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

 

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SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2016 BLOG

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Transit-oriented Intelligence

While the UK edges its way cautiously and timorously towards the concept of transit-oriented development, the United States has been adopting the concept with enthusiasm, and even pushing substantial public support in its direction.
The Federal Transit Administration, in partnership with Smart Growth America, has a project which aims to help communities build equitable, mixed-use development around transit stations or transit corridors, with a focus on development in economically disadvantaged areas.
The National Public Transportation Transit-Oriented Development Technical Assistance Initiative will run for four years, providing technical assistance and helping communities with planning.
Five communities have been selected to receive help in 2017 following the nine that received help this year. They are Birmingham, Alabama, Omaha, Nebraska, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Charlotte, North Carolina and Tacoma, Washington.
Back here in the good old UK of GB and NI, this blindingly obvious way forward is still stuck at the stage of gentle probing at conferences.
Meanwhile car-dependent garden suburbs remain our default development mode.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 December 2016

 

Rolling Fields Versus Rolling Green Belts

Here we go again.
According to press reports ministers are once again considering so-called green belt swaps to con the public into believing it is protecting areas which are supposed to be undeveloped in perpetuity when, in fact, they are going to allow them to be built on.
Green belts, according to England's increasingly ignored National Planning Policy Framework, are supposed to keep land permanently open. And to some of the valiant souls who battle against pointless sprawl, they are the finest achievement of the conservation movement over the past 100 years.
But successive Governments have leant on local authorities to allow building on significant areas of the green belts which surround most, though not all, major British conurbations. New Labour did it, the Coalition did it and the present Government has done it.
They get away with it thanks to a ridiculous but persistent belief among the public at large that all open countryside counts as The Green Belt. In reality there are a lot of green belts and the vast majority of Britains countryside is not so designated.
So, cynical proponents of urban sprawl can simply allow destruction of areas of green belt and designate a slightly larger area of countryside beyond it as green belt. Then the more mendacious politicians can get up and say The Green Belt has actually grown and the countryside is safe in our hands.
Now the Government is at it again, testing these waters with hints they're about to do this on an increased scale. So rolling green belts could become steam-rolling green belts.
A wretched coalition of volume house builders and so-called free-market think-tanks is pushing the idea that intense demand for housing should count as an exceptional circumstance to allow green belt building.
Well, here's the thing. The need to protect our undeveloped land is now an exceptional circumstance under which we need to protect our food and water production, soil, flood defences and all the intangibles the countryside provides.
So local planning authorities need to start now pushing to designate fresh areas of green belt around the existing ones, the areas, in fact, likely to be designated as rolling green belts.
Whitehall would no doubt try to stand in their way. But that would demonstrate with great clarity the utter hypocrisy of its approach.
And promote long-overdue interest in Smart Growth ways of meeting our housing needs.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 December 2016

 

Defining Tod

Transit Oriented Development, or TOD, is a concept which lacks a precise definition and is, within limits, the better for it.
So when I get asked to define it, I have to admit it covers a range of concepts though equally we need to be clear there have to be limits.
US practitioners who invented the concept use a range of definitions that we need not worry ourselves overmuch about. The key central theme is compact development around transit.
Of course, that leaves great room for interpretation. In some American cities, public transport of any kind is a recent novelty, so the term transit is often used to include buses. Other practitioners believe it should only refer to rail-based public transport which uses much less energy, provides a much more comfortable ride and is far superior to any type of bus when it comes to getting people out of their cars.
Then there's the issue of compact development. Certainly it means significantly higher residential density levels than the low-density sprawl still beloved by our garden suburb enthusiasts which squanders our scarce building land so wantonly.
The garden suburb and congested car commute ideal still remains the paradigm for many and I have no hesitation in dubbing this sprawl-and-crawl.
But early Smart Growth schemes in America went overboard with high densities. Compact development and densification need not mean high-rise, nor even flats instead of houses. And the absurdly high densities of some recent London high-rise schemes are as dumb as anything else.
US practitioners sometimes use TOD to refer to greenfield development. The population of some of its cities is fast expanding and many, like Denver, are responding with light-rail schemes instead of the traditional freeways. In some cases compact greenfield development is following the new transit stops and this is certainly, in the literal sense, TOD.
Now Whitehall has a toe in the water with its welcome proposals for commuter hubs, though early on this looked very like just building blocks of flats around main railway stations in large towns and cities.
I gather it has now moved on somewhat and is foreseeing modern mixed-use development around such stations and is developing proposals to tackle issues like land assembly.
But we can get so much more housing, employment space and regeneration out of the idea, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions too.
Back in February, Smart Growth UK responded to the DCLG consultation on the NPPF which included the commuter hub proposals. We set out some ideas for a firmer definition for TODs which would ensure maximum benefit without being too restrictive.
We said it should have, at its centre, a significant rail-based public transport facility, either heavy rail, metro, light-rail or tram.
The public transport services connecting with the TOD should be as intensive as the size of the settlement allows.
In a small town that would involve several bus routes. In a major city it would certainly involve a dense network, preferably including other rail-based options like light-rail and tram, and offering turn-up-and-go frequencies to major local destinations like a city centre, a major retail or employment area and substantial residential areas.
The TOD should be located within a substantial and relatively dense settlement with a contiguous population of, say, 40,000 people within a 4km radius.
It should already contain a mix of uses including retail.
It should be at least 5km from a motorway or dual-carriageway trunk road as it's supposed to be transit-oriented, not car-oriented.
It should be created wholly or predominantly on brownfield land.
It should not be more than 800m in radius, the distance it is easy for most people to walk to the main public transport facility.
Car parking capacity should be limited.
These principles remain valid and should form the basis for any definitive proposal.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 22 November 2016

 

Leeds Disunited

Back in the 1960s, Leeds used to advertise itself as the Motorway City and did itself a great deal of damage by road construction.
But, as the years went by, wiser counsels prevailed and the city laid plans for much more sustainable ways of getting about. In the 1990s, the city which had once had an enviably modern and comprehensive tramway started to make plans for a new light railway. The plans progressed and, early in the new century, work began on service diversions for the new scheme.
Then Whitehall struck and Leeds' plans for light rail were summarily tossed in the bin along with several new lines in Greater Manchester and systems in Portsmouth and Liverpool. The millions spent were wasted.
The politicians in Greater Manchester, however, stuck to their guns and fought for their proposals. Eventually, after a gap of years, they got all their new lines and are now reaping the benefits.
Leeds was more ambivalent, coming up with an alternative plan for a trolleybus system, presumably on the basis that Whitehall might accept something that wasn't a tram. Millions more were spent until the idea, recently, fell foul of a public inquiry.
Whitehall was for once, however, in benevolent mood. In a rare moment of indulgence it said Leeds City Council could spend the 173 million pounds the Government had allocated for the trolleybus on developing new transportation.
Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Light Rail Group, has pressed the Council to call a transport summit with business leaders to discuss reviving light rail ideas, something the West Yorkshire Combined Authority believes has merit.
And an outline scheme for a tram-train system serving the city centre, Leeds-Bradford Airport and utilizing the heavy rail route to Harrogate and York has been mooted.
Sadly, the Council is dragging its heels and, if nothing is done, Leeds will continue to be the largest conurbation in western Europe with no rapid transit. Although its leader, Judith Blake, in May bemoaned this fact, it now seems likely the Council will spend the 173 million on other things.
Given that the Council and WYCA allocated money also to the trolleybus, around 250 million pounds would be available which would certainly make a viable start on the tram-train scheme. And this could become the basis of a comprehensive transit system for the city region.
So those who run the city need to step back and ask themselves whether the legacy they want to leave is just coping with the burdens imposed by austerity, or to begin creating something fine that will still be benefitting Leeds 100 years from now.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 November 2016

 

Why Building Preservation Matters

I sometimes sense a degree of unease among UK Smart Growth supporters about the inclusion of protection for historic buildings and townscape in our policies.
I think this is a pity, as old buildings are a vital urban resource and have a great deal to offer in many respects. As the US National Trust for Historic Preservation recently put it, for instance, the greenest buildings are those that are already built.
This is, perhaps, not universally true, as anyone who has had to deal with the rubbish thrown up around the 1960s will know. But old buildings have a great deal of embodied energy worth saving, lend themselves to adaptation and environmental improvement and provide communities with a sense of continuity and belonging that few other things can provide.
Oh, and the pre-1914 ones tend to have been built in places that are accessible by sustainable transport modes.
The NTHP recently laid out a full case for protecting old buildings in its magazine and explained why they are a central concern for Smart Growth. I won't bother summarizing it, but it's well worth reading in full.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 November 2016

 

Garden Sheds

As we all know, Ebenezer Howard was a great advocate of garden cities.
His followers extended this land-hungry idea to promotion of garden suburbs and, later, garden villages and garden towns.
Now the mania for garden sprawl has gone even further. We have garden distribution centres.
The Cherwell District Council bid to make Bicester the distribution and shopping warehouse capital of, er, north Oxfordshire, you see, shows no sign of abating.
The latest approval from its Planning Committee is 18,394 square metres of logistics space, plus a further 44,314 square metres given outline consent, south-east of the town.
That's more than two-thirds of a million square feet more lorry-based distribution space conveniently close to the A41 and M40. Just what a country that urgently needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions needs.
Local residents had been led to expect something called Garden Town Bicester, with some rosy Edwardian vision of people tending their roses and wobbling around on safety bicycles.
Instead they're getting distribution warehouses and any dreams of employment growth will have to face the fact these things are pretty useless from that point of view.
Langford Village Community Association was ungrateful enough to point out that the Council has also recently approved a further half million square feet of warehousing on Skimmingdish Lane, next to a care home.
The Association says it would like to see a garden town, not a warehouse town.
But, of course, that pass was sold as soon as they were bamboozled into accepting that greenfield sprawl can ever be done sustainably in our overcrowded island. Once you accept the garden city philosophy you're lost.
Still, residents alarmed at the disappearance of this part of Oxfordshire can take heart from the comments of lead member for planning Colin Clarke who noted that Cherwell's location makes it popular with employers in the logistics sector. Too right.
But, he said, the Council has a responsibility to ensure prosperity and liveability go hand in hand which, according to him, means that large employment sites should be constructed in a sensitive way.
He was pleased that, working with the developer, a proposal had been developed with space for landscaping needed to mitigate the visual appearance of the site to people living nearby or travelling past.
And taking even more land of course.
Still, local people will be able to take heart from the sensitivity with which the huge metal sheds are built.
Garden sheds in fact.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 10 October 2016

 

The Times We Live In

An event which may have escaped your notice took place a couple of weeks back at Kirkleatham Museum near Redcar and should stand as a sign of our times.
This was the Festival of Thrift, now in its fourth year.
Some 35,000 visitors attended the Festival which aims to inspire and educate visitors about how to live sustainably in style.
A highlight of the day was the Phoenix Choir, formed for the Festival to celebrate 170 years of iron and steel making in Redcar.
Last year's closure of the steel works was of course the event which threw an even deeper shadow over a town still devastated by the destruction of UK heavy industry in the 1980s.
The Festival featured over 140 things to do to promote thrift and how to cope with economic devastation.
For those who live in the prosperous south of England, it should be a real reminder of how much, if not most, of the UK is having to live.
It should also provide pause for thought for those who believe we should build on the economic success of cities like Oxford and Cambridge by expanding them ad nauseam.
New jobs created in the prosperous south aren't a way of promoting growth in the north. Every job created in a prosperous area is one less job created where they're actually needed.
And for those areas short of housing, just take a look at the house prices in places like Redcar. Affordable barely begins to describe them.
The need for a massive regional rebalancing in the UK gets stronger with every year that passes.
And it's not only the economy of the depressed areas that would benefit. The pressure for car-dependent, low-density, greenfield sprawl in the south would also be eased.
That's why Smart Growth UK has always included regional policy as part of its principles, perhaps the one clear difference with our counterparts in North America who give it lower priority.
Today, the Redcar steel works closure is the subject of a BBC programme.
It includes an interview with Des Collins, the solicitor who successfully obtained damages for families with children with birth defects they believed were caused by remediation of the Corby steel works site.
Many believe the court ruled the remediation had actually caused the birth defects. It actually ruled it was capable of having done so, a crucial difference.
It would be most unfortunate if the wretched Corby saga were to be used today to prevent remediation of contaminated sites like Redcar. Remediation has made huge strides in the decades since Corby.
Properly regulated, there should be no threat to health. Indeed the only real danger is that local government cuts are threatening to undermine proper regulation.
Meanwhile here's a thought for the Redcar steel works site. Perhaps we could use it for steel making.
That may seem a million miles from economic reality. But we should remember that, in an increasingly dangerous world, a country incapable of making steel is a country that's incapable of defending itself.
Just a thought, but definitely another sign of the times.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 26 September 2016

 

Garden Dreams And Nightmares

West Oxfordshire District Council describes its plan for 2,200 homes and a science park on 320ha of prime Oxfordshire farmland as a genuine and timely opportunity to deliver an exemplar development for the 21st century drawing on well-planned, designed and sustainable garden city principles.
But, in reality, it would be a chunk of low-density, car-dependent urban sprawl at an unsustainable location. Virtually everything about it is wrong.
I sometimes feel a bit sorry for Ebenezer Howard as his ideals get mangled this way and that by those who claim to follow his garden city principles.
During his lifetime, they were seized on by supporters of garden suburbs who took his garden city ideas, which never really got much traction, and turned them into the default model for vast areas of 20th century sprawl.
Now they are being bent even wider and we are seeing so-called garden villages proposed, a fraction of the size of new settlement Howard believed would be viable.
The unimaginatively named West Oxfordshire Garden Village would, according to its prospectus, be located just across the A40 trunk road from Eynsham, an ancient village already partially engulfed by recent low-density sprawl.
As the prospectus notes, the A40 would give excellent road access to Oxford and the new developments around it and the prospectus says it should become a dual-carriageway.
Despite the usual hot air about sustainable transport, however, the development would be up to four miles from the nearest railway station though the promoters hope it would have a park-and-ride bus station.
In reality, its inhabitants would drive almost everywhere.
Much of the justification for the development is the city of Oxford's need for new housing to house its burgeoning workforce. Yet the Eynsham garden sprawl includes a substantial science park, set to increase local employment still further.
Oxfordshire doesn't need more employment. It may sound heresy to say so, but it probably needs less. Much of the UK is crying out for those jobs.
Nor does it need to have its farmland squandered on low-density housing. The prospectus doesn't specify densities, but you can be sure the low densities demanded by Howard's followers would be specified.
The Council says the site is free of constraints, though apparently this only means it is relatively flat, located outside the AONB and green belt, free of flood concerns and having no significant ecological or heritage interest.
Sustainability, or lack of it, is not apparently a constraint.
Howard's beneficial legacy is the planning system which we need now more than ever. His main desire, however, was not garden cities, but communitarian economics.
The world might be a better place if those ideas had been followed but, for the most part, they weren't. What did happen was his impractical ideas for garden cities became a recessive gene in planning.
Now, however, it's time to move on. Though not along the A40.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 September 2016

 

Unsustainable Urban Extensions

I often wonder how you distinguish a sustainable urban extension from a non-sustainable one.
The need to do this has, however, been removed by the promoters of all greenfield urban extensions, and those local plans which support them. Nowadays any urban extension, however destructive, is described as sustainable. Which seems to satisfy some people.
Sustainability, however, like Mae West's view of goodness, has nothing to do with it.
I was reminded of that by two recent decisions by the new communities secretary Sajid Javid on urban extensions outside Northampton and Aylesbury.
Neither of the councils involved is able to meet the Government's grotesquely misnamed objectively assessed five-year supply of building land. I sometimes wonder whether this test ought really to be called the subjectively assessed demand by builders for even more greenfield land. Which is what it usually is.
Both councils having thus been found wanting, however, the so-called presumption in favour of sustainable development was engaged.
This equally Orwellian bit of New Speak means they must accept unsustainable development whether they like it or not.
Mr Javid looks like continuing his predecessor's policy of not necessarily approving all housing where the presumption is engaged, thus becoming marginally less liberal than his predecessor-but-one, but is prepared to look at other factors. Sometimes. Some of them.
He turned down the 117 hectare Aylesbury extension because of adverse impacts on the landscape, the destruction of historic field patterns, it would have merged Aylesbury with Bierton and loss of high-quality agricultural land would have been lost.
But he approved the 96 hectare Northampton extension despite the fact it would destroy farmland, damage the landscape and the setting of an historic conservation area and fail to meet local plan requirements for open space. But submission of a reserved matters masterplan would deal with some of that apparently. So there.
Mr Javid agreed with an inspector that, taking that into account, it would represent sustainable development.
And now I see that urban extensions, which inevitably destroy farmland, parkland, woodland, open space, flood storage space, seal soil, damage landscapes and encourage car commuting are no longer simply described as sustainable urban extensions. They've also recently even been dubbed smarter growth.
Smarter than what, one wonders. Not quite as dumb growth as new settlements perhaps.
But while some urban extensions are less unsustainable than others, there's no such thing as a sustainable urban extension.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 22 August 2016

 

Dismal Science At Work

I wonder if anyone ever confuses the School of Economic Science, which is in London, with the London School of Economics.
The former teaches meditation and the philosophy that land is important and belongs equally to all humanity.
The latter teaches economics and the philosophy that land has a price and we need to build on the green belt bits of it.
LSE was at it again this week, with its dismal scientists producing a report called bizarrely A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt.
This says that, instead of chipping away at London's green belt as we do now, we should hack heartily away at it and build settlements which, apparently, make more sense strategically and economically. To those with vested interests anyway.
The LSE's strategic and economic settlements would be ribbon developments along transport corridors and would also include commercial and industrial space.
A pioneer corridor would run via Stansted to Cambridge.
And despite the fact this would follow the M11 and pass through a major airport, they argue this would reduce commuting by people living in the Ring City outside London's green belt. A high carbon strategy to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in fact. Interesting.
Of course long-distance commuting is a challenge green belts cause. The key things are to discourage people doing it by car and, more importantly, to move economic activity to the traditional cities in the parts of the UK which need it.
i.e. not London or Cambridge.
The LSE report modestly claims we could build a million homes on a mere 20,000 hectares of London's green belt, or twice as many if the radius were increased. To 50,000 hectares, or 500 square kilometres, incidentally.
But don't worry, the dismal economists would still allow a few green wedges to be saved. These would still be developed, but for recreational purposes because, apparently, the green belt doesn't do enough for the environment or aesthetics.
Well, who loves the sight of countryside when you can have more golf courses?
As CPRE's Paul Miner points out, green belts limit sprawl and provide the impetus for urban regeneration. Economists should know this.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 August 2016

 

A Smart Growth New Deal

This week marks the eighth anniversary of The Green New Deal, a document prepared by a group of environmentalists and economists proposing an alternative to the destructive globalized economics which then, and still today, prevent us achieving a sustainable future.
Published in July 2008, it was remarkably prescient in predicting a perfect storm brought about by a credit-fuelled financial crisis and exacerbated by accelerating climate change and oil prices. The document, published by the New Economics Foundation, is still worth a read.
Just three months later, the perfect storm they predicted broke upon the western world's economies which continue to function on an ocean of credit, but which still struggle to survive as solvent businesses.
I read with interest that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, is suggesting those continuing problems, coupled with the new challenges of our leaving the EU, may necessitate some radical changes in the Autumn Statement.
These may include an element of tax and spend, spending on infrastructure investment that is.
Most of the debate about these will, I suspect, centre on energy and on major transport links like motorways, airports and HS2. These are important topics for sure and those taking the decisions must bear in mind the need to reduce, not increase, our greenhouse gas emissions.
But there is plenty of infrastructure in transport and regeneration which is crying out for green investment. Our cities need light rail and metro schemes. Our countryside needs reopened railways.
Our urban areas are full of brownfield sites which need reclaiming and remediating. Our countryside is scarred with disused mineral workings and opencasts, derelict depots and even retail parks which need restoring to green end uses.
So there's a big opportunity here for a Smart Growth New Deal. Who, one wonders, is up for it.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 25 July 2016

 

Towards A General Renaissance

What to do with the low-density suburban sprawl which has covered so much of our country in the past 100 years is indeed a vexing question.
A promising start would, of course, be to stop creating more of it, but that is a concept both the Government and the devolved administrations struggle to embrace, such is the pressure from certain organs of the press for more of what they like to call family homes.
We are certainly short of homes, but the least pressing need by far is for large homes built at low densities on greenfield plots. But they, of course, are the most profitable, so we go on building the wrong sorts of homes in the wrong places.
Suburbia as a concept has escaped much scrutiny recently, but all that has changed with a report from the Smith Institute called Towards a Suburban Renaissance, recalling the title of the Urban Taskforce report in 1999.
It's well worth reading in its entirety and does at least name-check Smart Growth, though it mostly limits itself to the issues which afflict suburbia including its low-density and car-dependency. And it calls for a suburban taskforce to tackle the problems.
Of course the challenges of suburbia such as high transport costs and poor access to services are well known on the other side of the Pond and young Americans are pouring back into the cities, leaving its hypersprawl in decline. Now the same thing appears to be happening here.
This is one of the key issues that Smart Growth tackles, but only one. And the problems of urban sprawl and unsustainable transport go far beyond suburbia. That's why an holistic philosophy like Smart Growth is needed to draw together all the separate strands. They are not separate problems, they are aspects of the same problem.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 July 2016

 

We Know Best, Apparently

There is a wilful reluctance in this country to accept what a very dangerous thing urban sprawl is, demonstrated once again by the refusal of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee to consider soil sealing in its otherwise excellent recent report on soil health.
But, as we are currently watching Europe closely, both in terms of football and the referendum, it would be worth everyone reading an important report from the European Environment Agency and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment on the problem.
Urban Sprawl in Europe provides a comparison of sprawl in 32 European countries and its conclusions are stark.
Europe's worst areas of sprawl are in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, western Germany and, of course, southern England.
The period analysed, 2006-2009, saw a 5 percent increase in sprawl. That's in just three years.
It identifies detrimental and long-lasting effects on the environment, including loss of fertile farmland, soil sealing and loss of essential ecological functions.
The report also points to higher greenhouse gas emissions, higher infrastructure costs for transport, water and electricity and damage to open landscapes. Sprawl damages and fragments habitats and biodiversity.
Socio-economic impacts include increased demand for infrastructure, especially roads, and it increases car-dependency. It also has a cascade effect on daily life in areas with low levels of services and on health in terms of pollution, stress and accidents.
The report calls for better monitoring, increased densities, targets to limit sprawl and stronger spatial and regional planning.
Smart growth in fact.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 June 2016

 

The Appliance Of Science

That politicians both national and local can be seduced by lobbyists selling snake oil is hardly news. There are, nevertheless, times when technology can provide genuine ways of moving forward, or indeed, moving sustainably.
I was reminded of this by an announcement by US sustainable transport campaign, Transportation for America. The organisation has just announced a partnership with Sidewalk Labs to help cities develop affordable transport options using emerging technologies.
The recent Government plans for autonomous vehicles show all too clearly how politicians can be seduced by pointless or even destructive new gizmos. But we should never ignore the potential of technology to move in the right direction.
T4America says cities can either help shape the technology shaping their cities or find themselves shaped by it. Any dog can be a guide dog if you don't know where you're going, and if you don't know where you're going, any technology will get you there, it says.
The US Department of Transportation is currently preparing to announce the winner of its Smart Cities Challenge, but this will leave 77 other US cities who applied empty handed. The new initiative is to help them and to widen T4America's previous focus on federal policy.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 09 June 2016

 

Growth

Environmentalists recognised there are limits to growth around 45 years ago. But much of the rest of world still has some catching up to do.
So when local authorities start claiming to be pro-growth-councils, we should remember different people mean different things by growth. In HM Treasury and its dwindling bunch of admirers, it all too often means simply growth in greenfield housing sprawl.
I was reminded of this at an event in Portcullis House yesterday, when the Parliamentary All Party Groups on Civic Societies and Local Democracy considered whether the planning system is working. The event was supported by Civic Voice and the National Association of Local Councils.
As a Parliamentary event, it was dominated by parliamentarians, notably Local Government Association chairman, Lord Porter of Spalding.
He was in characteristically feisty mood and began his address by attacking the audience of local councillors and civic society leaders, many of whom have formulated neighbourhood plans.
Most of these, he confidently asserted, were created by people who simply wanted less homes built in their areas than planned.
Now of course it's true that many people want fewer homes than those being forced on them by the Government because the way they're being planned is altogether unsustainable. But these are not stupid people. They knew right from the start the neighbourhood plans system had been undermined by a Government rule that they could not stipulate fewer homes than required in the local plan. So that was never a possibility.
Then he went on to attack local plans which are supposed to be the bedrock of the system. The trouble with them, he opined, is that once you have one in place, the council can turn down some applications for housing, thus preventing their areas benefiting from growth. This evidently now consists wholly of housing growth, so presumably we should stuff the economy.
He brusquely rejected complaints that local authorities nowadays have insufficient planners, despite one delegate complaining their council had lost two-thirds of its planning staff. He claimed to have an office full of planners and told a delegate who complained one could no longer get planners on the phone to complain to him. If they happen to live in South Holland district of course.
Lord Porter then commended England's National Planning Policy Framework, which is not surprising as he was one of the four people who originally drafted the wretched document. Despite the usual puff about it replacing thousands of pages of useless verbiage and containing many good things, the truth is that it undermined sustainable development disastrously.
It promulgated the view that all you need for growth is to build more of the wrong type of homes, in the wrong places and squander precious building land on low-densities in the process.
True, it contains many pious platitudes about sustainable development. But it's all undermined by its provisions on housing growth which trump any positive provisions.
The worrying thing, though, is that Cllr Porter is in many ways the voice of local government in Whitehall. He noted that he regularly meets Greg Clark to discuss planning issues, just as he used to meet Eric Pickles.
What's really dismaying is that such archaic and destructive views on planning are still presented as the view of local government and the Conservative Party. Well I have news for Lord Porter. They reflect the views of precious few of the Conservatives or people in local government that I meet.
And conflating housing growth with economic growth is an insult to all our intelligences.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 June 2016

 

Five Out Of Ten

Select committees of MPs are unpredictable creatures. They play an important role in holding the Government, and Whitehall, to account. But sometimes they also get seduced by the prospect of a good headline.
This week's Commons Environmental Audit Committee report on soil health is a great bit of work, as far as it goes anyway.
Last winter Smart Growth UK put in written evidence to the inquiry in response to its call for views on soil health. Soil has long been the neglected element, getting little of the environmental attention lavished on air or water, and the old cliche about it being treated like dirt is, sadly, true.
SGUK's evidence concentrated on two important areas. The first was the issue of land contamination. We drew attention to the neglect of the legislation which requires local authorities to investigate their areas for sites where historic land contamination is threatening human health or the water or natural environment.
DEFRA has run down the small pot of funds for this important work to zero and the devolved administrations never spent much. So today, sites virtually never receive the remediation they need unless someone is proposing to build something there. The Part 2A system is at a virtual halt.
Spurred on by our evidence, the Committee grilled several witnesses on the subject. It was not impressed by the minister, Rory Stewart who said councils should pay for this, despite the penury the Treasury has reduced them to. Its report contains a ringing call to action.
The second issue SGUK raised was soil sealing, the destructive process by which soil is prevented from carrying out its vital ecosystem service functions by being covered up, thanks to urban sprawl and road building.
The Committee made some important points about soils' role in ecosystem services and rightly drew attention to the issues of soil carbon and destruction of peat. It called for better monitoring of agricultural soils.
But on soil sealing its report sadly remained silent. And that's a shame.
Land contamination is a very important issue, involving huge environmental damage which needs to be addressed.
Soil sealing is even more damaging and Europe's faltering efforts to tackle it have come to naught.
It's hard to understand why everyone is so determined to ignore this rogue elephant in the room.
So, five out of ten for the Committee.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 June 2016

 

Modern Transport Baloney

Autonomous vehicles are the latest gizmo to get the politicians buzzing and the Department of Transport is busy working on legislation to allow driverless cars or platoons of lorries on to our roads.
A Modern Transport Bill is promised.
This Heath Robinson idea is currently engaging platoons, not of lorries, but of lobbyists. Politicians are desperate to jump on whatever is the next bandwagon on Top Gear.
Or nowadays, perhaps, Jeremy Clarkson's infantile alternative.
Why this is a really bad idea is explained in some detail in an article by Campaign for Better Transport chief executive Stephen Joseph.
It really should be required reading for anyone who is at all attracted by this idea.
He takes it apart without even bothering to mention that pneumatic-tyred vehicles use far more energy than steel-wheeled. So there are climate change impacts as well.
Time for a reality check in Whitehall I think.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 June 2016

 

Off Their Trolleys

That transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin should finally have ruled against proposals for trolley buses in Leeds was drearily predictable, an expensive foul up entirely created by Whitehall.
Virtually all the blame must lie with the Department for Transport which managed to get the excellent light rail scheme planned for the city kicked out in 2005. Preliminary construction was already underway, so millions of pounds were wasted.
The DfT was alarmed that several major cities were planning light rail schemes and axed the lot. After all, it had important jobs to do, like making us more dependent on cars and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Leeds City Council responded as best it could with the trolley bus scheme which just might have been convertible to a light rail operation at some future time when sane transport policies are adopted nationally.
But the choice brought its limitations. The inquiry inspector picked up the fact that the greenhouse gas emissions would have been little improved over motor buses.
That's one of the big drawbacks of pneumatic-tyred vehicles. They use very much more fuel than steel-wheeled.
Rather bizarrely, the Government inspector also concluded the scheme was unacceptable because it didn't serve the areas in greatest need of regeneration.
This is the same Government that would have moaned any public transport scheme serving areas in need of regeneration, and hence lacking in economic activity, was not commercially viable.
Let's hope Leeds responds in a positive way, and puts a light rail scheme back on the table.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 25 May 2016

 

A Very Peculiar Crisis

England has a housing crisis. It must have one. Politicians, the media and house builders keep telling us it has one.
So it must have one. Obviously.
But, as I've said before, no-one actually agrees what constitutes this crisis.
Ministers and the popular press would have you believe the crisis lies in the fact that few of us can now buy our first home as soon as we're out of nappies. The fact that most young people couldn't do that at any time between the last Ice Age and the 1980s is fading from national memory.
English national planning policy has been reduced to 50 pages. Hurrah. But, the way it's worked out, the Treasury could have reduced it to one line saying Build More Houses Or Else.
Ministers will tell you we need to build more homes. And we do. But not everywhere.
In large parts of the Treasury's bizarrely named Northern Powerhouse, the housing market is close to collapse. They have plenty of homes, but not enough jobs, thanks to the increasing failure of regional economic policy.
And house builders find it most profitable to build as few homes as possible on our precious building land, not as many.
But there are other factors in play too, ones we overlook. The New Economics Foundation blog has a 3-minute explanation of the crisis.
Not sure how you separate house prices from land values. But it's well worth a watch.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 May 2016

 

Combatting Climate Change

The sign on the wall proclaimed Our Commitment to Combatting Climate Change.
Nothing wrong with that, of course.
Except that the building in question was a motorway service area.
Just metres away from the notice was the petrol station where, every day, many tonnes of fossil fuel are distributed to be converted into greenhouse gases. With no commitment to fighting climate change whatsoever.
It was a graphic illustration of the extraordinarily dissociative personality that grips people when it comes to climate change.
They accept that electricity generation must be decarbonized. But the penny is still a million miles from dropping that decarbonizing transport will mean big changes in the way we travel.
Just this week there was an informal meeting of European transport and environment ministers asking whether Europe is ready for a new era in transport and logistics.
No doubt there are all sorts of initiatives to tinker with the problem. But I currently see no sign of the big changes in the way we travel and move our goods around that we need.
While we anti-sprawl campaigners bemoan the low-density greenfield housing that has caused so much damage in recent years, the most dangerous sprawl currently is the building of lorry distribution depots near motorway interchanges, a climate change disaster as well as a land one.
It's been a pretty cold spring in Britain so far. But, worldwide, the last two months have been by far the warmest ever recorded. Things may well be accelerating.
But not, alas, our commitment to combatting climate change.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 19 April 2016

 

Out-of-town

Northern Ireland environment minister Mark H Durkan was probably taking a bit of a risk when he approved the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan without taking it to the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Executive for approval.
So it was perhaps inevitable that its opponents, who included the then enterprise minister and now first minister Arlene Foster, should have run off to the High Court and got it halted. But the issue of urban sprawl, a key objective it sought to tackle, is too important to be left to judges and those with antediluvian attitudes to planning.
The key issue was a plan by promoters including the John Lewis group, a partnership many regard as saintly, to extend a huge, car-dependent out-of-town shopping complex at Sprucefield.
Mr Durkan, quite rightly, believed this would be enormously damaging to the existing shopping centres in the Greater Belfast region. So the Plan imposed a limitation on it, limiting it to bulky goods only, not at all what its promoters wanted.
There's a peculiar fascination with urban sprawl in Northern Ireland. Some of the attitudes you hear could have come straight out of the 1960s.
Mr Durkan is also trying to impose planning guidance limiting urban sprawl in the Ulster countryside, but is finding opposition from the huge number of people whose dream is a bungalow in a beauty spot.
Or what was a beauty spot until the bungalow was built.
It really is time for Northern Ireland to face up to the dangers of sprawl. Mr Durkan may have exceeded his authority with the Belfast Plan, but it was in a good cause.
He needs support from the rest of the Executive, not opposition. Instead of which they're abolishing his Department.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 March 2016

 

In The Eye Of The Beholder

Back in the 19th century, there was a body called the Kyrle Society whose objective was to bring beauty to the poor. It provided books and open spaces to the disadvantaged and influenced the decoration and design of hospitals, schools and clubs.
It was enormously successful at first and had branches all over the country. But it gradually got sucked in to the protection, rather than promotion, of beauty, such were the times. And eventually it got superseded by organisations like the National Trust whose prime purpose was protecting our natural and built heritage and it faded away in the early 20th century.
Fast forward a hundred years and there's now another initiative designed to promote beauty.
The Prince's Foundation for Building Community has launched the Beauty in My Back Yard initiative designed to allow local people to influence new housing in their area. It's a toolkit designed to allow local communities, including those preparing neighbourhood plans or hoping to influence local plans, to set design standards.
Developers, not always at the forefront of good design, would have the incentive of working with, rather than against, communities. They would have clarity on the place making principles, elevational proportions, materials and standards expected of them and find a smoother planning process as a result.
The process, involving workshops, is explained on the initiative website.
And it's good to see too that a range of bodies like the Campaign to Protect Rural England and National Trust have signed up to this joint initiative.
I only have a couple of slight worries.
The first is that current English planning guidance, despite a lot of fine words about the importance of good design, then goes on to say that prescriptive design standards should not be imposed. Sadly that's typical of the contradictions in the National Planning Policy Framework, which we hope the current rethink will address.
The second is the name of the new initiative, Bimby.
Some may find it attractive, some may find it silly, but that's not the issue. The problem is that we've spent several years trying to get that wretched word Nimby out of popular discourse. It's always, and only, used to attack people trying to protect their local environment by people who want to make money out of trashing it.
After this was pointed out, it began to slide out of the language. Calling something, however positive, Bimby runs a big risk of setting that process back.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 March 2016

 

Rational Motives

The front page of the London Evening Standard last night yelled at me in big letters that we should Build on Green Belt to Solve Crisis.
Exactly what crisis is not specified in the headline, but this certainly cannot be the looming environmental crisis which would be exacerbated by building on green belts, or open land of any description.
It is, apparently, the Housing Crisis, a peculiar crisis, as no-one who spends their time yelling about it actually agrees what constitutes it.
The Standard story's version of the Crisis is that hoary old chestnut about building colossal numbers of homes in London to meet whatever fantasy population growth target the writer happens to choose.
What sparked it was a report by a planning consultant, who I won't dignify by naming, saying all types of house building in London must be maximized. And, indeed, all types of housing anywhere near London.
So, says this expert, we have to maximize brownfield development, tall buildings, green belt building, garden cities, estate redevelopment, densification of the suburbs, transport corridors and high density town centres.
And building prefabs on the Goodwin Sands, for all I know.
Bizarrely, Shelter was persuaded to add its name to this report though it really should know better.
I can't believe anyone really thinks that building thousands of low-density market homes on greenfield sites around the capital is going to do anything for affordable housing in the capital. But perhaps they do.
Now we do indeed need to do some of the things on the list. But others, like all the green belt development and garden cities, would merely allow developers to ignore London's vast wealth of brownfield sites. They always do when greenfield alternatives are available. That's why we urgently need a return to brownfield-first.
And there's another question we should ask before we ask whether London needs vast numbers of new homes. That's whether it actually has too many jobs.
When the economic history of the early 21st century comes to be written, the UK's hopeless economic imbalance will be a matter of wonder. Only a deeply dysfunctional society could have allowed economic activity to concentrate on flaky and vulnerable financial services in London. We urgently need to export economic activity and jobs to the rest of the UK, even if it means some billionaires becoming a little less rich.
And planners are, deep down, supposed to be geographers.
But, just looking at the list of things the report recommends prompts a striking thought. The more of them we do, the more planning consultants get rich.
Ah.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 March 2016

 

Getting It Right

Government consultations on English planning policy, and Parliamentarian responses to it, are coming thick and fast at the moment.
Consultations have just closed on reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework. Meanwhile the Housing and Planning Bill is still before Parliament. But, even before it's finalized, another huge consultation paper emerges on its implementation.
And a Smart Growth UK response to the NPPF consultation has also been submitted. Meanwhile committees of MPs and peers are offering their own thoughts on the process.
There are many, many aspects to all of this, of course. But two things shine out.
The first is that the presumption in favour of brownfield development proposed, while welcome in itself, would be weak and little match for the many NPPF policies designed to work in favour of greenfield development.
If the Government's admirable stated objectives for brownfield development are to be achieved, what's clearly needed is a return to a strong brownfield-first policy.
The other thing is brownfield registers. These also are plainly desirable as developers often say they are unaware of the opportunities local brownfield sites offer.
Entry of a site on such a register would mean it would have planning permission-in-principle for housing. That's fair enough. The trouble is that permission-in-principle would also be enjoyed by any site, brownfield or greenfield, as soon as it appears in a local plan or neighbourhood plan.
At that point brownfield sites would then have to get across a further obstacle, namely meeting the requirements of brownfield registers. So they would simply become a fresh bureaucratic obstacle to brownfield development, but not greenfield.
What's needed here is that, initially at any rate, the permission-in-principle mechanism should only be introduced for sites on the brownfield register. That might actually allow the Government to meet its own objectives.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 February 2016

 

A Vital Element

It may have escaped your notice but last year, 2015, was International Year of Soils.
The UK has some of the most diverse geology in the world and also some of the most productive soils. They are also some of the most threatened, so it was disappointing we joined the majority of countries around the globe in mostly ignoring the Year.
One body which didn't, however, was the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. It has launched an inquiry into soil health in the UK. And while its current inquiry into flooding may grab the headlines, its soil inquiry is equally important.
This may not seem, at first sight an obvious Smart Growth issue. But Smart Growth works to protect soils in several ways.
These include stopping urban sprawl sealing our soils and preventing them from carrying out there remarkable range of ecosystem services. And brownfield-first policies include remediation of soils damaged by contamination.
There are others, but the coalition's response to the Committee concentrated on these two.
Let's hope the Committee's deliberations give these the weight they deserve.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 27 January 2016

 

Time For An Ebbsfleet Rethink

One of todays papers carries an analysis of concerns over how few homes have been built at the Ebbsfleet site in Kent, a vast site long earmarked for residential development.
There are many reasons why insufficient homes are being built at Ebbsfleet but its masterplan plainly needs a rethink for a number of reasons and the newspaper explores some of these.
It notes that, although some volume house builders have long had outline consent for thousands of homes on the site, they have so far managed to build just 65 of the 15,000 the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation dreams of.
And the homes they plan are the usual dreary boxes they shove up anywhere, while claiming to respect local vernacular of course.
Lord Rogers is cited as complaining that it's unsustainable to build at Ebbsfleet when huge brownfield sites in London Docklands remain undeveloped.
And of course he is right we should use such sites first and brownfield-first urgently needs reinstatement in national planning policy.
But such is the pressure for unsustainable greenfield development in the South East we can hardly ignore sites like those round Swanscombe which are predominantly brownfield.
But it's the whole garden suburb masterplan at Ebbsfleet that's misconceived. It needs to be scrapped and started afresh.
Firstly, we need to move on from this 20th century garden suburb type model.
Its low-densities squander precious building land. Its design requires dysfunctional road layouts, ensuring people drive as much as possible.
That's no longer acceptable in an era of climate change.
Then it needs redesigning to prioritize sustainable transport walking, cycling and high-quality public transport, rail-based where possible.
There is no reason Ebbsfleet and the adjoining towns shouldn't enjoy one of the new simple light rail schemes now being developed. Recent research shows getting people out of their cars needs more than access to a railway station.
Moderate increases in density don't mean town cramming.
Our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors built compact, functional and communitarian towns and cities. Garden city thinking eroded that and gave us a century of sprawl.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 January 2016