smart growth uk

Contributors

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

 

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

 

Blog Archive

SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2019 BLOG

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Lies, Damned Lies And Belters

Green belts are one of the most powerful implements in the toolbox of British planning but, like all powerful devices, they can become dangerous if mishandled. One of their big dangers is turning politicians into liars.
I was reminded of this yesterday by the response of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to a report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England on green belt house building. This showed that only 10 percent of the thousands of homes built in England's green belts (the ones that supposedly are only developed in exceptional circumstances) are affordable.
The report also showed that local plans anticipate a further 266,000 green belt homes and that homes are being built in green belts at the dismally wasteful density of 14 to the hectare. Even Raymond Unwin might have got a bit twitchy about that.
But, responding to an item on the report in the Daily Telegraph, MHCLG was in misleading mode from the start.
'Ministers have said repeatedly that building the homes our country needs does not mean damaging our countryside,' said an MHCLG Press Office apparatchik, as their nose started to grow. Then they went for full mendacity mode. 'It's a fact the green belt is now around 30,000 hectares larger than in 1997. '
This is so packed with bovine scatology it's difficult to know where to start.
Let's begin with that 'THE green belt'. England does, in fact, have no less than 15 green belts but, when you hear politicians or those who work for them talking of 'THE Green Belt', you know they're tapping into a belief among surprising numbers of the public that all undeveloped countryside is protected by green belt designation. In fact only about 13 percent of England is so protected.
But sometimes, when green belt land is released for house building, equivalent or larger areas of undesignated countryside are then roped in, enabling the most unscrupulous politicians to try to hoodwink voters by claiming 'the green belt has grown'. Hello MHCLG.
And it was fascinating to see the Ministry attacking its own stress on the importance of up-to-date local plans.
'The report is misleading as the CPRE's figures refer to plans that may never be acted upon,' said the hapless spokesperson.
So presumably, next time a minister claims how well the Government's house building policy is going because of the building targets it has forced into local plans, just remember the Ministry regards those figures as 'misleading'.
'Last year only 0.02 percent of The Green Belt was developed for residential use and often this development is around road and rail infrastructure in place long before Green Belt designation, ' concluded the spokesperson.
Well, I've news for the well-informed staff at MHCLG. 100 percent of the homes in green belts are served by roads, most of which were in place before they were designated or extended in the last 70 years, many since medieval times. They are also criss-crossed by railways which were built in the 19th century and so what? The statement is about as meaningless as the 0.02 percent claim.
Green belt development is supposed to be subject to an exceptional circumstances test.
It's presumably a case of the exception proving (to be) the rule.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 October 2019

 

Election Fever

One should never, of course, pay too much attention to what politicians say at their party conferences, least of all when a general election is looming.
Nevertheless, ministers do sometimes set out their stall for the coming Parliamentary term, or indeed their pitch to the voters. Just bear in mind that what they say is not official Government policy and events may not go their way.
But the speech made by communities secretary Robert Jenrick in Manchester has certainly aroused some interest, which is going some for a minister some way down the Cabinet pecking order.
As might be expected, Mr Jenrick praised home ownership and his plans to sell housing association stock to its tenants, gradually. A cynic might, perhaps, have said that if home ownership is so important, why is his Ministry putting money into build-to-rent? And what about the social housing shortage?
What he said about design was nevertheless welcome, if a little confused. Design guides should indeed reflect their local heritage and vernacular and we need more trees. But someone should really have thought more closely about a 'national design guide and asking every community to produce their own'. I see what he means, but that needs unpacking.
However, it's what he said about planning that was of most interest.
Citing Eric Pickles and claiming to be 'reforming our outdated, contradictory planning system' which is 'holding us back' will send shivers down the spines of a lot of people who care about the environment. Many of them are doubtless Conservatives.
'I will simplify the system, ' he warned. 'I'm announcing new freedoms, including to build upward so that your home can grow as your family does too. Reducing conditions, speeding up consent The beginning of a planning revolution.'
Actually the revolution has been carving through English planning for more than 15 years now, ever since the Treasury convinced itself the only important aspect of the system is how many homes get built, of whatever sort, wherever.
Freedom to add two storeys to homes without planning permission, however, is something that is going to need very careful handling. If Mr Jenrick really cares about density, he needs to get minimum standards for new build back into the NPPF urgently.
Mr Jenrick's pledge to fund local planning better was welcome, but grotesquely inadequate given the level of damage in recent years.
Normally, of course, the important thing for any minister in a pre-election conference is to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes that involves a few contradictions, and the trick is to disguise them.
But housing minister Esther McVey was more forthright at a Tax Payers' Alliance event, saying she would allow local communities to vote on 'whether they think their green belt is car parks and whether it should be classed as green belt at all. Then we can reclassify and build on it'.
Quite what golfers will say when they drive their powerful roadsters up to the club and find houses going up on the car park is unclear. Nothing polite, one suspects.
Of course, all this on-the-hoof policy will need flesh putting on it. Whether ministers will have time to do so this side of a general election remains to be seen, but there's always the manifesto of course.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 October 2019

 

Climate Action Day

Today, as every schoolkid knows, is Climate Action Day.
Despite all the Climate Emergencies being declared by various people, today for most people, like every other day, will actually mean going about business as usual.
As ever, climate action is something somebody else ought to take.
Well, this week saw publication of Smart Growth UK's latest report on the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc, the second part of our report on the Arc.
The first part, published in February, looked at the secretive and undemocratic way the project was developed and the damage it would do.
Part 2 looks at action that could be taken which would mean an end to business as usual. It examines some possible alternative arcs, five of them in some detail and how they outperform the Arc in terms of sustainable transport, brownfield development land, a genuine need for regeneration and availability of housing.
If we'd had the resources we would have looked at other key objections to the Arc, like availability of water supplies and threats to landscape and biodiversity.
Reaction to the new report has been muted, with a few misguided sneers about Coventry having a lamentable record on green belt development. As anyone who has read the report will know, it advocates brownfield-first and protection of greenfield land.
Regeneration has long been a neglected area, but it matters. And putting an end to the 'Oxford-Cambridge Arc' project (actually five-and-a-half counties) is important in climate change terms too.
The Arc includes a new 100km motorway, to form part of an outer M25, and plans car-dependent sprawl on the grand scale. A million greenfield homes on some of the country's most productive farmland.
So won't it be nice when the world experts on climate change at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford come out and say actually the college making vast sums of money out of building on its land holdings should come second to the climate emergency?
Yes, that climate emergency.
The Arc. Take it away, professor.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 September 2019

 

Gardeners Question Time

A question most people involved with the environment dread being asked is how many ecosystem services there are.
The only possible answer is quite a lot.
I am not being flippant here because this matters. It matters a lot. Ecosystem services provide a great deal of what sustains us on this fragile and burning planet. We ignore them at our peril.
The UN's Millenium Ecosystem Assessment a decade and a half ago assigned ecosystem services to four categories, supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services. Each includes things we rely on to survive.
But I hadn't realised until now that public relations is an important ecosystem service. So I'm grateful for Colchester Borough Council's website for putting me right.
In a section on 'garden communities' which tells us what they are and why they are (allegedly) needed, is a page making some interesting assertions about how they would affect the environment.
'Recent developments in the UK and abroad have demonstrated that new developments can actually improve the environment, reducing carbon emissions and improving local biodiversity,' it says.
Well, it all depends what you mean by 'development'. What the Council means is, effectively, a major onslaught on ecosystem services.
'The garden communities present an opportunity to go far beyond the bare minimum and transform large areas of agricultural land (which is relatively poor for biodiversity due to fertilizer-pesticide use and the inherent lack of trees needed for arable farming) into rewilded woodland and other natural habitats,' it says.
Biodiversity is certainly one important ecosystem service the countryside provides and some farmland (though by no means all as claimed) could be much better from the biodiversity point of view.
But there are two weaknesses with all of this.
The countryside also provides a vast range of other ecosystem services which are lost when the soil is sealed for building houses, roads, shops and other buildings. Most of us like to eat, drink water and wash, basic needs which undeveloped land provides for us and garden communities don't.
We like to get away from towns but we don't like it when our towns get flooded. We like soil to sequester carbon from the air but we don't like it when the dispersed living pattern inevitable with garden communities necessitates driving more and emitting more carbon.
There are two myths out there which, sadly, even parts of the environmental movement buy into.
One is that farmland supports little or no biodiversity. The other is that gardens support lots of it.
The problems with biodiversity on farmland are actually wider than just fertilizers, pesticides and shortage of trees. But that intensively farmed land, which could be so much better, still supports untold numbers of soil organisms and pollinators.
Gardens, meanwhile, do score fairly well on things like diversity of soil bacteria. But on many aspects they don't perform particularly well at all, supporting some common bird species and untold numbers of exotic plant species. Let's not forget it was gardeners who inflicted Japanese knotweed on us, not to mention the Himalayan balsam, now spreading across town and country and destroying our native plant biodiversity almost unopposed.
And that's before garden owners cover them with decking or hard standings, thus completely undermining any ecosystem services they could provide.
The balance sheet is a complex one. But the spread of suburbs, even with gardens, into countryside brings with it noise, light and air pollution and disturbance and only some bits of nature tolerate these at all.
And we all like to eat, drink and wash and hate it when water invades our homes. Humans eh?


Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 September 2019

 

This Land Is Our Land

The intense cyclonic systems which have passed over Great Britain this month did not even rate naming as storms, despite producing some memorable local flooding, intense winds and a layer of gloom among those who had chosen August staycations.
But ever more intense weather events are the new normal and here we had old normal-for-October storms turning up in the summer. Of course you can always find precedents in an unpredictable climate like ours but, as the planet comes to the boil, intense and unpredictable are ever more frequent features of our weather.
With rain lashing down the window, I did try to read the new IPCC special report on Climate Change and Land Use and would certainly commend the whole document to anyone with the time.
It's a hugely comprehensive report, and while that's obviously a quality, it does have its downside. Covering many massive issues, it was inevitable several would get buried while a few others grabbed the headlines.
As someone who used to write headlines, it was obvious the biggest human interest would lie in the report urging us to eat less meat and change farming practices.
And these important findings inevitably grabbed the headlines, relegating many other important findings to oblivion.
Buried in the report, however, were other important findings about land use.
Inevitably the report noted that the planet's population is moving to cities but this is not, in itself, the environmental disaster it sounds. While ever more of the world's growing population is living in cities, per capita emissions are lower for city dwellers who thus have smaller impacts on the environment than their rural counterparts.
A box on page 73 of Chapter 2 (yes, it really is that sort of length) sets out thoughts on climate change and urbanization.
One interesting statistic is that towns and cities cover 0.4-0.9 percent of the global land surface. Now compare that to England, where even the most enthusiastic proponents of sprawl admit to 10 percent coverage. This is one of the world's more densely populated countries, despite having some of its most productive farmland.
'In addition to being a driver of emissions, urbanization contributes to forest degradation, converts neighbouring agricultural, forested or otherwise undeveloped land to urban use, altering natural or semi-natural ecosystems both within and outside of urban areas,' it says. 'It has been identified as a major driver of land degradation as illustrated in Chapters 3, 4 and 5. Highly productive lands are experiencing the highest rate of conversion to urbanized landscapes, affecting food security. Loss of agricultural land, and increased pollution and waste are some of key challenges arising from urbanization and urban growth.'
Amen to all of that.
The Box also notes that urbanization alters the stock and stability of soil organic carbon while conversion of vegetated land to urban reduces the carbon stored in plants and soil, and plants do not grow well in cities. Mitigation effects of urban green infrastructure are 'likely to be small', even if it helps cities adapt.
Chapter 7 of the report looks at risk management and sustainable decision making.
Increased temperatures themselves will result in a whole string of negative effects on land, including decreasing supplies of food, water, vegetation and soil. Add in the destructive effects of poverty and land-degradation and you have a recipe for disaster which needs holistic action.
But the report addresses so many issues, you quickly become lost in the fog of urgent actions the world needs to address. Urbanization is there, however, if you look for it.
'Land degradation neutrality can be achieved by reducing the rate of land degradation (and concomitant loss of ecosystem services) and increasing the rate of restoration and rehabilitation of degraded or desertified land,' it says. 'Therefore, the rate of global land degradation is not to exceed that of land restoration in order to achieve land degradation neutrality goals.'
Land degradation neutrality, it says (page 48) is best achieved through regulation, planning and management.
There's even some Smart Growth thinking.
'Zoning ordinances can contribute to sustainable land management through protection of natural capital by preventing or limiting vegetation clearing, avoiding degradation of planning for rehabilitation of degraded land or contaminated sites, promoting conservation and enhancement of ecosystems and ecological corridors,' says page 49.
'Zoning ordinances can also encourage higher-density development, mixed use, local food production, encourage transportation alternatives (bike paths and transit-oriented-development), preserve a sense of place, and increase housing diversity and affordability,' it continues. 'Conservation planning varies by context and may include one or several adaptation approaches including protecting current patterns of biodiversity, large intact natural landscapes and geophysical settings. Conservation planning may also maintain and restore ecological connectivity, identify and manage areas that provide future climate space for species expected to be displaced by climate change, and identify and protect climate refugia.'
It goes on to draw the same conclusions about biodiversity and ecosystem services. At first glance the work can look as if it's aimed at developing countries, but the lessons are plainly intended for our world too.
It's a long report and a highly disturbing one. It would be nice if those in positions of power could climb out of their short-term parochial thinking and study it.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 17 August 2019

 

England Plc And Linear Thinking

Imagine a company with perhaps thousands of employees, and offices and warehouses in several parts of the country. They manufacture widgets and wodgets and offer repairs & services for their products. They also have a consultancy division, which offers advice on the sector and how to make the most of it.
A new CEO is brought in. He (let's assume it is a he in this case) is the kind of CEO who likes to make his mark, stick around for a while to see his changes implemented and then move on to the next challenge. As the Czech scientist and poet Miroslav Holub once said: 'Humankind can generally be divided into hunters and people who cope with the consequences'.
The new CEO looks at the books and sees that the most profitable part of the company is widget production. The less glamorous wodgets and repairs & services are chugging along, but the consultancy division is making a loss.
He makes some quick decisions. He will throw nearly all the company investment into widgets, in order to maximise profits, bonuses and shareholder dividends. He will allow wodgets and repairs & services to keep on chugging for the time being without taking much if any notice of them and he will close down the consultancy division.
Widgets do really well under his short tenure, but staff in the factory feel under severe pressure to meet new targets and sick days rise markedly. Elsewhere, in wodgets and repairs & services, morale plummets, while staff in the consultancy division are forced to look far from home for work. Even before the CEO has left, the unquantifiable advantages of having a consultancy division are being undermined, namely, the company's reputation and the acquisition of new customers in both traditional and new sectors. Meanwhile, wodget quality is suffering from lack of technological upgrades and a competitor is making inroads into repairs & services.
But the CEO doesn't care. For him it's widgets, widgets and more widgets.
Now switch focus to south-east England:
to the new Expressway between Cambridge and Oxford,
to the CaMKOx 'Growth Arc' that will accompany it, and
to the increasing number of 'garden villages' (and housing estates masquerading as such) sprouting almost on top of one another in the south-east hothouse.
For some reason, this part of the country alone is regarded as home to the 'Knowledge Spine', the 'Brain Belt' and the 'Economic Heartland', and worthy of a 'Growth Arc'. The rest of England apparently doesn't merit such nomenclature, let alone proper attention. For the Whitehall, Westminster and Oxbridge CEOs it's south-east, south-east, all the way.
This is linear thinking, a tunnel-vision concept of continuous improvement, when what is required is patchwork quilt thinking. With the latter, if a patch is looking frayed and not up to the quality of the best, you mend it and pour your efforts into bringing up to the same standard. If it is about to be eaten by moths, you send a taskforce in to protect it for the long term. With linear thinking, you just cover the poorer patches with cushions and hope no one will notice.
In her book The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future, Fiona Reynolds describes 'economism' as 'the belief that only the economy really matters'. Linear thinking about the economy takes this concept further. Whereas the patchwork approach will attempt to keep the whole quilt healthy, linear thinking, while 'conserving and enhancing' (good government jargon) some patches, wilfully neglects others. And thus it stores up greater problems for the future and undermines resilience for the country as a whole.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 08 August 2019

 

Doubling Down

Few would disagree with Natural England chair Tony Juniper when he said last week that climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the biggest challenges facing our generation. Yet the context in which he said it has provoked a degree of anger and scorn amongst many of those most likely to agree.
Mr Juniper was speaking at the launch of plans for 'doubling nature' across Cambridgeshire. And Peterborough too, as it now seems to have been annexed by its neighbour.
Well, few environmentalists would object to doubling nature, assuming it's possible to quantify the amount of nature we have. So why have his words and those of the Natural Cambridgeshire partnership aroused such scepticism?
The answer lies in the context in which the plans were announced, under the auspices of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
For the benefit of those who don't live in the area, and the 99 percent plus of us who didn't attend the ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford, the county forms around a fifth of the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc, a massive project whose shaky foundations and unsustainable objectives was the subject of a Smart Growth UK report earlier this year.
It's also a place with a City Deal, the name of whose delivery body, the 'Greater Cambridge Partnership', should tell you all about its intentions to make the built-up area of the city, and much of the rest of the county, much greater.
So was the Doubling Nature plan a courageous attempt by environmentally minded people to turn back this flood of car-dependent sprawl, or at least to decelerate it a bit?
Sadly not, for those behind the plans to 'double nature' include many of those backing the careering juggernaut of development threatening the county, and its nature.
'The ambitious growth agenda for the economy needs to be matched with an ambitious growth agenda for the environment,' said combined mayor James Palmer.
However, as this blog is famed for being scrupulously fair, we should mention that the plans include ambitions to expand some nature reserves, some habitat restoration and improvement and some more wildlife friendly farming.
The latter, though, would need to be managed with care. The county contains much of England's Grade 1 and 2 farmland and we need to be ever more conscious of the country's inability to feed itself from its own resources. And surely we've all moved beyond the myth that farmland is a sort of green desert supplying no useful ecosystem services at all.
The plan itself reveals its own dangerous foundations.
'As part of the Government's plans for the Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge Growth Arc, accelerated development will deliver one million homes by 2050 and, within Cambridgeshire, double gross-value-added,' it warns. 'This planned growth is in addition to high levels of economic growth, inward migration and infrastructure and housing development that are already underway in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.'
Its proposal to 'double nature' apparently means the area of 'rich wildlife habitats and green-space' would be doubled, to 17 percent.
How much of each is involved is unclear but the plan envisages new housing and employment space incorporating 'high-quality green and blue infrastructure' and 'encouraging' a quarter of property owners to incorporate 'wildlife friendly features in gardens, building and land'.
Bird table manufacturers at least can expect a bonanza.
But are we really convinced by the Natural Cambridgeshire estimate 'that the planned housing growth over the next 30 years could provide another 2,000 hectares of land for nature'?
And even if the developers could be persuaded to buy 20 square kilometres of farmland for 'nature', do the estimable NGOs who signed up to this plan genuinely believe that nature would really benefit much from small areas isolated alongside massive areas of new human disturbance and light, noise and air pollution? Really?
And what about the other bits of countryside totally trashed for the county's share of a million new homes, one end of an 'expressway' and all the distribution depots and other development that drives along with it?
Do they sincerely believe the bits of nature that might actually benefit from these ideas would mitigate the huge intrusion into nature all this development would represent?
Plans like the Arc should have gone out with the Ark. The obsession of our rulers with Cambridge and Oxford has long led to a massive public and private push for employment growth around the two cities, far beyond the capacity of their housing and infrastructure to cope.
Meanwhile there are many other areas of the UK which could accommodate such growth beneficially, commercially viably and without trashing nature and agriculture in the way the Arc would. They might have enough water to cope too.
The Arc and all the rest of the car-dependent sprawl isn't an inevitability and we can do better than look for a few crumbs from the table.
I'm not convinced that the estimable organisations who signed up to this plan did so with any enthusiasm. So, with a heavy heart, I would urge them to have an urgent rethink.
Doubling down on nature is no way of doubling it up.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 August 2019

 

Beautiful Dreamers

Like all prime ministers, Theresa May is worrying about her legacy and one positive item she has been quick to cite is the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission which recently published its interim report.
The PM had asked the Commission to develop proposals for embedding beautiful, sustainable and human-scale design into the planning and development process. Given that central government has spent years eroding the ability of the planning system to embed beauty, sustainability and human-scale into development, this was a tall order, but an opportunity too.
The first thing to note about the interim report is that, for a report which is supposed to be interim, it is extremely weighty. A full 87 pages in fact, but definitely worth a read in spite of that.
The Commission had a big hiccup with the departure of its chair, Roger Scruton and his replacement as interim chair with Nicholas Boys Smith. This possibly accounts for the fact it quotes both philosophers and urbanists, but is none the worse for that.
There is some good stuff in there and, at times, it almost claws its way towards Smart Growth thinking. Mr Boys Smith's own personal crusade for 'gentle density' is very near what Smart Growth UK has always promoted in terms of 'appropriate densities', i.e. significantly higher than the disastrous ultra-low garden suburb densities which have been our paradigm since 1919.
A country that's short of land and very densely populated like England cannot afford to squander its land. It's perhaps disappointing that the Commission didn't make this point more strongly. We need to avoid the ultra-high densities being dumped in some inner-cities but, equally, medium density housing should be the norm with few exceptions and not just, as the report hints, near to 'centres'.
It's a vast report and far too long to discuss in a single blog. But some points do jump out.
Much of it discusses how to reduce the high level of conflict in contemporary planning, particularly in relation to house building. Equally though, this is a Government-commissioned report and while it criticises several aspects of the current NPPF planning for housing such as five-year supplies, the root and branch dismissal of the unsustainable development current policies are causing that we're crying out for is absent.
This is most keenly felt in the location of housing issue where the Commission limits itself to a call for 'beautifully placed' development.
Perhaps the most fundamental criticism of planning for housing in England is the failure to address regional disparities. Very, very crudely, the south needs more houses while the north needs more jobs, yet the system still pushes employment growth in the south and housing growth in the north.
Of course that's an over-simplification, but we desperately need strong spatial planning at the national, regional, sub-regional and local levels.
Regional planning fell foul of the personal obsession of Eric Pickles who hated any mention of 'regions' and his destructive shadow still pervades the system. It's time central government, of whatever political hue, faces up to this and recreates the regional dimension in planning.
The Commission's remit was not just about building beautifully, however, but building better. The sudden explosion of public interest in both climate change and biodiversity and the threats to our well-being surely makes it time for England's planning policy to address these issues seriously.
At the moment, despite some fine words in the NPPF, we are ignoring them and promoting destructive, car-dependent sprawl with little or no serious discussion of the natural capital we are destroying or the ecosystem services the greenfield land trashed for housing will no longer provide.
Water supply and flood control are obvious ones. Any hydrologist could tell you that much of the East of England, for instance, has long passed the point it can supply water to any more people. Yet just look at the big developments planned there, in Essex, in Cambridgeshire, in Norfolk etc..
There's nothing beautiful about a river sucked dry for drinking water. Nor is there anything beautiful about flooded homes, but these are areas under critical flood threat too, places where we cannot afford to lose the 'space for water'.
We have long argued that what is needed is much stronger powers for planners, the resources to back them and national, regional and sub-regional planning policy that is based on environmental sustainability, not just the Treasury's desire to build raw numbers of any sort of house.
Here again the Commission picks at the problem but is obviously uneasy about upsetting Whitehall.
It is plain, for instance, that expansion of permitted development is creating new slums and urgently needs reversing, particularly the office-to-residential one.
A policy of allowing vast roof extensions in already high-density areas is as good a way as any of destroying the beauty of traditional terraces. Such a policy might well have utility in low-density areas, but that's not an issue the Commission wants to go into too much.
So, a good first effort, but there is much work to do. Let Smart Growth be the guiding philosophy and at least we could turn back the current tide of ugliness.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 14 July 2019

 

Being Really Truthful

ICYMI, acronyms are a growing feature of the way we converse. Long a staple of the armed forces, they now pervade every aspect of our communication.
Happily there are now websites devoted to explaining every new acronym the moment it joins the information superhighway. And talking of highways, one which has bedevilled transport planning of late is BRT.
According to the websites which know these things, denizens of Snapchat will recognise BRT as 'Be Right There', while electronics experts will know it as a 'Bias Resistor Transistor'. Many will have attended a 'Business Round Table' while the Kennel Club will know a 'Black Russian Terrier' when it sees one. Brazilians will set their watches to 'Brasilia Time' while butchers will have meat 'Boned, Rolled and Tied'. Few perhaps would want to be labelled a 'Back Room Technician' while 'Bra Removal Time' surely has no place in this era of Me-Too.
But the one that is haunting planning is 'Bus Rapid Transit'. Rapid transit, as a phrase, grew up to cover the whole range of light-rail and metro city passenger transport technologies which allow citizens to transit their areas rapidly.
But a growing number of the more petrol-headed local authorities in Britain and elsewhere can't bring themselves to accept the long-term benefits of investing in light-rail and would like to persuade us, one way or another, that buses are up to the job.
Buses are a great invention. They provide flexible public transport in places no fixed link will ever go. We need to get lots of people out of cars and on to buses in many, many places.
But buses have their limitations too and rail-based technologies offer many advantages.
Slowly, very slowly, buses without tail-pipe emissions are replacing diesels which, let us remind ourselves, are a significant source of lung cancer and a range of other respiratory diseases. They are also a major cause of climate change.
OK, let's assume one day most buses won't be diesel-powered. Would they then be the best way of securing mass transit in our cities? I believe they are not.
Today's articulated buses can match the sort of passenger capacities of modern light-rail vehicles, but at a price. Their ride quality is pretty atrocious, bouncing passengers up and down like trampoline artists. And we all know bus drivers' fondness for stabbing at accelerators and brakes. A railed vehicle will offer a much smoother ride.
And there's something about the presence of rails which attracts people out of cars in the way bus stops fail to do, however dressed up to look like tramways.
More importantly perhaps, steel wheel on steel rail uses a fraction of the energy a pneumatic-tyred vehicle will. For comparable sized vehicles, the bus will burn about nine times as much fuel as a tram.
And those rubber tyres cause another less obvious problem. Their wear is a major source of the micro-particles which cause some of the biggest health risks in our cities, including the most dangerous PM2.5s.
Critics of light-rail say trams are less 'flexible' than buses. But buses must run on established fixed routes too as any public transport service needs stability and certainty.
Yes, bus routes can extend to less populous areas where light-rail is never going to be installed, but that's a different thing. That flexibility is not an asset.
Heavy road vehicles, i.e. trucks and buses, cause the vast majority of the wear and tear on our roads and car owners would be most irate if they ever discovered how much they subsidize them through their licences.
Which puts into perspective claims that trams are more costly to operate than buses. Trams pay 100 percent of their track repair costs and they don't damage the roads. Their energy needs are far cheaper too.
Despite all this, lots of places are getting seduced by the 'Bus Rapid Transit' story. It's true that the capital cost will be much lower but the long-term benefits, including carbon savings, will be much lower too.
BRT enthusiasts find it hard to define the concept as anything different to any other modern high-capacity bus service, using segregated alignments, high-capacity vehicles and sometimes even recklessly expensive and totally pointless guided-bus technologies.
All too often the proposed 'BRT' vehicles will be given curvy fronts to make them look a bit like a tram. Take a ride on one, you'll soon notice the difference.
So BRT is essentially 'Buses as Recognised Traditionally'. It's not especially rapid and it's not transit.
High-capacity bus services may well have a place in our public transport, but they are no substitute for light-rail. It would be good if people were to stop trying to fob the public off with what is standard Bus Route Technology but which will never be a Beneficial Replacement for Trams.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 July 2019

 

What We Can Learn From History

I have been reading the letters of the Younger Pliny. If that sounds pretentious, it is rather. But there is a reason for it. We recently returned from a week-long holiday in southern Italy, in my case travelling with a twinge of 'flygskam', or flight shame, though clearly not enough. The highlight was a guided walk around the top of Mount Vesuvius's crater, high above a dense expanse of cotton-wool cloud of the kind you look out on from an Airbus.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius. Two of his letters give first- and second-hand accounts of this apocalyptic event, which devastated a vast area, and erased the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, covering them in so much ash and lava that they were not rediscovered for about 16 centuries.
Pliny's letters also describe his work as a governor in the Roman province of Bithynia (modern day Turkey), from where he wrote to Emperor Trajan about government maladministration, both local and central, bankruptcy as a result of unregulated public spending, and misplaced municipal enthusiasm.
For example, he complained about two abandoned attempts at building an aqueduct in Nicomedia, and money wasted on a theatre and gymnasium in Nicaea without having the site surveyed, eerily reminiscent of a certain 'garden village' in Oxfordshire on a site allocated without being properly assessed.
Likewise now, in England, we see grandiose plans for 'locally led' garden towns and villages competing against each other for central government funds to smother greenfield sites, when economic targeting and 'greening' of the many disadvantaged towns and cities in the country would be much more appropriate and sustainable. And we see the continuing crazy insistence on huge vanity projects, of which the CaMKOx Expressway and 'Growth Arc' is the example par excellence.
As our guide in Pompeii repeatedly stressed, the people 2,000 years ago were taken completely by surprise when the unbridled power of a volcano was inflicted upon them.
Today is different. We know how our wanton use of resources has triggered, or at the very least accelerated, potentially catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss. Unbridled forces of nature, hurricanes, floods, fire, drought and the passive power of mass extinction, have been unleashed with greater frequency and intensity through our own unprecedented capabilities.
Yet we still insist on initiating development projects that put human aspirations before the needs of the rest of nature, imperilling our own future at the same time.
Unhappily it is probably not melodramatic, or alarmist, to say that nature will survive, rising from the ashes in some other form, but many centuries may pass before sentient beings explore our remains, unless, among other changes to our attitude and lifestyle, we radically reform planning laws in nature's favour.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 15 June 2019

 

A Manifesto For Our Future

The recent local government elections brought into office a significant number of independent candidates, and indeed many independent-minded members of our national parties.
What they share in common is anger at having their planning system undermined by Whitehall to generate the sort of car-dependent sprawl our American cousins call Dumb Growth
Back in 2007, Smart Growth UK was launched with a bold Manifesto, reflecting the good ideas of the North American Smart Growth movement, but tailored to the UK scene. It was backed by major national groups.
I think we were ahead of the curve in 2007 and it's ever more relevant 12 years later.
Today, many people including elected councillors and even some MPs are looking for a new direction that reflects the real challenges we face in the 21st century.
So let me pose a question: Is this something that independent and independent-minded councillors and their supporters could now endorse as the basis of a shared platform?
Here is the Manifesto we agreed in 2007:

MANIFESTO
We believe that environmental change is fast approaching a tipping point and radical change is needed.
A hundred years of suburban sprawl fuelled by cheap oil and free availability of land has done untold damage. We have spread ourselves around our over-crowded island as if it were boundless, we have created a completely unsustainable transport system and, somewhere in all of this, we lost our sense of community.
In the 21st century we must do things differently.
We must change the way we develop our towns and cities and give renewed attention to how we use our countryside. We must rehumanize our towns and we must protect our countryside from sprawl.
We must find ways of getting about that don't drain our resources and wreck our environment. We must rebuild our urban communities, protect and value our urban fringes and restore our sense of society.
If we are to rise to these challenges, business and investment practice and public policy must be reviewed. The old order of separated land use, exclusive property investment categories and development which relies on road and air transport is drawing to a close.
It is time for new property products to meet new market conditions and new policies to meet these challenges.
We believe these challenges can be met. It's time for development that's environmentally benign, ecologically efficient and socially equitable. It's time for Smart Growth.

SMART GROWTH OBJECTIVES
We believe the principles developed by the Smart Growth movement should underpin our future development.
Smart Growth is an ethic of spatial development that is sustainable economically, environmentally and socially. It does not trade off long-term well-being for short-term gain and it considers the contribution that physical development makes to that well-being. It is about 'place making' but that will overwhelmingly be remaking our existing places rather than new ones.

Plan Compact Communities
- Smart Growth promotes well-designed, compact, functional communities and rejects land-hungry sprawl and wastage of greenfield land.

Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
- Smart Growth emphasises use of communities existing infrastructure and resources and conserves open space and urban fringes.

Provide sustainable transport choices
- Smart Growth reduces dependence on road transport and increases opportunities for walking, cycling and public transport. Towns, cities and villages should be pedestrian-friendly and rail-accessible.

Protect the unbuilt environment
- Smart Growth believes our countryside and open space is a precious environmental, social and economic resource. It should be protected and husbanded if we are to move towards a more sustainable society. Squandering it will create, not solve, problems for our towns and will do nothing for our national economy.

Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
- Smart Growth encourages communities to develop their own identity and vision, respecting their cultural and architectural heritage. It supports human-scale development and opposes large, monolithic developments, out-of-town retailing and 'big box' architecture.

Mix land uses
-Smart Growth supports a sensible mix of land uses to suit communities and which meet their daily needs.

Encourage communities to flourish and grow
-Smart Growth supports mixed-income, mixed-age, inclusive communities that take responsibility for their own development. Local economies should be developed to make them more self-supporting.

Create a range of housing opportunities and choice
-Smart Growth supports quality living for people of all income groups, ages and needs. We want human-scale development at appropriate densities to support sustainable transportation and local facilities.

Make development decisions fair and economically inclusive
-For communities to successfully implement Smart Growth they must ensure all three sectors of the economy public, private and community - function successfully and sustainably.

VALUES
-character, distinctiveness and authenticity
-maximum use of existing buildings and infrastructure
-most economical and efficient use of land
-minimum consumption of scarce natural resources e.g. minerals, water
-minimum contribution to emissions that lead to climate change, with full cognisance of the probable effects
-mixed, thriving communities

MEANS
-attention to, and conservation/enhancement of, existing assets and qualities
-effective fiscal and management incentives to efficient use and adaptive re-use of property accessibility and proximity of daily needs
-urban concentration, optimal housing and employment densities
-green techniques in (1) planning, design, construction/maintenance and conservation, and then in (2) management, to enable green living and working
-minimising and reducing the need to travel, especially by car, lorry and aeroplane
-minimising necessary energy consumption
-a range of employment opportunities and housing types and tenures
-the public, private and community sectors should review their operational requirements in the light of walkable or rail-served neighbourhoods.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 June 2019

 

Jump To It, Chancellor

Setting no less a person than the Chancellor of the Exchequer four tests he must meet if the infrastructure needs of the nation are to be met sounds like it could be the action of a pretty independent body.
With HM Treasury effectively running domestic policy, as it has done for some decades now, such boldness would take either a degree of courage or, at the very least, the knowledge that this apparent public dressing down has been agreed by both parties in advance.
Friday saw National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt writing to Philip Hammond to set out four tests he believes the Government must meet if next year's National Infrastructure Strategy is to meet the Commission's recent National Infrastructure Assessment.
Sir John's letter says meeting his four tests 'will be central to our assessment when we next come to review the Government's progress against our recommendations in early 2020'.
I must confess I find it hard to imagine Mr Hammond spilling his coffee when he read the letter and nervously barking instructions at civil servants all over the Treasury building ordering Government policy be wholly rewritten to meet the NIC's instructions.
The Commission is, officially at any rate, 'independent', so Sir John is technically allowed to take the Chancellor to task. But don't get too carried away with this idea of 'independence'. This is Whitehall independence, not independence as we know it.
In March 2016, the NIC had a fourth purpose added to its three-purpose remit, namely to 'maximize the potential of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor as a single knowledge-intensive cluster that competes on a global stage'.
Now you might have thought a genuinely independent body would have been given the freedom to consider whether building a million homes, a 150km motorway and much else besides in England's bread and vegetable basket was a good idea. But it wasn't.
Of course it did what it was told and came back with essentially the recommendations the Treasury had instructed it to produce.
Sir John's new tests: a long-term perspective, clear goals and plans, fiscal commitment and a genuine commitment to change, look reasonable enough. But when you look at much of the change it's demanding, you realise this isn't genuine independence. Nor is it, in the round, the infrastructure the country needs in a world where catastrophic climate change is blowing this way and where biodiversity is nearing collapse.
The Commission's idea of a cross-sectoral approach may have garnered international recognition, but it's not just a case of getting the approach right. You have to recommend the right things.
Some of the things the NIA demanded were fine and laudable and some weren't.
'Many of our recommendations, whether on nuclear power, urban transport, electric and autonomous vehicles or flood risk management, do not represent tweaks to existing policy but a fundamental shift, ' says the letter. 'The strategy needs to respond in the same spirit. '
But the NIC recommendations on electric cars and self-drive cars show it is still basically stuck in a 20th century mindset. And on HGVs, it pretty much bottled it.
Given that it's still supporting the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, increasingly seen as simply a developer's boondoggle and a petrolhead's racetrack, we can certainly hope Mr Hammond orders this part of his empire to remember who pays for it.
I'm afraid Sir John's belief that the reaction of 'stakeholders' to establishment of the NIC and its Infrastructure Assessment is 'overwhelmingly supportive' is well wide of the mark.
The day it obeyed the order to recommend in favour of the Arc was the day many decided the Commission, as presently structured, simply isn't fit for purpose.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 May 2019

 

When The Dog Fails To Bark

An essential function of an environmental watchdog is holding the Government to account.
Not my words but those of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee chair Neil Parish following the highly critical report by the Committee on the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill.
This matters. It matters a lot. Whitehall has a pretty dismal record on undermining attempts by allegedly independent environmental 'watchdogs'. It prefers lapdogs. If they don't behave themselves, they get shut in a kennel.
I was reminded of the excellent Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution which produced 29 widely admired reports over its 41 year life. Then the Government just shut it down, ostensibly to save money, but sighs of relief were audible all over London SW1.
The Commission had been established under Royal Warrant, rather than Act of Parliament, so shutting it was easy, but even a statutory basis may not be enough.
Today also saw publication of a new report by the Committee on Climate Change, another independent Government advisor. The report, Net Zero, has already quite rightly gained plaudits for boldly saying we need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and setting targets for doing so.
But the CCC's 'independence' only goes so far. The Government plainly sets it red lines beyond which it is not allowed to trespass. As I said in my blog on 16 November 2018, the Committee wasn't allowed to question the Government's current promotion of urban sprawl in its otherwise trenchant views on protecting land.
I got some stick at the time for daring to criticise the Committee, but its failure to call for a moratorium on 'soil sealing' significantly compromised its independence from central Government.
The importance of protecting the world's soils as part of our strategy for protecting the climate, biodiversity and food production was underlined by the recent biodiversity report from the UN's snappily titled Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This concluded biodiversity is declining throughout the planet and this must be halted. Unsustainable use of our resources, including land, threatens our whole future.
The new CCC report contains many good things and recognises the importance of soil carbon. But once again, it fails to address the threat to our soils, and our climate, from urban sprawl.
And this time it also fails to adequately address another key issue in climate change, and another key Smart Growth concern, namely road transport. It contains the usual injunctions to encourage walking, cycling and public transport and says new housing developments should be designed for access to public transport, though it doesn't even venture an opinion of the quality of such services or the preferred modes.
But perhaps most worryingly, it has joined the list of those evidently terrified of upsetting Britain's motorists who, as politicians know all too well, can sway election results.
The CCC report says, 'switching to electric vehicles will be essential'. Quite how this would reduce the embodied carbon in road vehicles, the accidents and congestion they cause, the amount of energy any pneumatic-tyred vehicle consumes or the urban sprawl and soil sealing they facilitate is not explained.
And when the Committee says 'vehicles', it pretty much admits that means cars and vans. While it admits zero carbon would mean HGVs switching from their current 100 percent diesel, it pretty much admits it hasn't a clue about how this might be achieved.
'The Government will need to make decisions how HGVs will be decarbonised in the second half of the 2020s,' it warns. 'This will necessitate small-scale trial deployments of hydrogen HGVs in a variety of fleets prior to this, in the UK or elsewhere. '
So don't hold your breath. Apart from anything else you'll probably have a lungful of PM2.5s emitted by HGVs.
So if even the CCC, widely and rightly admired as it is, feels itself subject to Government red lines, then it will plainly need more to achieve independence. A Royal Warrant can be seen off any time. Even an Act of Parliament is no guarantee.
Perhaps what's needed is a body that is recognised by statute but is otherwise wholly independent of Government. The National Trust springs to mind as an example.
Of course this raises huge issues of governance and funding. But if the EFRA Committee's belief that the new body does need to be independent is to be realised, it would need something of the sort.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 May 2019

 

Connecting Glasgow

I remain surprised by how many people in the UK still believe that converting our cities to sustainable transport by restricting motor vehicles and prioritizing public transport, rail-based especially, cycling and walking is neither politically nor practically possible.
Can I direct anyone who still believes this to read the Connecting Glasgow report from the city's Connectivity Commission which shows the opposite is true.
Making our cities' transport sustainable is practicable, politically desirable and affordable.
I won't go through the report in detail, but it's well worth a read.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 April 2019

 

A Critical Moment For Climate Change

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 April 2019

 

The Vision Thing

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 April 2019

 

Opacity And Secrecy

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 April 2019

 

Murder In Midsomershire

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 17 March 2019

 

Spring Is Here, Time To Stop Birds Nesting

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 March 2019

 

The Arc Is A Fight That Must Be Won

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 February 2019

 

The Hunt For Unicorns Goes On

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 February 2019

 

A Sewing Lesson

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


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 January 2019