put the A303 in a tunnel near Stonehenge.
I can't think of a Smart Growth angle on the hunting debate and people will no doubt have their own views, but the Stonehenge issue cuts to the heart of what the Trust is about and raises some key environmental issues that we cannot run away from forever.
The proposal, you will remember, is to put the A303 trunk road into a 2.9km tunnel where it passes Stonehenge. This follows 30 years of attempts by the Government to turn all of the A303 into a dual-carriageway.
Much of the road is now high-standard dual-carriageway, but a long section around the monument remains a bottleneck. A group of Trust members is sponsoring a vote at the AGM on reversing the Trust Board of Trustees' support for this short tunnel.
They argue the tunnel would only protect part of the World Heritage Site, would do serious damage to other parts of it and threatens to so damage the WHS, it could jeopardize its status. They point out other conservation bodies are opposing the tunnel and that the Trust's reputation could be compromised by support for the 1.4 billion pound scheme.
The Trust's Board, however, recommends rejection of the motion, arguing the WHS is severed by the existing trunk road and that it took 30 years of argument to get the Government to reject still more damaging schemes. It is pushing further amendments to the 2.9km tunnel scheme and says the longer tunnel favoured by some would push up the cost to two billion pounds. It says this alternative could also impact on other archaeological monuments.
There is no doubt this part of Wiltshire is one of the worlds most important archaeological zones. There is no doubt too that a trunk road crossing it is a seriously discordant element and that any scheme of work would seriously damage important archaeology.
But the narrow frame of the debate ignores the much bigger issues raised by the road widening proposal.
The A303 was built from Basingstoke to Honiton in the 1930s to relieve congestion on the A30 trunk road at summer weekends as people got in their Austin 7s and Morris 8s and headed for the West Country. It is one of the finest examples in the UK of the way road building utterly fails to reduce congestion. Its inevitable consequence is to stimulate traffic and accelerate congestion everywhere.
The mad road builders of the 1930s were prepared to sacrifice delicate landscapes like Salisbury Plain and the Blackdown Hills for new highways in the name of congestion relief. But the A30 remains congested and because most of the A303 is now dual-carriageway, stretches such as that round Andover are lined with the usual housing estates, distribution complexes and out-of-town shopping that road building facilitates in unsustainable locations.
Of course the real reason a heavily indebted country wants to waste more than a billion pounds on a couple of miles of dual-carriageway has nothing to do with protecting a World Heritage Site. The justification for frittering away cash urgently needed for, say, reopening key rail links in South West England, is to save motorists' journey times and to stimulate economic and housing growth in the South West.
There are certainly one or two bits of the South West which need regeneration and the region has the usual desperate need for social housing. But neither of those would be secured by widening the A303. All that would do is to encourage car commuters and lorry-based distributors in southern central England to further increase their journeys and greenhouse gas emissions and encourage further unsustainable development in the South West.
That, I'm afraid, is the big environmental issue here. Yes, there's certainly a big conservation issue around the site's archaeological importance and it's beyond belief that anyone would propose a dual-carriageway across a WHS, even partly in a tunnel.
But the big issue is not just that the A303 is in the wrong place, which it is, but that it's already carrying far too much traffic. The Trust could be addressing these big issues, not getting bogged down in debates over the best way to trash a World Heritage Site.
Of course the Board knows elements within the Trust's huge membership are likely to be frightened by anything radical. It got its fingers badly burned over the issue of its LGBT badges and volunteers' reluctance to wear them.
But, as I write, Hurricane Harvey has flooded Texas, Hurricane Irma is smashing Florida and Jose is following up. Unprecedented forest fires and floods have damaged vast areas of the planet and every year it gets worse.
This isn't the Day After Tomorrow. Destructive climate change is here today and it's only going to get worse. And it's everybody's drive to work, weekend air trip somewhere, lorry distribution depot and all the rest of it.
Catastrophic climate change is coming and time is rapidly running out to prevent it. It is a deluded fantasy to be still discussing how to expand roads and airports.
A few years back the Trust dipped a toe in the Smart Growth water and then anxiously drew back when a new director-general got cold feet.
But the coming climate emergency is something no organisation dare ignore. Road building can only exacerbate it.
And that really will affect everyone, forever.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 10 September 2017

 

Location, Location

Forthcoming building works at the Palace of Westminster have prompted many commentators to propose relocating Parliament, temporarily or permanently, somewhere its inhabitants would have to face some of the very real problems other parts of the UK endure.
Where it would go is a bigger issue. Scotland and Wales already enjoy democratically elected assemblies and so might Northern Ireland again one day. Which leaves poor old democratic-deficit England, but it does contain many attractive places where Parliament could be moved far away from the asset-sucking capital to a region that actually needs it.
The town which claims to be the geographical centre of the UK, or Great Britain at any rate, is Haltwhistle in Northumberland. It's a grand little town, parts of which were literally built out of history from the stones on Hadrian's Wall. Maybe, however, it is a bit small for Parliament.
But it does make the point that the UK would be best represented somewhere in its actual centre, and the Sunderland-Gateshead-Newcastle-Carlisle axis and its surroundings offers many opportunities for such relocation.
Interestingly, my friend Allan Dare suggested in the paper yesterday that not only should we move Parliament but, to make it effective, we should move Whitehall as well.
He points out the wretched decision to can the Midland Mainline electrification would never have happened had the Department of Transport been based in an East Midlands city.
What a happy suggestion. It doesn't take long to start speculating where appropriate places for each department could be.
First up, of course, would be HM Treasury and that should surely go to one of the places where its economic genius has failed to generate the sort of buoyant economy ministers like to imagine.
Gateshead would be an obvious place, a chance to see at first-hand how industries survive in a hostile climate. And proximity to the HMRC offices at Long Benton shows Civil Service life is at least possible outside the M25.
DEFRA could be moved somewhere seriously threatened by inadequate flood or sea defences or where agriculture is being overwhelmed by bricks and mortar. DCLG, likewise, could be moved to the middle of one of the sprawling greenfield housing estates it is promoting, far from adequate infrastructure, public transport or any sort of urban vibe.
A so-called garden town perhaps.
The MoD could go somewhere defence cuts have hit hard, the Ministry of Justice to a high-crime area and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to a former coalfield community where it could examine the effects of policies for business, energy and industrial strategy closely.
You get the idea.
The idea will probably send shudders through some senior officials appalled at separation from Pall Mall or Harvey Nicks. But it's decades overdue.
Perhaps the biggest problem will be where to put the Department for Exiting the European Union.
One wag has suggested Crossmaglen or Strabane, where it could get up close and personal to forthcoming border problems.
But I can't help feeling the best place would be the Goodwin Sands. There it could watch Europe disappearing from view twice every day.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 06 September 2017

 

Objectivity

I got a bit of criticism a few years back for comparing, in my book, the New Labour Sustainable Communities Plan to what Voltaire said about the Holy Roman Empire. You know, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor indeed an empire.
I fear much the same is true over the concept of Objectively Assessed Need for house building, imposed on English planning in 2012 by the NPPF, and now causing ministers obliged to follow Treasury orders on accelerating greenfield sprawl sleepless nights as restless backbenchers and constituents increasingly realise how mad even current policies are.
Let alone more of same.
There is nothing objective about assessing demand for market homes based on trends which become meaningless whenever the economy changes gear. And it certainly doesn't bear any relationship to need, which is for social housing and housing the elderly, neither of which is likely to figure very prominently.
Subjectively Guessed Profitability might be nearer the mark.
So, with the Conservative Conference less than four weeks away, Sajid Javid might be advised to think twice about imposing an even more environmentally destructive new policy on OAN this month, as current press reports are suggesting.
For it's a hung Parliament, and ministers actually have to listen to those restless back-benchers for once. And they aren't just reflecting restless local Conservatives. Believe me, this gathering tide of anger cuts right across the political spectrum. Millions of people are concerned.
So here are a few ideas for genuinely tackling our housing problems, and indeed building more of the right homes in the right places.
1. Restore genuine regional policies to push jobs to parts of the country where there are plenty of people waiting to do them and homes to accommodate them.
2. Have a genuine look at actual housing need and compare it with the stock we've got.
3. Stop squandering scarce housing land on low-density housing just because developers find it most profitable and because some commentators still cherish long-discredited garden city dreams. Our current building densities are ruinously low and produce anonymous suburbs, not robust communities.
4. Stop increasing greenhouse gas emissions by forcing major greenfield developments on places remote from rail-based public transport networks. We need transit-oriented-development which locates them predominantly within existing conurbations, not more car-dependency.
5. Stop increasing greenhouse gas emissions by road building. Transfer the investment to the rail network, giving priority to urban rail schemes and rail freight and lower priority to ultra-high-speed inter-urban rail.
Plenty more to do, but that would make a promising start.
And would allow ministers and councils to objectively assess housing need.
A worthwhile objective.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 September 2017

 

There Is A Cure For The Summertime Blues

It could be something of a relief to hear that the Government has decided not to rush into announcing changes on assessing local housing need in England.
Just four weeks ago, communities secretary Sajid Javid said the plans would be announced in July. Then, after some daft ideas were floated in sympathetic newspapers, came an announcement the consultation would not be published until Parliament returns in September.
There is no doubt such assessments need reform. The National Planning Policy Framework has spent five years forcing local authorities to release huge tracts of greenfield land to build the wrong type of homes unsustainably in the wrong places.
Sadly, however, the early leaks suggested the Government wanted to make the situation even worse.
According to the reports, Mr Javid was planning to force councils in areas where house prices were judged too high into freeing up greenfield land to build even more houses. And, according to the Daily Mail, he warned this could even happen in the constituencies of the prime minister and other Cabinet colleagues.
The paper claimed a similar plan had been shelved before the general election. It also claimed to be quoting a civil servant who said Conservative councils need to smell the coffee or there wouldn't be a Conservative Party in the future. Owning your own home is a fundamental part of being a Conservative, the alleged civil servant was quoted as saying.
I seem to remember it was a post-war Conservative government that built record numbers of council houses, but there we are. No doubt today's back-bench MPs are smelling the coffee, checking the lack of a Commons majority for any party and realising there's a lot more to sustainable planning than building lots of market homes in the countryside.
Of course, there are very obvious flaws in the leaked plans. Let's suppose Council A, where property prices are very high, is forced to build even more homes than the NPPF is already forcing on it.
To start with, the tiny percentage so added to its overall housing stock will have little or no discernible influence on house prices. Or, indeed, rents.
Secondly, if it did, people would then start moving to Council A's area from adjoining high price areas, forcing prices back where they were. Actually, minister, people have been allowed to live where they like since the decline of serfdom following the Black Death in 1349.
So, as ministers, and indeed party-political civil servants relax on their holidays, perhaps they might care to reflect that the only way they are really going to address the UK's housing needs effectively would be to adopt Smart Growth principles.
And quietly drop their draft consultation paper in the bin.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 03 August 2017

 

Petrolheads And Other Bright Sparks

It really took no time at all for the wheels to come off the Government plan to reduce roadside nitrogen dioxide in a mere 23 years time.
The plan to end sales of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 certainly grabbed the headlines. It could mean, 40 years from now, there would be few such vehicles on the road. That is, though, on the very dubious assumption they could commit all the Governments of the next four decades to the plan.
Whether it would actually do any good is, however, an even more moot point.
For some time now, Whitehall's petrolheads have been convincing themselves that electric cars are the answer to all the problems caused by more than 30 million petrol and diesel cars we currently impose on the UK environment.
They probably believe that, a few decades hence, electric cars will be able to match hydrocarbon powered vehicles in most, if not all respects.
A petrol car can be refuelled in under five minutes and has a range of at least 400 miles. Electric vehicle recharge times are certainly coming down and mileages going up. They can be recharged in an hour or two and most can now do 100 miles on a full charge, some more.
But that 100 miles or so is on a fine summer's day. Travel on a winter's night, with the headlamps on and the heater banging away, and it comes down dramatically.
Such vehicles are able to carry out many of the roles today's cars do. But not all.
Electricity has to be generated somewhere, of course. Currently around half our electricity comes from fossil fuels, mostly now imported gas, so an electric vehicle is far from carbon free.
In time that proportion will drop and be replaced by a combination of renewables and nuclear. Shifting the energy required by our car fleet from oil to electricity would place a massive new demand on our generating capacity whose shortfalls over the coming years are already causing alarm. So extra capacity would be needed, almost certainly more nuclear power stations. Opinions vary on the safety of nuclear power, but even if it is judged safe, it is going to be much more expensive than today's power.
And then there would have to be a significant beefing up of our power grid, to allow people to charge their cars anywhere and everywhere. More disruption and expense.
But, proponents claim, electric vehicles will at least have zero local emissions. Alas not. The penny is starting to drop that a major source of the particulate emissions from vehicles which cause so much ill-health and mortality is not tailpipe emissions, but particles shed by brakes and tyres.
And, as vehicles become quieter, noise emissions from tyres become more significant. Electric vehicles are heavier than petrol, so all these emissions will be higher.
Modern batteries are complex things and require a variety of metals, including some which are rare, imported and involve huge quantities of fossil energy and waste to produce.
All in all, electric cars are very far from being the environmental free lunch politicians imagine.
But this is not some argument for retaining the petrol-powered status quo. What we need is a move to active travel and public transport and a concentration of development in existing conurbations.
Yet politicians across the spectrum are terrified of upsetting what used to be called Mondeo Man and it's certainly true that, as a nation, we are besotted with our cars.
But they're expensive beasts and, as petrol inevitably gets more expensive in the years to come, travelling by car is going to take more and more of our disposable income
Indeed, one of the factors driving people back into the cities and away from garden suburbs in the United States is the rising cost of driving to work, even though petrol is much cheaper over there. So far, however, the very high transport cost involved in the UK's dispersed and car-dependent living patterns has been a challenge few are yet willing to address.
Marooning people in remote greenfield settlements is a sure way, in the years to come, of condemning them to poverty, however.
This is something Smart Growth campaigners in the US are very clear about.
Here, our transport and planning policies are increasingly returning to the craziness of the 1960s. Richard Beeching, Ernie Marples, Tom Fraser, we honour your memory.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 July 2017

 

A Name Or A Retraction

Politics is a funny business, but somehow I cannot see young people singing Oh Sajid Javid at the tops of their voices the way some have begun serenading the Labour leader.
But a Sunday newspaper is claiming the communities secretary is a convert to those wanting to bash the rich and ensure homes are made available for young people. Definitely a big change of direction.
Definitely, possibly, maybe anyway if you happen to believe the Mail on Sunday.
If you can give any credence to an article in the paper, Theresa May is declaring war on us NIMBYs and apparently backing plans by Mr Javid to build 300,000 homes a year.
And neither politician will brook any opposition apparently, even from Conservative councils in areas like Maidenhead, the prime minister's own constituency. Because, the paper claims, failure to do so will drive young voters who can't afford to buy into the arms of Mr Corbyn.
This La La Land could only exist in the minds of one of our weirder tabloid papers. It is so far adrift of the real world, you wonder if NASA has helped it go to another planet.
If claims about building 300,000 homes a year in a country whose house building industry much prefers to reap the profits of land speculation to actually building out the planning consents they have helped torture local planning authorities into providing weren't enough, however, the paper then strays into a parallel universe.
At least I hope it's a parallel universe. If its not, there's a real problem.
It quotes an unnamed Whitehall official as saying Mr Javid will target councils who lie about the scale of housing need in their areas.
Well, some of the people who have been heavily involved in the five-year campaign of fantasy local house building needs are Whitehall officials, though builders and property consultants have happily signed up to the mendacious drivel that flows from so-called objectively assessed housing needs assessments and the rest of the stuff imposed by the NPPF.
The official, if they exist, didn't have the courage to give their name, but was nevertheless quoted as saying Whitehall is not prepared to let councils lie about the housing crisis to protect NIMBYs.
Lying about the housing crisis is pretty popular, and Whitehall is far from immune.
Bizarrely, however, the supposedly above-politics official then says that owning your own home is a fundamental part of being a Conservative. And that if a whole generation of young people cannot afford to do that, he or she is then directly quoted as saying we can't complain if they vote Labour.
This is quite astonishing. The paper attributes this, an actual quote, to a Government Official, a civil servant in fact.
It is not the job of civil servants to complain if people vote one way or another. Once they do, democracy is in serious trouble. If they really did say it they should resign immediately
The article's problem with the truth then continues with an assertion that Mr Javid is proposing to force town halls in affluent areas to build more homes.
That is not proposing, it's simply continuing to do exactly what Whitehall has done in England since the NPPF was imposed in 2012. All councils are forced to give up land, mostly greenfield, to fantasy levels of housing consents, whether there is any real local demand or not.
And the type of market homes that get built tend to do little for those in genuine housing need. Nor does the tiny percentage they add to the overall housing stock do anything to bring down house prices.
The unnamed official was then quoted as saying that, from now on, council leaders, who include many Conservatives who should know better, are going to have to start telling the truth.
Well, let's have some truth. If the paper was telling the truth and this really was a civil servant, let's have their name.
And if it wasn't, we'd like to hear exactly what the Government is proposing.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 17 July 2017

 

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

For quite a long time now, more than a century actually, garden cities and their spin-offs have been regarded as the acme of good planning. Regarded, that is, by the garden city movement itself.
Sadly, thanks to its laudable role in the creation of the planning profession, the movement has been able to persuade many others that it is the spiritual guardian of good planning.
As a result, many unacquainted with the ins and outs of planning accept the movement's view that one of the finest, if not the finest, objective of planning is the creation of new garden cities and garden suburbs.
I was reminded of this again by a newly published House of Commons briefing paper entitled Garden Cities, Towns and Villages.
This spends 17 pages examining the history of the garden city movement and the current proposals for new low-density sprawl developments of this type.
It notes on page 7 that there is disagreement about how new towns or garden cities should be delivered and whether there basis should be public sector support or public investment. But not, however, whether they should be delivered.
The MPs and peers have to wait until the 18th and final page to discover the whole concept involves controversies, problems and dissent.
There, it notes criticisms by Lord Rogers and the Campaign to Protect Rural England who call for the alternative focus on brownfield land. And it's a relief to note it finally cites Smart Growth UK's report Garden Towns and Villages, Unwanted, Unnecessary and Unsustainable.
But it's hard to understand why mention of the opposition had to wait for page 18.
The same underlying belief in the moral force of garden cities is apparent in the grandly named Raynsford Review of Planning set up by the current custodian of the garden city flame, the TCPA. Over the next 18 months this will probe how to make the English planning system fairer, better resourced and capable of producing quality outcomes, while still encouraging the production of new homes.
Laudable objectives all, and the TCPA has assembled a task force of eminent people to assist its chair, former housing minister Nick Raynsford. But Mr Raynsford is president of the TCPA and the task force includes other people with a close commitment to the garden city ethos. True, it also includes CPRE's interim chief executive, but he will have plenty to do to keep the Review on track.
The Review is supposed to set out a blueprint and a vision for a new English planning system rather than specifying what its outcomes are supposed to be, but the garden city obsession has managed to seep in anyway. The Call for Evidence asks many important questions, then sneaks in one about the role of new towns legislation in meeting housing needs. That's about outcomes, not processes.
So then, an important and timely inquiry, but one which at least raises concerns about who is asking the questions.
There are, of course, Smart Growth approaches to many of the questions the Review seeks answers to. It must be asked, therefore, whether Smart Growth UK should submit evidence.
Please let me know if you think it should.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 July 2017

 

Key Infrastructure Challenges

National Infrastructure Commission chairman Lord Adonis has been setting out his 12 immediate infrastructure priorities on which ministers, he instructs, must make rapid progress, whatever the current political realities.
What a bizarrely mixed list he proposes.
His Commission, it may be remembered, is supposed to concentrate on northern connectivity, London transport and energy. Just recently, however, it's got embroiled in further overheating the Oxford-Cambridge corridor with infrastructure to support sprawl.
Lord A's list doesn't wholly ignore the three priorities, but he is certainly off-target. Crossrail 2 might help London's transport and HS3 might help northern connectivity, while flexible power systems, broadband and water and flood defence are certainly worthwhile.
But bizarrely, the list not only includes the laudable decarbonisation of energy, but the massively carbon-increasing Heathrow Third Runway and the East London River Crossing. These reduce the list from the interesting to the absurd.
Well let's suppose for a moment Lord Smartgrowth were made chair of the Commission and were allowed to recommend the top 12 infrastructure projects.
Resisting the urge to fill all 12 slots with light rail projects, it might look something like this.
1. Decarbonisation of energy, including renewables.
2. Flood and sea defences.
3. A national water grid.
4. A light rail system for Leeds and Bradford.
5. A light rail system for Portsmouth and Southampton.
6. A light rail system for Bristol and Bath.
7. A light rail system for London.
8. A light rail system for Belfast.
9. A trans-Pennine rail freight route.
10. Reopening of the Exeter-Okehampton-Plymouth rail link.
11. Electrification of all remaining non-electrified main lines
12. Trunk rail freight routes from the Channel Tunnel to the north and Wales.
Actually, once you start thinking out of the high-carbon box, there are hundreds of major schemes which would help prepare us for the future. I'm sure you could come up with your own lists.
I keep adding to mine and it doesn't look at all like the one prepared by Lord Adonis. Maybe you could come up with one.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 June 2017

 

The Right Homes In The Right Places

Six days of debate were promised on the Government programme set out in the Queens Speech and, out of a sense of duty, I read through the discussions of housing and social care on 22 June.
I hope I saved you the trouble, because little of it was very edifying. Despite a background of near-zero social home construction, homelessness, unaffordability and endless construction of low-density, car-dependent sprawl in the wrong places, MPs queued up to make party political points and evade the main issues.
Outside politics, however, people are beginning to say it's time to build the right homes in the right places. Amen to that.
So, rather than summarize the debate, I thought I'd have an initial stab at a housing manifesto for the Sensible Party. You're a member of that, by the way.
It's very much a few initial thoughts and it needs refining and adding to. But it's time we began this debate.
It isn't a Housing White Paper, more a Housing White Screen. Perhaps we should call it Fixing Our Broken Housing Policy.
Here it is.
1. Build homes for the people who need them. The Government's own projections say 74 percent of growth in households in England will be over-65s and most of the rest will be single people. There is no reason to think the rest of the UK is significantly different. But the rhetoric, backed by policy, remains building market homes for young families.
2. Build homes for the people who can't afford them. Under successive governments, building of socially rented housing has collapsed to almost zero. A growing percentage of the population can neither afford to buy nor to rent in the private sector. Homelessness and rough sleeping are growing.
3. Stop forcing people to try to move where the jobs are and go back to moving jobs where the people are.
4. Restore brownfield-first to housing policy. This wouldn't stop homes being built, it wouldn't even totally prevent greenfield homes being built. It would merely encourage homes to be built in the right places.
5. Restore minimum density standards for home building. That builders are allowed to squander our scarce building land because they find building as few, not as many, houses on a given plot most profitable is a national disgrace. This doesn't mean high-rise, it means traditional urban densities.
6. Ensure major housing developments are transit-oriented. That means more than just ensuring they're within 800m of a railway station. It means giving them access to rail-based urban transit networks. Major developments more than 800m from transit should not be allowed
7. Concentrate the majority of residential development within the footprint of major conurbations.
8. Reform England's National Planning Policy Framework and the planning policies of the devolved administrations to incorporate Smart Growth principles.
9. Create a system under which greenfield developers would pay for reclamation of brownfield land.
10. Protect and enhance old buildings and use them as a catalyst for regeneration.
11. Enforce standards of design that really do respect local traditions.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 23 June 2017

 

The Times Have Become Interesting

Just when you thought that politics had become predictable, even a first-past-the-post electoral system manages to throw up a result to surprise everyone. Interesting times indeed.
And even though the new Government looks superficially like the old, despite the addition of Democratic Unionist Party supporters, don't be deceived, things have changed. This is a very different House of Commons even from the 2015 one which gave the Conservatives only a slender majority.
Whether you can't wait for Brexit or you share Lord Heseltine's view that it's a cancer at the heart of the Conservative Party, the issue is likely to continue to dominate, but that doesn't mean other policies aren't going to change.
One question is whether the DUP has any influence over planning policy on the eastern side of the Irish Sea. In Northern Ireland the Party has pursued a very laissez-faire approach to planning and has fought for things like out-of-town shopping and building in scenic areas. But, of course, English planning policy will probably remain an area where the Conservatives will hope to retain some measure of control.
So the fate of the housing white paper will be interesting. Its promoter, Gavin Barwell, lost his Commons seat but returns as chief of staff at Downing Street.
The white paper itself made some very modest concessions towards a more sustainable planning, but the operative word there is modest. It barely touched the full sprawl-promoting rigour of the NPPF's provisions on housing.
But there are tough times for this country ahead and even Brexit's most ardent supporters agree it creates a need to change the way we do things.
Two seldom-mentioned but pressing issues as we cut ourselves off from Europe are our supplies of food and oil. We are self-sufficient in neither and obtaining both presents challenges for a heavily indebted country.
It makes absolutely no sense for a country with a rising population that imports more than a third of its food to build on its farmland.
This must stop and can be stopped, while still meeting our housing needs. We simply have to drop the low-density sprawl approach and adopt Smart Growth approaches. It can be done.
It makes absolutely no sense either to go on increasing the amount of oil we consume, and the greenhouse gases we emit, by building new roads. They don't solve congestion, they increase it. Happily here's a Smart Growth policy that will save Philip Hammond tens of billions of pounds.
And, just as in America in response to the Administration's climate change policies, here is an opportunity for a local voice to make itself heard.
An unstable and divided House of Commons will need calm, measured and constructive voices from outside.
This is an opportunity, not a threat.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 June 2017

 

Corridor Vision

One of the oddities of the garden city movement is its obsession with the northern Home Counties and the south-east Midlands.
Perhaps this is because the area was the location of its only two garden cities and the first of the new towns they spawned, at Stevenage. Or perhaps it's because the movement's Holy City of Milton Keynes was dumped there, on the bizarre grounds that it was half way between London and Birmingham.
Happily, MK's former assertion that one day all cities will be like Milton Keynes has been lost to history. Today, no-one in their right mind would build a new city at ruinously low densities, acutely car-dependent and on productive farmland, though sprawl continues to destroy greenfield land in endless garden suburbs.
In recent times, however, the obsession with this part of England has morphed into what's now called the Oxford-Cambridge Corridor, or O2C for the less literate amongst us.
It has even recently gained the attention of that dismal quango, the National Infrastructure Commission, which has evidently forgotten it is supposed to concentrate on northern connectivity, London transport and energy. It's also supposed to foster sustainable economic growth but has evidently decided to place its bets instead on an overheated area that is vigorously sucking much-needed growth away from the rest of the country.
The dismal trend of international technology companies to locate their UK operations in places which have Oxford or Cambridge in their postal addresses whether they have any connection with the universities or not, as if the majority of cutting-edge technological research didn't happen elsewhere, is an unfortunate and unnecessary fact of life. It means those two cities and their surrounding countryside are under intense pressure to accommodate housing and employment growth which could, and should, be sustainably located in the areas that actually need one or the other.
I was reminded of the obsession with this part of England in an article in April's Town and Country Planning magazine by the distinguished planning consultant and garden city guru, David Lock.
Professor Lock lauds the Commission for its recent work on the Corridor which, a bit like Herr Hitler's plans for the Danzig Corridor which came to encompass most of Poland, has apparently expanded to include swathes of Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. He calls it a millipede, with many legs.
While even Professor Lock admits this geographical spread is too big to make one plan for, he demands creation of a small team of experienced persons with Sharp Elbows and an appreciation of the Long Term Mission to push it.
That mission apparently includes a new Oxford-Cambridge dual carriageway, with the result that carbon emissions from the inevitable low-density greenfield sprawl would be as high as possible.
The Commission's vision for the Corridor evidently enshrines that dangerously seductive national economic strategy called Backing Winners. It says Oxford and Cambridge have the UK's highest productivity, highest proportion of citizens holding NVQ4 and above, two of the five top-ranked world universities, 3,000 technology firms and 30-year population growths between 20 and 30 percent.
And to remind us that climate change concerns count for little when pursuing what's called Sustainable Economic Growth, the Commission breathlessly points out that the Corridor also hosts the UK's nine billion pound motor sport industry. Poop-poop.
You might have thought the Commission's recognition that house prices in Oxford and Cambridge are second only to London's would be a good reason for shifting economic development to conurbations where the great majority of UK scientific research is done.
But no, motorways and sprawl are the answer because, apparently, lack of sufficient and suitable housing for the technocrats presents a fundamental risk to the success of the area. The fundamental risk to the rest of the national economy that comes from backing winners in this way doesn't matter, it seems.
So maybe it's time we all sharpened our elbows and began fighting for the economy of the rest of the country. And stopped pumping O2 into O2C.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 May 2017

 

Come On, Be Regional

One of the things that emerged from our new report on garden towns and villages is just how desperate it has become for the incoming government, whoever that is, to address regional disparities in both local economies and local housing needs.

One of the most important things planning does is to try to match local housing supply to local economic needs. In a well-balanced economy, that would mean any big new development would need to blend new houses with new employment space. And such objectives appears in most of the proposals for garden towns and villages.

But we don't remotely have a well-balanced economy. It would be really crude to say the north needs jobs while the south needs homes because that's only true at all in England, rather than the rest of the UK, and even in England there are huge local variations. But nevertheless, anyone who travels around the UK will know just how different things are.

In parts of southern England, for instance, there are big skill shortages and only the better off can afford to buy a home, or even, in extreme cases, rent one. But in many of the former industrial areas like northern England, south Wales, central Scotland etc., decent houses can be bought for five-figure sums, but jobs are hard to find.

This isn't a failure of the planning system. Planners do what they can in their local areas. It's been a long-term failure of central government. That's been true under successive governments, let it be noted, as we're being determinedly non-party-political, especially with an election pending.

The Town and Country Planning Association has rightly spent years calling for a national spatial plan to address these inequalities which would ensure a better balance of work and home across the nation. Now, if the Association could only transfer the energy of its damaging garden city campaign to that cause, how beneficial that would be.

Politicians of all parties, meanwhile, direct their housing policies to calls for building what are called Family Homes, allegedly to make it cheaper for young families to buy (or more recently to rent) their own homes. As a parent I'm sure that's a laudable aim.

But look at the actual figures. These demonstrate that it's not families who form the new households. No less than 74 percent of the projected growth in households is over-65s and nearly all of the rest is single people. The actual demand for family homes is either static or declining.

But we aren't shaping our housing policy to deal with the type of housing that elderly people need, nor for impecunious young single people nor single parents. What many single people and single parents, not to mention a vast number of impecunious families, need is social housing somewhere in an existing town where there are jobs and good public transport.

What elderly people need is more complex. It's very easy for us older people to be seduced into imagining we need a vast great house and garden miles from the shops/doctor/hospital etc.. I also know, after looking after aged parents and parents-in-law that this is dangerous and can all go to pot very quickly. We need an urgent national debate on how best to house elderly people and I suspect the implications of that terrify politicians. They much prefer to pretend they are passionately concerned with young voters, sorry, families.

I quite accept that house prices for first-time-buyers are too high in parts of the country, though equally there are parts of the country where the housing market is near collapse and you can't give them away.

But the argument that politicians like to use that building lots more houses would bring down prices at all is a very cruel fallacy. As long ago as 2005, when these policies were being formulated, the Treasury's Barker Steering Group was told by its own experts that, however many houses you build, it would have no discernible effect on prices for at least 10 years and even then, only marginally. The reason is that the number of houses you can physically build adds only a minute proportion to the overall housing stock, so its effects are minimal.

A cynic might jest that a far more effective way of bringing down house prices would be to let the banks invest money they don't actually own in junk financial derivatives and plunge the country into generational debt. That brought prices down sharply in 2008 and it looks today rather as if we're teetering towards a similar credit binge, whatever the effects of Brexit. But, on the whole, I'd rate it a very poor way of making housing affordable.

As set out in the Better Way chapter of our garden towns and villages report, we urgently need to do several things, but perhaps the most important is regional policy.

It makes no sense to build a garden town or village in an area of high house prices and then to include substantial employment space within it. It might be good theoretical planning, but those new employees also need homes and they will simply add more pressure to local housing. It may sound heretical, but some parts of southern England actually have, in one sense, too many jobs. They can't house all the employees they need.

Yet economic growth policies keep piling into investment the growth areas of southern England. Meanwhile former industrial areas are full of homes including very nice houses for five-figure sums. Many are full of brownfield sites too. And they're crying out for those jobs as there have plenty of people to fill them. There are many such areas.

For those of us who live in southern England, it's easy to assume the whole country is like this, but it's not. I guess the greater part of the country needs jobs rather than homes. But I don't hear much, if any, political debate about that from any party.

Of course we need to build some houses in the south and some of these would have to go on greenfield sites, but only once the local brownfield sites are used. Englands 2012 National Planning Policy Framework abandoned brownfield-first which secured this. Contrary to what house builders say, it didn't stop greenfield. But the system we now have actively militates against brownfield use (and there are many parts of the country like north-west England where it's plentiful). What we now have is, in effect, greenfield-first.

Equally it makes no sense to build a garden village, with thousands of homes, in a northern town where the housing market is near collapse.

How Brexit will affect the regional balance remains to be seen. Optimists believe it will revive British industry, possibly at the expense of London's financial services. Pessimists believe the hit to our exports and financial performance will just create further damage in depressed areas.

But either way, we desperately need effective regional policies, not just fine words.

Hello, politicians, you should be listening.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 May 2017

 

Garden Towns And Villages - Unwanted, Unnecessary And Unsustainable

The garden towns and villages approved by the Government are supposed to have enormous potential to deliver homes, bring jobs and boost local economies. They are also supposed to enjoy community support.
A new report from Smart Growth UK, however, shows just how wide of the mark ministers' ambitions are and how misguided are the local authorities who have bought into the scheme.
The report examines the plans for 10 garden towns and 14 garden villages and finds them desperately wanting in a wide variety of ways.
Garden towns are supposed to be transformative, but most are simply collections of urban extensions with little or no relationship to one another, bundled up and pretending to be communities.
Only three of the garden villages, meanwhile, get anywhere near DCLG's stipulation that they should be discrete settlements.
Few of the proposals would make much, or any, use of brownfield land but all are low-density sprawl with transport links which are universally dependent on the private car.
A few have a railway station somewhere near, but nowadays we know it takes much more than a single station to avoid most journeys being made by car. The very low densities militate against walking and cycling and ensure that few of them would enjoy much more sustainable transport than low-frequency bus services.
Even in the highly unlikely event that all of them went ahead, they would be unable to generate more than 10,000 homes a year, a tiny fraction of what the Government believes to be necessary. And those commitments to include employment space mean the ones in areas of high employment would do even less to meet local housing shortages, as they would attract employees from elsewhere.
Meanwhile the two garden villages in areas where the economy is weak would simply further damage failing local housing markets.
Most SGUK reports in the past have worked with national organisations to compile them. This time our report followed work with some of the local groups opposing garden towns and villages on the ground.
Many communities are fighting greenfield development and, of course, garden towns and villages represent a tiny proportion of the flood of it presently afflicting our land. But they come armed with a lot of moralizing and green-wash from their promoters and are very much the shock troops of the sprawl movement.
Opposition to them is powerful and well-reasoned, but is being comprehensively ignored by Whitehall and the handful of councils who have fallen in with this programme.
Crimes against the environment, however, are not victimless crimes. These communities will not give up without a fight.



Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 May 2017

 

Party Time For Politicians

As you may have noticed from the wall-to-wall politics on your TV or in your newspaper, there are elections pending.
It would have been nice, of course, if all this coverage and interest were devoted to the forthcoming local elections, but it took a general election to get people widely engaged.
We get the word politics from the Greek for citizenship, though the Romans got in the etymological act too with their affairs of the city. And beyond the responsibilities of citizens and urban affairs, these days we have to include the countryside whose importance may just be creeping up the political agenda.
These are central to our concerns, but non-governmental organisations and coalitions, including Smart Growth UK, have to tread carefully at election time. We cannot avoid being political, for citizenship and the affairs of the Polis are what we're all about, but we must avoid being party-political.
Fortunately Smart Growth attracts support across the political spectrum, reflecting its origins in the USA, where Democrats and Republicans alike are supporters. And so it should remain.
NGOs are certainly taking the opportunity of a general election to advance their non-party political cause. The manifestos published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Town and Country Planning Association show what I mean.
CPRE's manifesto calls on all parties to include six commitments in their own manifestos. No mention of Smart Growth sadly, but the Campaign does call for investment in urban regeneration, smarter travel, farming and recycling, disinvestment in road building and transposition of EU environmental law into national.
Perhaps surprisingly, CPRE's current appeal for funds for lobbying against over-inflated housing targets didn't make it into the manifesto, but perhaps that could look a bit partyish. The Campaign restricts itself to calling for stronger protection for green belts, national parks and AONBs.
The obvious reflection is to wonder why they are highlighting just such a small proportion of our countryside and not the bulk of it which is not so designated. Of course CPRE has particular affection for green belts, having helped create them. But the bulk of the current greenfield sprawl flood is hitting areas not so protected, like south Hampshire which has never enjoyed a green belt.
The TCPA manifesto goes one better, with seven calls. It says the existing planning system is in crisis, deregulated, under-resourced and lacking clear national vision. Amen to that.
Its seven recommendations include more social housing, community well-being, a community planning act, a national spatial plan, repairing the damage done by the NPPF, land value capture and a royal commission on climate change resilience. Amen to all of them too.
But then they go and spoil it all with a call for a new generation of garden cities and a stronger New Towns Act. It's that garden city philosophy that has undermined so much sustainable planning and needlessly destroyed so much of our countryside for a century now.
That is, I'm afraid, a political point, as well as an environmental, economic and social one. But it's not a party-political one.
Just one that politicians of all parties would do well to ponder.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 27 April 2017

 

We Are The Moderates Now

We live at a time when our political and economic systems have become dangerously unstable.
Many of our political parties are in turmoil, the international situation is grave, demagoguery is replacing democracy. Growing numbers now question the neo-liberal economic system which has dominated for more than 30 years and which continues to concentrate the world's wealth in a tiny and shrinking minority but it seems invincible.
Politicians appear unable to agree on moderate ways forward. Few economists suggest viable alternatives to neo-liberalism and none seems able to suggest a realistic way of getting there from here.
Everywhere there are accusations of extremism. Everyone accuses everyone else of it. We are, apparently, all extremists now.
Yet it's still galling to be labelled an extremist for questioning the 100 year UK development paradigm of low-density, car-dependent, greenfield garden suburbs. Some still argue that ministers who tinker with Eric Pickles' vision of a grey and suburban land by throwing a few tiny crumbs towards brownfield development are the voice of moderation.
But they're not. Those who continue to support the vision of the Treasury neo-liberal fanatics by tearing up our planning system in favour of greenwash and sprawl, even tinkered with a bit, are the extremists.
Smart Growth, based as it is on international best practice on compact, functional development and sustainable transport, may be powerfully at odds with Government policy.
But it's them who are the extremists. We are the moderates.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 April 2017

 

These Dangers Are Real And Threaten You!

The time may have come to stop pussyfooting around when we warn about the dangers of catastrophic climate change and let people know the real horrors that lie ahead.
With extreme weather events now almost a daily occurrence somewhere on the planet, Arctic sea ice melting at unprecedented rates and yet another Warmest Year on Record, you might have thought this was obvious.
But Rebecca Willis' new research with the Green Alliance and Lancaster University is very revealing. It shows how politicians speak about climate change as an economic and technical issue and neglect its human and social dimensions.
They are selective in using scientific evidence and make little mention of abrupt or irreversible change. They appear to be trying to tame the issue to secure political acceptability, but soothing the public like this effectively precludes the radical responses needed.
The voices the public are listening about air pollution, however, aren't remotely soothing, let alone technical. A case in point was the Daily Mail's front page which screamed this week that Theresa May would be protecting the owners of diesel cars.
Well I'm sure the prime minister has weightier things on her mind than protecting Daily Mail readers' freedom to poison their children and themselves. But it's symptomatic of the pussyfooting approach to things like diesel vehicle pollution. We have a tiger of climate change denial by the tail.
Some three and a half decades ago, I worked on a public inquiry into banning heavy lorries in London. The night and weekend ban that ensued was eventually undermined by the abolition of the Greater London Council, but one of the controversial things the inquiry did raise even then was the issue that diesel exhausts could be carcinogenic. I particularly remember that as I'm proud to say I drafted that chapter.
It produced predictable howls from the haulage industry, but we were right and they were wrong and an unknown number of people have died of cancer since then.
Well, people continue to ignore the issue and are buying more diesel cars than ever, despite the testing scandal. Manufacturers continue to flog them as an environmental alternative. The Daily Mail presumably thinks its readers think with their wallets on issues like this.
One particularly alarming feature of the concerns about diesel vehicles is that some commentators who should know better are saying the issue has become more urgent than climate change.
Both dangers are urgent and the really good thing is that we can tackle them both in exactly the same way.
By cutting traffic.
And not pussyfooting around the issue.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 April 2017

 

A Garden Town Languishes

The news of insolvency problems at the vast sprawling Priors Hall Park development somewhere near Corby could be an early sign that the garden towns and garden villages project is already hitting trouble.
Part of the north Northamptonshire so-called garden town, Priors Hall and the other proposed urban extensions that constitute it is, of course, no sort of town at all.
What they are is a loose collection of garden suburbs miles apart with no sort of connection with each other, and little with the towns they're adding low-density greenfield sprawl to.
The BBC report reminds us that the scheme long precedes the current garden towns and villages programme and was simply one dismal result of the passionate pursuit of urban sprawl that local authorities in Northamptonshire have been pushing for years.
In 2010, Priors Hall was supposed to have 5,100 homes and was marketed as North Londonshire, despite having no connection with north London. A vast area of the country has since been trashed to make way for the garden suburb.
Few homes have since arrived, with only 600 built in seven years. But the pictures in the BBC report reveal the scale of devastation involved.
It looks for all the world like a recently abandoned opencast coal site.
One has to ask whether this could mean the whole disastrously unsustainable garden towns and villages project is going to follow the very similar New Labour Eco Towns project into well-deserved oblivion.
Let's hope so. Meanwhile people who should know better continue to argue the programme fulfils the ideals of Ebenezer Howard and represents the very best in planning.
Sadly it represents some of the very worst in planning and should have been buried with the 20th century.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 March 2017

 

Greenfield Every Time

Green belts are much in the news at the moment as campaigners all over the country strive to protect them from the tsunami of unwanted and unnecessary low-density development being forced on them.
But despite this gathering tide of public opinion, you still see Sprawl Lobby practitioners moaning that much of the land protected as green belt is not of high landscape quality. Which only goes to prove what a manipulative bunch they are.
Green belt land was never expected to have high landscape quality. What it is supposed to do is keep land open in perpetuity, for a whole host of reasons. But those profiting from sprawl or, worse still, those ideologically committed to it, seldom worry about misleading the public.
I'm keen to support those protecting green belts. And that's not The Green Belt incidentally. England has 14, Scotland 10, Wales one and Northern Ireland 30. So it's green belts plural.
But please let's remember that green belt designation only protects around 12.4 percent of England, 16 percent of Northern Ireland and smaller percentages of Scotland and Wales. That leaves the vast majority of our countryside up for grabs and, boy-oh-boy, are they grabbing it.
So can we please direct our campaigns to protecting greenfield land, not simply green belts. They're all too easy to roll on to the next bit of greenfield land.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 March 2017

 

The Fourteen Year Itch

There is quite an irony in the decision to call the housing white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market. It was with that very objective in mind that HM Treasury, no less than 14 years ago, began its assault on the planning system and the environment that has so damaged our land.
The Treasury's chosen weapon of mass destruction was an economist, Kate Barker, whose review of housing supply concluded that fixing the housing market would involve integrating economic considerations into the planning system. This, she said, required a better means of assessing the costs and benefits of developments, one that acknowledges market signals.
Much grief followed.
There was Ms Barker's subsequent review of the planning system. Then there was New Labour's so-called Sustainable Communities Plan which was unusual in that it wasn't sustainable, wasn't about communities and wasn't even a plan. Then came the Coalition's National Planning Policy Framework which provided a framework for destroying national planning.
And all along the Treasury was driving things, bemoaning house price rises and claiming that building more homes would have a noticeable effect on them. But it only took a moment's reflection, of course, to demonstrate that however many houses you could possibly build, you would make so little a percentage increase in the overall housing stock that it would never have any noticeable effect.
Privately this was admitted, but there were darker forces at work.
Back in 2003, the Treasury had grown strong, far too strong. It had sulked its way through New Labour's early years just as its boss, Gordon Brown, had sulked his way through Tony Blair's early premiership.
Mr Brown believed he was far better qualified to lead the country than Mr Blair. And he had been seduced, as so many politicians across the board were at that time, by neo-liberal economics.
By the early years of the new century, the bickering between the two leaders had begun to threaten Labour's electoral prospects. Deputy prime minister John Prescott decided to effect some kind of truce.
To some extent he succeeded, but the cost was abandoning the very real progress he had made since 1997 in bringing sustainability into both transport and planning policy. His Urban Renaissance and light rail revolution were joys to behold, but they didn't accord at all with what the neo-liberal fanatics at the Treasury had in mind.
So they had to go and planning policy, something else the free-marketeers didn't like, would have to be trashed too. All you would need to do, they reasoned, was point the public's attention at rising house prices and all would be well. The end of history was nigh.
History, of course, has a habit of biting back.
In 2006 Mr Brown claimed boom and bust had been squeezed out of the system.
Oops.
In 2008 there came an almighty booming noise from the world's economy, house prices crashed overnight and Britain was left with staggering debts it still has yet to find a way out of. All thanks to neo-liberalism.
But neo-liberals are tenacious, in the way that most parasitic pathogens are. So although there are a whole string of problems associated with housing policy, which don't include our planning system incidentally, and housing needs a great deal more attention than fixing the market, that's what's still the focus of political attention.
But the housing market will only be sorted after a great number of other things are sorted.
And currently they're not being.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 February 2017

 

Petrolhead Paradise

Almost five years ago, the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg offered a conference three alternative ways of meeting housing shortages.
We could, he said, either condemn ourselves to damaging the countryside by haphazard urban sprawl, we could cram ever more people into cities, concreting over gardens and parks, or we could build garden cities or garden suburbs for the 21st century.
Mr Clegg, of course, forgot to mention a fourth alternative, namely pursuing a Smart Growth approach combining compact, urban development, brownfield where possible, with regional policy to even out population and job growth, sustainable transport options and protection of our countryside and heritage. Oh yes, and a decent helping of social housing too.
But on this simplistic and false basis, governments have committed themselves to a new generation of what they're now calling garden towns and garden villages.
Basically just more garden suburbs. Low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl.
But now the garden village developers have added a new weapon to their armoury. No longer are they only armed with the demonic planning guidance Whitehall imposes, they are also bludgeoning those who defend the environment with a new lethal weapon.
Morality.
No longer content to issue prospectuses extolling the wonderful architectural purity of their wretched little rabbit hutches and pedestrian-hostile cul-de-sacs, developers have discovered you can batter opponents with the visionary moralistic claptrap of the garden city movement.
Garden city developers, you are required to remember, don't only produce beautiful communities, they connect people to where they live thanks to their wonderful social infrastructure. So if you think the garden suburbs they've spent 100 years covering the UK with are, well, a bit insular, self-satisfied and anti-communitarian, then shame on you.
You deserve moral condemnation. According to them, anyway.
You can find this twaddle up and down the country both in those garden towns and villages approved by DCLG and all those other major greenfield sprawl proposals which have so described themselves.
A particularly gruesome example of this has come across my desk in the form of a Vision which helped persuade Stratford-on-Avon District Council to approve 3,000 houses on Warwickshire farmland around the village of Lighthorne Heath.
Opponents, formerly known as the actual community, were of course ignored.
The Vision contains the usual blarney about the sprawl development meeting the very high moral tone of the garden city pioneers. But amazingly it even then goes on to claim it meets the principles of New Urbanism too.
New Urbanism, it quite rightly says, is based on walkable neighbourhoods which are self-contained and sustainable.
Well, lets look at what the Commercial Estates Group and the Bird Group intend to deposit on this bit of the countryside.
Obviously, being a New Urbanist community, it enjoys access to sustainable public transport, except that it won't. It's several miles from the nearest railway station. It is, however, right next to Junction 12 of the M40, ideal for those who aren't persuaded by the garden city rhetoric about self-containment and who want to drive somewhere else to work.
But there is, of course, a big local employer, right on the edge of the development. That would be Jaguar Land Rover's huge Gaydon site where cars are developed and tested.
So there we have it, the essence of a garden village.
Not a moral force for good at all, just a petrolhead's paradise.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 February 2017

 

Fixing Our Broken Planning

The clue, of course, is in the name. To call the housing white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market presupposes that all that is broken is market housing, when there is an even bigger challenge to be faced in social housing.
But there we are, that is politics for you.
The white paper on housing in England was neither as bad as feared nor as good as it could have been. Those who felt they needed to welcome it have done so, albeit weakly, while the real work now begins on analysing it.
Long ago, well, a few years ago, a Government would have preceded a white paper with a green paper, ostensibly to consult on its proposals. But this is Whitehall, so I suppose it's more honest just to say this is what we intend and what's going to happen, whatever you think.
The white paper promises changes to the National Planning Policy Framework but eschews the root-and-branch reform it so desperately needs. It both defends and doesn't defend the current destructive system of forcing fantasy housing numbers on local planning authorities, blaming the process rather than the principle.
That was sadly predictable and ensures the current destructive flood of unnecessary and unsustainable greenfield development will continue.
Ritual grunts were made about only building on green belts in exceptional circumstances, but with 360,000 homes already approved in English green belts, exceptional is plainly the new normal. And, of course, any defence of green belts is going to push that housing on to the rest of England's battered countryside. That's the vast majority of it, by the way.
One area where progress was looked for was transit-oriented-development. This was something mooted a year ago and which Smart Growth UK submitted proposals for. The white paper does propose amending the NPPF to address the scope for higher density housing in urban areas well served by public transport.
It's hopelessly vague about this, though it hints this could mean a railway station and places where there is scope to replace or build over low-density uses such as retail warehouses, lock-ups and car parks.
Now wait a minute. The densities we're talking about are residential densities, so these uses are zero-density. DCLG has already made clear the type of TOD it is looking at is shoving up blocks of flats around principal stations in cities. There's certainly a case for that sometimes, but the opportunities for TOD, and the drawbacks if you get it wrong, are much, much wider than this and it's time DCLG faced up to the need for detailed planning advice. They should try to remember the Eric Pickles years are over.
There are altogether more welcome proposals, however brief, on densities.
The white paper says the density and form of development should reflect the character, accessibility and infrastructure capacity of an area. That's entirely welcome and overdue.
It also says, however, we should avoid building homes at low-densities where there is a shortage of land to meet identified housing requirements. That does admit that some places don't need large-scale building which is perfectly true, but a big change from current policy.
But one has to ask where it leaves any low-density house building, for so long the default mode of the building industry. Housing built in areas of identified need will be at higher densities. If need is not identified, the requirement to build houses is surely unnecessary.
So presumably then, DCLG will be withdrawing its support for garden towns and garden villages, where low-density is a point of principle and, indeed, all other low-density greenfield sprawl.
Don't hold your breath on that one, however.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 February 2017

 

Old News

One wonders if the authors of the imminent white paper on English housing have read the new Royal Town Planning Institute planning practice note on dementia and town planning.
The Institute argues planning needs to play a much bigger role in creating dementia-friendly communities so those afflicted can live well and independently for longer. This, it notes, would reduce pressure on both the NHS and social care.
The practice note says around 850,000 UK citizens suffer from dementia and that is set to rise to two million by 2051. It sets out best practice and case studies.
The growing number of elderly people is something that ought to be a central concern for planning and housing policy.
I attracted some criticism for suggesting in my 2011 book Smart Growth From Sprawl To Sustainability that creating so-called Grey Ghettoes where older people congregate might be a good thing. If proper provision were made for social care in such areas there could be substantial economies of scale and specialist services would be easier to provide.
This ought to be a key issue in the housing white paper. Far too much political attention is given to the issue politicians call Family Housing and to market housing.
But a swift look at the detail of the household formation projections ought to shift attention rapidly. Politicians read this carefully please.
The latest projections suggest that 74 per cent of projected household growth will be in over-65 year old households. So, three-quarters of the new homes needed are not family homes, they are homes for older people.
My book also got me into trouble for suggesting that a way to create homes for young families and to ensure old folk live in suitable homes was to encourage older people to stop living in their former large family homes and move somewhere more suitable.
I was told off for calling the phenomenon of sitting on a big house in the hope the family might occasionally visit Family Home Blocking.
As a recent empty-nester, I can see the challenge involved in down-sizing even if it's just getting rid of decades of junk. But this is something both politicians and our dismal popular newspapers need to turn their minds to.
Don't hold your breath, however. It's never wise as you get older.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 February 2017

 

A Built Environment Awash With Mediocrity

Architects like to write their signatures across our environment with their buildings. Sometimes this results in great buildings and sometimes in great eyesores. But all too often the result is a mediocrity produced by their clients demanding cheapness and other design professionals imposing limits.
We should ask ourselves whether we should have to put up with the mediocrities and eyesores which have blighted our towns and cities for more than half a century now.
After all, those who commission buildings are not the only consumers of them. We, the public, also have to put up with them, for decades, or maybe centuries. We have rights too.
One way of helping to secure them is through urban design codes. A powerful advocate of them is Congress for the New Urbanism founder Andres Duany who has set out his thoughts in a piece on Why We Code.
Well worth a read.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 January 2017

 

Sign This Petition

A national petition has been organised to secure a Parliamentary debate on building on greenfield land and in support of the long-overdue community right of appeal against planning approvals.
It also seeks removal of the so-called Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development, included in the 2012 English National Planning Policy Framework to favour unsustainable development.
The petition notes that communities are being forced to accept loss of countryside and agricultural land and development is being forced where infrastructure is either lacking or expensive to provide.
This is long overdue. The long-awaited housing white paper will show if the Government is at all serious about helping brownfield housing development but, meanwhile, it's business as usual in forcing unwanted greenfield development in unsustainable locations on local planning authorities.
I'm glad too that the petition talks about greenfield rather than The Green Belt.
Green belts are certainly under attack, as an assessment published today clearly demonstrates. But they only protect a small proportion of the countryside and although much, much better than no protection at all, much more protection is needed.
Green belts only protect land around most, though not all, major conurbations and they tend to force development beyond their boundaries. And mendacious ministers can simply sign them away when councils are forced to concede development on them and simply designate other land as green belt.
Then they can claim the green belt has actually grown. If you hear a politician claim that, you know he or she is an utter scoundrel.
One garden city enthusiast told the press today that the problem with green belt loss is that the new towns which once accompanied the policy aren't being built any more.
Green belts were certainly a bastard child of the garden city movement, but the original plan for garden cities, or even new towns, to have them was long ago abandoned in the face of the need to prevent conurbations sprawling. Quite how destroying huge areas of countryside to accommodate new settlements would help green belts is a mystery.
New settlements are hugely damaging and, like the new towns even in their heyday, do next to nothing to meet housing need.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 January 2017

 

Potted History

The lanky striker Peter Crouch is one of those footballers who divide opinion but, at the age of 36, he is confounding critics by banging in goals for Stoke City.
His rediscovery of form is one of the factors that have propelled the Stoke-on-Trent football club to the top half of the Premiership, but that great city has had little else to cheer about in recent times.
Once the effective capital of the world's ceramic industry, globalization hit it hard as manufacturers deserted it for countries where factories could operate with starvation wages and few environmental controls.
Now its MP, Tristram Hunt, has resigned to become director of the V&A. Whatever the politics of it, it's a great shame in one way as he was one of the few UK Parliamentarians who has had the courage to speak out publicly in support of Smart Growth.
One of Dr Hunt's areas of expertise is Victorian cities, so could we respectfully propose he curate an exhibition at the V&A on them and their influence on the modern Smart Growth movement.
Stoke continues to produce remarkable characters, including current CPRE president Emma Bridgewater, one of the few ceramic manufacturers to maintain production in the Potteries.
Its former Chatterley Whitfield Colliery also provided a case study for our recent report on economic stimulus.
But elsewhere it's the familiar story of industrial decline so familiar across Britain away from the south-east. That long decline, so ignored by politicians, is no doubt one of the factors that led to the political turmoil of the past 12 months.
One aspect of which is the election of Donald Trump as US president. Media attention has focused on his relationship with Russia, his attitudes to Muslims and Mexicans and his weakness for the Tweet button.
His only economic policy that has gained much attention is giving big tax cuts to the very rich, but he is also taking a strong line on globalization.
He opposes trade deals like TPP, TTIP and NAFTA which, oddly enough, have hitherto attracted the strongest opposition from the red and green political corners for undermining social and environmental controls.
How Mr Trump's policy will play out remains to be seen, as will the effects of us leaving the EU. Recently commentators, even those who strongly oppose Brexit, have identified opportunities for greening British agriculture.
One imponderable which has gained less attention is whether it can do anything for British industry. Currently, politicians seem keener on doing new trade deals with those very countries who flood us with cheap imports, based on low social and environmental standards.
But if those left behind in former industrial areas who voted most strongly for Brexit are to secure anything from it, we will need strong regional policies to ensure economic activity and investment flow towards new sustainable industries in those areas.
Whatever else, it's high time to reverse decades of economic movement south-eastwards with strong regional planning policies.
A northern powerhouse that builds economically strong and environmentally sustainable communities, not more motorways.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 January 2017

 

National Distrust

That almost three-quarters of local authority members in England now believe the planning system is too weighted in favour of developers and against communities should surprise no-one who has watched Whitehall butchering the system for more than a decade.
By the time you exclude those members who have no interest in planning, the survey effectively means a very large majority of elected politicians, a large number of them sitting in the blue political corner, now believe reform of England's planning policy is well overdue.
The survey, by the Local Government Information Unit for the National Trust, also found a majority of councils are having to approve housing beyond their local plans, are having to release green belt land and are fed up with the slow infection of the system by permitted development rights.
They also know council planning teams are desperately under-staffed, but then so are most, if not all, council departments.
And in case that isn't bad enough, they're expecting the forthcoming housing white paper to make things worse, especially if it sets the sort of rigid fantasy house building targets so beloved of DCLG.
No doubt ministers will still be claiming green belts are safe in their hands as they slowly vanish.
The case for scrapping England's wretched National Planning Policy Framework grows stronger every year. It was set up to promote greenfield house building and that's what it will continue to achieve, even if the white paper includes fine words about brownfield development


Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 January 2017

 

Telling Right From Wrong

Some of the hardest people to argue with are those who take a lofty moral tone, even when you know their arguments are specious and the things they advocate would lead to very bad outcomes indeed.
The garden city movement is a case in point. It is probably celebrating the DCLG announcement that three so-called garden towns and 14 so-called garden villages are to be dumped on mostly greenfield sites across England.
Just shove the word garden in front of any bit of crass, low-density, car-dependent greenfield sprawl and Hey Presto. You have a development that we mere mortals are not even allowed to criticise and which will sparkle with a heavy dusting of moral perfection.
They've been at it for more than a century now and they're very good at it.
And it works. Politicians, planners, even some countryside campaigners pale before the Trusty Sword of Garden Sprawl.
This all goes back to Ebenezer Howard, of course, whose garden city book took a very high ethical standpoint.
Howard's legacy is threefold.
Firstly, he must take huge credit for being one of those who founded the modern planning profession, let us not forget that.
But anyone who has struggled through his book will discover the form and layout of his Garden City, in reality a small town, was a secondary concern.
What really grabbed him was the second part of his legacy, an idealized vision of communitarian administration and economy for his new settlements. No doubt the world would have been a better place had it been followed but, for the most part, it wasn't.
The third, utterly malignant, part of his legacy was low-density, greenfield sprawl. Howard certainly believed in plonking his new settlements at unsuitable and inaccessible locations in the countryside.
Today, some argue he didn't support low residential densities but, in reality, he did. But what really dragged the densities of the garden suburbs he inspired down was his belief in covering so much of his settlements in pointless landscaping, pretty to look at but ecologically and domestically pointless.
We need open space, but we don't need endless vast grass verges around the road system.
So, Howard's moral legacy is a mixture of good, indifferent and downright awful. It is a legacy which has given us 100 years of destructive sprawl and left us frighteningly dependent on fossil-fuelled cars.
A small but influential element of the planning profession is still signed up to the Ebenezer Howard Memorial Moralizing Band. Sadly, much of the rest of the profession seems too intimidated to tell them where to go.
Today, the current government has, in effect, resurrected New Labour's so-called Eco-towns programme its members were once so critical of.
But don't be intimidated. There's a new moral force in town.
It's called Smart Growth.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 January 2017

 

Our Year In Review

Few people, anywhere on the planet, would deny that 2016 was a turbulent year.
Predicting where the newly shaken dice will fall is a pointless exercise while they are still rattling around in the shaker, but the New Year is as good a time as any to look back and see what was, and what was not, achieved in 2016.
Perhaps the first thing any informal coalition should celebrate is its survival for yet another year.
We can only look with envy at bodies with comparatively huge memberships and financial resources. But SGUK has proved, yet again, that a body with no money and whose human resources, organisational and individual, dip in and out, can survive and have a significant impact.
So thanks to all those who contributed and here's hoping we shall see absent friends again in 2017.
Our work this year began with a response to DCLG's consultation on changes to England's National Planning Policy Framework. As we have argued since 2012, this document needs radical reform or even scrapping and starting again and, inevitably, the proposals fell far short of this.
But they did at last reflect the fact the bosses at HM Treasury have finally twigged that maximizing house building means maximizing brownfield house building. And the benefits that accrue from Transit Oriented Development were finally accepted, in principle at least.
We made positive suggestions for building on these proposals and so let's hope DCLG's long cogitation of the issue will result in substantial improvements so the benefits of the Smart Growth approach can at last begin to be realised in England.
We also put in a lengthy and detailed response to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry into soil health. We put up powerful cases for more public spending on investigation and remediation of land and action to prevent the soil sealing caused by urban sprawl etc. from preventing soil carrying out its many vital roles.
The CIEH took up the contaminated land case at the hearing and Howard Price put up an unanswerable case for more spending. While it's sad the Committee ignored our case on soil sealing they did put out a powerful recommendation on contamination spending. It was a recommendation only a department as enfeebled as DEFRA could have ignored.
CPRE took up our case for Transit Oriented Development with a paper in the summer and we were able to provide substantial input.
In the run-up to the Autumn Statement, many supporters expressed concerns that much of the proposed infrastructural investment would go on things like motorways, airport expansion and greenfield sprawl, things that would be both environmentally damaging and economically disadvantageous.
So, much of the autumn was spent preparing a report, now finalized, with detailed ideas on how the Smart Growth approach could show ways in which public investment could be made which would benefit the environment, the economy and wider society.
All in all, a pretty busy year. 2017 looks like being busier too. The penny has still to drop that Smart Growth isn't some batty idea from the States, but provides an essential framework if we are to fit our huge population into our battered little island, meet our commitments on greenhouse gas reductions and actually have happy, functioning cities, towns and villages and still be able to get about.
It's an approach that works across the political spectrum too.
Writing in his own review of 2016, Smart Growth America CEO Geoff Anderson listed his organisation's many achievements across the year.
You can read on its website what a formally constituted coalition like SGA can achieve with a modicum of resources. However much we achieve as an informal body, many of us still believe SGUK needs to follow that path, but it will take commitment from individuals and organisations to achieve that.
Meanwhile, to the disappointment no doubt of the roads lobby and new greenfield settlement enthusiasts, we're not going to disappear.
As Geoff Anderson says, 2016 was a banner year and 2017 is shaping up to be even bigger.
So, bring it on then.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 January 2017