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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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A Five Billion Pound National Disgrace

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 February 2018


Transformational Dreams

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 January 2018


An Egregious Future

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 January 2018


A Property Desiring Democracy

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 January 2018