smart growth uk


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.


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Yellow Days

As the world meets in Poland to discuss, yet again, what to do about climate change, those who hold shares in oil, coal or gas will have taken heart from the Gilet Jaune movement in France which has driven its Government to abandon plans to raise oil prices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The news, an inside page footnote in many papers, that global carbon dioxide emissions had shot up by 2.7 per cent in 2017-18, will have cast further gloom on the proceedings. At that rate of growth, the gloomy prognostications about a five degree rise by 2100 and the end of civilisation will actually look optimistic.
And anyone who remembers the lorry drivers' and tanker drivers' dispute of 2000 will find no cause for smugness about the absence of Gilet Jaune here. The carbon addicts won here then, and fuel taxes haven't risen.
So it was with more than usual interest I attended an event at the Royal Geographical Society last night discussing whether the Paris Agreement, intended to limit warming to one-and-a-half degrees, is a dead letter.
There was a surprising degree of optimism from some speakers, however. All that has to be done, apparently, to secure the 'zero net emissions' politicians pursue, is to impose taxes on fossil fuel consumption, then pay back households a national average equivalent sum. That way those who don't use so much, or can't afford to use so much, get better off and those who drive gas guzzlers, fly long distances or crank up their thermostats would be worse off. Simple.
Well, it's a nice idea and it has potential. One shouldn't let the obvious drawbacks that people grumble about higher prices, higher taxes especially but barely notice tax breaks put us off any attempt to tackle climate change. We need to examine all routes.
But the panel at the RGS meeting was also of the opinion that we could still maintain at least some of the carbon-hungry elements of our life style. Electric cars were lauded as a green alternative to petrol and diesel.
This is popular with politicians who are terrified of upsetting motorists. But electric cars cause as much congestion and accidents as petrol or diesel. They emit more particulates than their advocates admit thanks to tyre wear, and they are just as good at underpinning unsustainable urban sprawl.
And no-one seems able to tell me whether our planned power generation or grid capacity could cope with adding the fuel needs of over 30 million cars to them. Or, indeed, how much retail electricity prices would have to rise if that happened.
I believe the imperative must remain reducing our overall energy consumption and that means, among other things, always preferring steel-wheel-on-steel-rail to pneumatic tyres which waste so much energy on continuously compressing the air they contain.
Of course, one reason for the Gilet Jaune protests in Paris, is because the Government proposed to keep most of the revenues raised from the higher taxes. As green initiatives went, it was a bit of a failure.
But another factor behind Gilet Jaune is relative poverty. What the protesters failed to realise, however, is that one reason they're poor is that they have to drive long distances to work.
30 years ago in the US, inner cities were falling into chaos as the more affluent fled to distant suburbs. But the success of the Smart Growth movement has prompted people to relocate back to central cities in large numbers, and property prices are now falling in many sprawling outer suburbs.
People in the UK understandably complain about high housing costs, but forget that the high cost of commuting, partly because of high rail fares and partly because motoring is inherently expensive, is a high and unnecessary part of their household expenditure.
People accept long drives to work as inevitable, which they're not. They're the result of 100 years of garden suburb planning.
Compact, transit-oriented development isn't some green luxury. It must be a central part of our response to climate change.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 December 2018


Village Football, Armaments And The Planning System

When I was much younger, I kept a rather dull daily diary for a few years.
The brief entry for 22 November 1975 reminds me that Eynsham Reserves played away versus Adlestrop in the Cup, on the pitch at Oddington. Unfortunately we lost 1-6 and I noted that I thought Adlestrop was in Gloucestershire.
I was a student at the time, and this was the first defeat since I had started playing football for Eynsham village. What the diary entry fails to say, the interesting bit, is that we played at Oddington because Adlestrop was too hilly to have a pitch of its own and that the pitch at Oddington was itself on a fairly steep slope.
The canny Adlestropians, well aware how to maximise home advantage, presumably won the toss because we played uphill in the first half. For some time we were quite unable to adjust to the slope and, needless to say, at half-time we were 5-0 down. However, in the second 45 minutes, with the slope now in our favour, we came to grips with the conditions and drew the half 1-1. But that still meant Adlestrop had inflicted a heavy defeat on us, and were perhaps not too worried about conceding a goal once they had the game sown up.
I mention this because it's an apt metaphor for individuals confronted by the planning system, and by the group of powerful companies and related organisations at the heart of it who could collectively be called 'The Transport-Developer Complex'.
Just as the 'Military-Industrial Complex' had a huge impact on the security policy of both East and West during the Cold War, so the Transport-Developer Complex has more power and influence over planning and housing policy than is good for the country's inhabitants, both human and non-human.
The more obtrusive the 'transport' element, roads, airports and HS2 for example, the more power the Complex seems to have, doubtless because of the colossal amounts of money involved. And we are repeatedly told that infrastructure-building, and new roads in particular, is the best or only way to 'unlock' funds for housing.
Thus, when a new expressway, garden town or village is imposed on a local population and the countryside, any objectors find themselves confronted by decisions already taken and by a bafflingly complicated planning system with which the Transport-Developer Complex is entirely familiar and knows how to manipulate.
The Complex, often in collusion with the authorities, then ratchets the process inexorably forward by providing just enough 'evidence' to get maximalist plans over each successive planning hurdle. These hurdles were originally designed in good faith as accountability checks, but have subsequently become so riddled with holes as to make the momentum generally unstoppable and irreversible.
So much for the first half of the game. In the second 45 minutes, the Transport-Developer Complex, and the public authorities under its influence, finally begin to address all the many constraints and disadvantages of the development, which objectors have been vainly pointing out for some time. The Complex is now willing to make one or two concessions, because it no longer cares. It has won the battle and maintained its power and influence for the future.
To be fair, one should acknowledge that, during the Cold War, the threat from the former Soviet Union existed in both perception and reality and needed to be kept at bay. The Military-Industrial Complex played a necessary part in the Western response, but it became the driver of policy rather than one more strand of an approach that encompassed many levels, most of them non-military.
Likewise, it is true that our transport infrastructure is creaking badly and the housing market has become dysfunctional, with many people needing somewhere to live affordably.
But the Transport-Developer Complex, which does have an important part to play, has been allowed to take control of policy to deal with these problems, when a holistic approach is required that also fully addresses the needs of the non-human world, food production and our own long-term health and which targets investment at those parts of the country that are lagging behind the rest.
That's where economic growth should mostly come from, not from the already privileged and successful, who can look after themselves without extra help from central and local government.
In 1915, Edward Thomas wrote a famous poem called 'Adlestrop', in which he described how, when his train stopped briefly and 'unwontedly' at the village's silent station, 'for that minute' he heard 'all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire' singing.
If the Transport-Developer Complex continues to wield the power and influence that it currently holds, unchecked and without sufficient accountability, there will be far fewer birds singing in the future, and those that do will be drowned out by the traffic.

Posted by Nigel Pearce on 04 December 2018


Democracy, Populism And Planning

All around the world, democracy is facing a bit of a shaky future. We may have been here before, but the travails that beset the world last time this happened inspire little confidence in the future, even if democracy survived.
Right now, learned academics are grappling with new definitions of populism to try to understand this process. Much of this is tied up with a shift in the politics of the right, from a concentration on neo-liberal economics back to more nationalistic concerns. How this will all pan out I have as little idea as anyone else, but democracy is undoubtedly looking a bit wobbly.
So it does give one a glimmer of optimism when a report appears calling for a return to more democratic involvement in our public life, in this case the English planning system. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that democracy in planning has suffered grievously under governments of all political stripes since HM Treasury decided to take control more than 15 years ago.
So I approached the Town and Country Planning Association's Raynsford Review with a little more confidence than I might otherwise have done. In recent years the Association has weakened the high regard in which it was once held through its passionate and ill-considered pursuit of its fundamentalist garden city philosophy, dressed up as garden towns, garden villages, garden communities or, for all I know, garden ornaments.
Smart Growth UK did not submit evidence to the Review as there was no enthusiasm at all amongst our supporters for doing so and quite a few of them are involved in fighting TCPA-supported major developments. Yet there are good things in the Review, particularly its call for greater public involvement in the system and a return to national planning.
'If the system is failing to secure the support of those it is designed to serve, it is also failing to meet the challenges that our country faces, including the need to address the inequalities between places and people, the serious consequences of climate change, and the need to accommodate significant population growth in good-quality healthy homes,' says the Executive Summary. Amen to that.
There is little one could disagree with in the six overarching 'propositions' on which its recommendations are based except that they are a bit vague and anodyne, which is possibly inevitable.
There is also much in the 24 recommendations, especially re-empowerment of local authorities in the planning system, with which few would disagree.
And while Mr Raynsford and his Panel largely stayed off the TCPA garden community obsession, it does sneak in here and there, like the aptly numbered Recommendation 13 proposing 'bespoke delivery bodies to deal with long-term planning problems'. The justification offered is to ensure delivery of cross-border issues like major new settlements, and it proposes creation of development corporations to impose them. So much for democracy.
And so much too for Recommendation 6 on increased accountability and community participation. The proposed 'covenant for the community' is interesting, even if did alarm the RTPI which urged instead doing more 'to engage with the silent majority who could be supportive of well-designed development'.
Well actually we're all supportive of well-designed development, it's just that we disagree on what constitutes it.
But I do wonder if I'm the only one getting a little bit twitchy about the power people want to invest in local plans. I well understand the benefits of plan-led development over the past 28 years, but the danger is that it undermines the importance of a strong and robust development control system which the TCPA, especially in its entirely admirable attack on the proliferation of permitted development, appears to support.
If one really does support greater public involvement, as the founders of the planning system in 1947 did, then turning the local plan into an absolutely definitive final statement is dangerous. Frankly, serious engagement in the plan-making system requires at least a level of planning expertise roughly equivalent to an RTPI licentiate. The system has become an aggressive monster, largely controlled by Whitehall, which reduces even those few who make the effort to get seriously engaged to despair.
It would take more than Mr Raynsford's recommendations for improving the plan system to change this and, indeed, proposing limiting the right of the development control system to challenge a local plan policy by inclusion of 'exceptionally' when material conditions indicate otherwise is just a recipe for excluding the public from decision making.
Believe me, most of the 'public' does not get involved in the plan-making system and never will. But many find themselves astonished, when objecting to a local application, to discover the decision was effectively made two years ago.
Again, one could theoretically support Recommendations 4 and 5 that local authorities should have greater powers to deliver planning outcomes. But local authorities have now suffered a 40-year erosion of their powers and resources. A key part of this process has been moving decision-making from full council and open committees to little cabals, cabinets, executives or whatever, which are so much easier for Whitehall to boss around.
One can mostly agree with Recommendation 12 that there should be a 'smart structure for planning' with national, sub-regional, local and neighbourhood plans.
But the regional dimension seems to have gone adrift, despite Recommendation 6 admitting there is a major democratic deficit in English strategic planning, which exists accountably at the regional level only in London. Yet on this key issue of democratic participation, the Review bottles it.
'The adoption of the London model in other parts of England would require the rethinking of devolution on a scale which appears politically inconceivable,' it says.
The bad news for Mr Raynsford and his colleagues is that most of their recommendations are politically inconceivable, as the Ministry's bosses at the Treasury will doubtless find their usual ways of kicking them into the long grass.
Those with a commercial interest in promoting housing development anywhere, at any cost, will warn that democracy here would simply be populism. They will pretend there is a 'silent majority' just desperate for tens of thousands of market homes to be dumped in the countryside near where they live if only a noisy, populist rabble of 'NIMBYs' would shut up and leave them to their profits.
It might be nice to cherry-pick some of the Review's findings, pass over the ones which are anodyne and oppose those that are misguided. Sadly, however, the TCPA will want them taken as a package. Democratically or not.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 25 November 2018


How To Ignore A Stampeding Elephant

Responding to the important Climate Change Committee report on reducing emissions from land use and preparing for climate change, I thought it best not to get too aeriated by the tweet from chief executive Chris Stark to the effect that now is the time to start thinking about how we use land.
Just for the record, Smart Growth UK has been campaigning on land use and climate change since 2007. Many other people have been campaigning for much longer. Harrumph.
The CCC report is well worth a read and tackles some important issues. It reminds us that we can't feed ourselves at present, and although climate change in some parts of the world will destroy their agriculture and make ours commercially stronger, we really can't afford to be complacent, especially given the demand for biomass which the Committee, with caveats, supports.
But the way our low-density, greenfield development model is destroying land which should be used for food or, in some cases, biomass and the vast amount of greenhouse gas emissions necessitated by this dispersed development pattern were issues I expected to see up front in this report.
The Committee touches on them a bit, but then equivocates.
'The UK population is predicted to increase by nine million by 2050, ' says the Committee. 'Based on our analysis, the area of land required for settlements could increase from 8 percent of UK land area currently to 12 percent by 2050. '
Yet soil-sealing, a key issue in soil carbon, is not even mentioned, which is quite astonishing.
The 12 percent figure apparently covers housing, other urban development and infrastructure, but the report is unclear where the figure comes from apart from 'Government projections for settlement growth' and is 'based on our analysis'.
You might think that, given the Committee is recommending big changes in Government policy, it might have had the courage to ask why upping the population from 66 million to 75 million should require a 50 percent increase in soil-sealed area. If you thought that, you would be disappointed.
There is, however, a big clue in the interesting section on page 50 which includes the constraints the Committee took account of in formulating its strategy. The third of these is ensuring 'demand for settlements, for housing and other economic activity, is met before options to use land for emissions reduction'.
There are two points here. One is that the Committee's plans for emissions reduction ignore possible ways of reducing soil sealing and greenhouse gas emitting transport.
The other is that word 'demand'. The demand here, of course, is Whitehall demand, given its commitment to unsustainable development patterns driven by HM Treasury. And HMT, of course, pays for the Committee, so presumably this constraint was explicitly spelled out to it.
The report says incremental change will not meet basic need for food and settlements and looks at a range of models for delivering cuts in GHG emissions. To achieve deep cuts, it says, we should release 25-30 percent of current food growing land for other uses. It then claims that maximizing food production would increase land-based emissions by 17 percent.
It's not hard to support the Committee's call for 'increasing carbon sequestration and reducing carbon losses, new tree and hedgerow planting, catchment-sensitive farming and peatland restoration'. But many will be concerned by its confidence that 'releasing agricultural land for non-food uses whilst increasing food production is possible if new technologies and farming methods are applied to land to raise agricultural productivity'.
A glaring absence in the report is the contribution road transport makes to greenhouse gas emissions and the important role of land use planning in limiting this. Astonishingly, it's barely mentioned.
The Committee's confidence there are only three barriers to a move to more sustainable land use and management patterns is wholly misplaced. There is a fourth, large, heavy and destructive elephant stampeding around this room, trumpeting and demanding, devouring much of the land which could be used for food, biomass or carbon sequestration and ensuring transport emissions go relentlessly up.
The Climate Change Committee has produced an interesting report which contains important messages. But the significant contribution a Smart Growth approach could make is ignored.
So, on one of the UK's biggest threats to sustainable land use and greenhouse gas emissions, I'm very sorry indeed to have to conclude that the Committee has missed the main point. Or been told to miss it.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 November 2018


Building Better, Building Controversially

I suppose inviting a controversialist to chair anything is a way of securing attention for it but, as a process, it is not without its pitfalls. It is, on the other hand, a good way of diverting attention from some other aspect of the process you wish people to ignore.
Professor Sir Roger Scruton, newly appointed to chair the Government's commission which is supposed to champion beautiful buildings, is a case in point. I nearly said 'as chair of the commission', a faux pas which might instantly have provoked the wrath of Sir Roger, long self-appointed as Britain's traditional conservative controversialist supreme.
Prof Scruton's appointment provoked predictable fury on social media, even from those that support it. Many of those in the architectural and planning professions took it as a blatant affront that someone who's neither an architect nor a planner could be fit to pronounce on beauty, while those on the left condemned his outspoken conservative views.
Those on the right, meanwhile, also managed to be outraged that anyone should question the appointment. I particularly enjoyed the surprising number on Twitter who advised him to stand up to 'liberal totalitarians', a concept I must confess I struggled with.
Like Prince Charles, Prof Scruton looks like he enjoys traditional aesthetics and design in buildings. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder and no-one is ever going to agree, but I've long had the suspicion that we do need some kind of common architectural element in the design of our houses that we haven't really had since Classical forms were dumped just before the Great War.
And just before we dumped sustainable residential densities in favour of garden city sprawl you might expect me to say. You wouldn't be disappointed.
The decades that followed, the era of the '30s semi' that we've never really escaped from, were a sort of architectural food fight. Anything went and anything goes. A century of garden suburbs and flat-pack urban flats has left us with a dysfunctional and dispiriting mess.
So if no-one can come up with anything better than Classicism, however debauched and debased, then just look at the developments created by the Prince's Foundation, hated by architects and modernists, and secretly admired by many of the rest.
But, as I said at the start, appointing a controversialist was a good way to divert attention from the new commission's real objective.
No-one would disagree with its first aim, to promote better design. It's the second one, 'to explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent' that sprang out at me.
Here we go again.
This is HM Treasury again deploying its unshakeable obsession for creating sprawl settlements here there and everywhere, 'unwanted, unnecessary and unsustainable' as we described them last year.
Somewhere a baseless idea has taken root in Whitehall that, if you design them a bit like a sort of Poor Man's Poundbury, it would magically eradicate the massive and growing opposition to new settlements. It won't.
To start with the volume builders are never going to pay for that level of design and construction. The garden suburbs you spread across the landscape are never going to be remotely as beautiful as any countryside you destroy and blobbing new settlements all over the place is environmentally destructive and a huge generator of road traffic.
This we know.
So I'm afraid Prof Scruton has his work cut out, even with the runaway juggernaut that is Whitehall driving his commission along. And putting a bunch of greenfield development enthusiasts like the Policy Exchange in the team is only going to exacerbate people's suspicions.
So if Mr Brokenshire thinks all he needs to do to get new settlements is to appeal to conservative folk who revere Prof Scruton, then he's sadly mistaken. If he just wants more controversy, however, I'm afraid this is going to generate it.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 November 2018


Connected Garden Suburbs

Population growth, housing challenges and climate change are all things we need to take very seriously, nowhere more so than in the location of new development.
So it is really disappointing when a well-intentioned and carefully thought-out initiative intended to address these issues comes up with the wrong answers. And the worm in the apple, as so often with these things, proves to be the garden city philosophy.
This week the Connected Cities initiative launched a book setting out its approach to new development. It says its vision is for 'compact, high-quality, walkable developments focused around existing and new railway stations'.
So far, so good. Indeed, so far so pretty much Smart Growth.
But here is where it goes wrong and it does so thanks to explicitly drawing its inspiration from Ebenezer Howard's 'social cities'.
What Connected Cities proposes is, 'groups of settlements, some existing, some new, linked using existing rail corridors and clustered round a hub town to form a Connected City'.
The hub town would typically have a population of around 50,000 which is pretty much what the Blessed Ebenezer proposed in Garden Cities of Tomorrow. The satellites would be 2km in diameter around an existing or new railway station, though that's probably a bit more than most people would see as a 'pedshed'. These would be half developed, half 'green wedges' and the shops and other facilities would be concentrated around the centre.
Well, I have good news and bad news.
The good news for the movement is that the Connected Cities approach has already been widely applied and the model implemented all over the place. It's not at all hard to find towns of around 50,000 people situated on railway lines along whose routes neighbouring village stations have become the centre of large commuter suburbs. South-east England is full of commuter railways with settlement patterns approximating to this model, and there are plenty elsewhere.
Look at Tonbridge, and the stations to the east of it for instance. Or Twyford, Shiplake and Henley. Or Bishop's Stortford and the village stations north and south of it. Or even, further afield, the stations between Leyland and Bolton.
Indeed, if you slacken the criteria on population and settlement size a bit, you get pretty much the average commuter railway anywhere in the more populous parts of Great Britain.
The bad news is that this settlement pattern is a dismal failure when it comes to achieving the laudable objectives of the Connected Cities approach. This all harks back to the days when car ownership was lower and the main function of a commuter town or commuter garden suburb was to send one main breadwinner per household up to the big city by train every day.
21st century Britain doesn't work like that. Nowadays households have two, three, four or more breadwinners, a huge victory for women's rights though a symptom, perhaps of young adults living at home. Frustrating for them maybe, but beneficial in terms of good utilization of our housing space.
Where it wholly falls down is car-ownership. Apart from those who live in big cities, today's households tend to have one car per person in employment and most, if not all, get used for work journeys.
This is because we've already implemented the settlement pattern foreseen by Ebenezer Howard and advocated by garden city devotees ever since. A single railway station with lines going only in two directions doesn't meet the employment needs of today's families whose journeys to work will take them to all points of the compass. Research confirms this.
Getting multi-breadwinner families out of their cars involves them living in big conurbations with dense networks of rail-based transit. There really is no workable alternative.
The other big disadvantage to what is proposed is that the 2km settlements would be garden suburb type developments, with densities driven down by the green wedges etc., militating against the active travel its proponents seek. These aren't connected cities. They aren't cities at all. They're car-dependent garden suburbs.
If only people would stop obsessing about Ebenezer Howard's destructive spatial principles and spend more time looking at his interesting ideas on communitarian governance.
At the moment that attention seems to be concentrated on a fresh push for land value capture, and even now the house building and property industries are planning how to spend some of their vast profits on a PR push to see the idea off, the way they saw off the last four Government attempts to implement it.
And those planning to make billions out of sprawl in the 'Growth Arc' will just love the idea of blobbing garden suburbs all along the Oxford-Cambridge line. And, of course, the new Expressway.
Land value capture is a good idea, but I do wish we took the phrase 'land value' more seriously. Despite his altruistic instincts, Howard just thought of land value as the cash value of the land. He may have been an early environmentalist, but much of his concern centred on air pollution.
Today we should know better. The land, indeed the soil, are what we depend on yet the medium is treated like dirt. Sealing vast new areas of it, even for 'connected cities' is something we need to stop doing in our overloaded and abused island.
Happily there is a way to meet Connected Cities' prime objectives and it just involves dumping the much discredited garden city philosophy.
It's called Smart Growth.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 October 2018


A Tiny Shard Of Truth

The Growth Corridor, or whatever the plan for colossal and unsustainable development between Newbury and Cambridge is called this week, has been attracting favourable reviews at MIPIM UK.
The property industry annual festival at Olympia has been looking at the plan to dump a million homes, a 100-mile motorway and no doubt lots of large, motorway distribution sheds across a swathe of English farmland and it likes what it sees.
Apparently it's a 'new powerhouse', a 'super-cluster', a 'growth target' and 'a quantum leap to the future'.
'There are key assets in this geography, ' panted one LEP. 'The Growth Corridor is going places. '
Those with any understanding of geography are probably hoping the place it goes is somewhere like the Dogger Bank in the middle of the North Sea. But there can be no doubt that Whitehall is doing all it can to prepare this trough for swill consumption.
Take last month's snappily entitled Oxford to Cambridge Expressway Strategic Outline Business Case for instance.
Principles of natural justice and good government both normally involve examining both the case for something and the case against, but this is essentially a sales brochure. You can read page after page about why building a motorway standard road between Newbury and Cambridge will make everyone in the northern Home Counties and the south-east Midlands into contented billionaires, but no troublesome counter-arguments are allowed.
Take traffic generation, for instance, the Achilles' heel of every major road construction scheme on the planet since Karl Benz stood back from his drawings and said, 'Ach so'.
You know, build a road ostensibly to relieve surrounding roads and watch them become even more congested thanks to the new journeys and the longer journeys the grateful local motorists make.
Roads generate traffic, it's quite inevitable. Everywhere except in the pages of Highways England documents.
Indeed, among the Objectives in the Business Case is even one which imagines the Expressway would 'reduce traffic on local roads to improve the environment for communities and contribute to better safety, security and health whilst promoting sustainable transport modes'.
You couldn't make it up. Though they have, obviously.
Surprisingly, however, the Business Case does flirt with the idea of a Smart Growth alternative, without realising it, but simply assumes it's wrong.
'In the longer term, households may choose to relocate closer to employment opportunities, thus placing pressure on the local housing market, ' it says. 'Alternatively, businesses may choose to relocate to locations which support a deeper pool of labour, and which have better links to suppliers and customers. '
Relocate to locations which support a deeper pool of labour, and which have better links to suppliers and customers.
Hold on to that thought. Especially if you're a politician who has responsibilities to the country as a whole.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 October 2018


An Appeal To Reason

The debate over third-party rights of appeal in the planning system seems to have broken out again in Scotland with a great deal of fresh energy.
For the benefit of those who find better things to do with their time than examine the minutiae of the planning process, the basic position is that the UK system allows applicants whose applications have been rejected by the local planning authority to appeal to inspectors if they believe they have good planning reasons for doing so.
Objectors, however, have no such rights and if your council approves some real monstrosity, your only avenue of challenge is judicial review in the High Court. As anyone who's ever considered such a move will know, you need to have tens of thousands of pounds in your back pocket which you're prepared to lose if you go down that route.
Many people on the environmental and conservation side of planning have long suggested that rights of appeal be extended to third-parties, allowing objectors access to the appeal process. This is, of course, bitterly opposed by the development industry.
But in Scotland, where consideration of a Planning Bill has reopened this debate, the developers have been joined by architects, planners and surveyors in opposing a change.
One of the big constraints on local planning authorities which prevents them from rejecting all but the most obviously out-of-plan developments is that, if the developer wins an appeal and the inspector censures the authority for a vexatious rejection, the council can end up picking up a very large bill. In this era of starvation local budgets, that's not something they'll risk.
Developers argue that giving objectors a right to appeal would involve no such restraint, though I suppose some similar provisions could apply.
But we can surely agree with the Scottish organisation Planning Democracy which is leading the charge for what it calls Equal Rights of Appeal or ERA that it would stop local people from getting involved early in the process. Honestly, they still would get involved. People care.
Many of the arguments against ERA also apply against having any appeal system at all. Developers say they have paid a lot of money in application fees for their applications already, while objectors have not. But, of course, local residents are paying for the whole planning system through their council tax.
Of course there would need to be some process to prevent endless vexatious appeals and people appealing against anything and everything. There would need to be some kind of gate, perhaps a number of signatures from local residents or even a reasonable fee, before people were allowed to mount an appeal. Perhaps the Inspectorate could do what the High Court does and carry out a preliminary screening, only allowing those with an answerable case to go forward with their appeal.
But it's the tilting of the English planning system so hard in the direction of developers over the past 15 years or so which has reopened the issue of planning democracy. And while Scotland has not gone to the extremes of south of the border, it has sadly trundled some of the way along in England's wake.
But, as with so many other things, there's a new mood in the country. Plan-led development, as currently operated, can seem like simply a way to crush community aspirations.
Third-party rights of appeal are not going to go away.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 September 2018


Truths, Damned Truths And Projections

I wonder whether there is relief or regret around the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government over the decision last year to transfer responsibility for household growth projections to the Office of National Statistics.
The projections, officially the basis of policies demanding the building of 300,000 new homes every year in England, have long been a bit of an embarrassment in Whitehall because they really justify nothing of the kind, and never have done. The last set of projections, based on 2014 estimates, only projected growth of 210,000 households a year and they were a sharp reduction on the 229,000 2012-based figure.
Now ONS has fired a torpedo below the waterline of the Government's whole planning strategy with new projections estimating the growth to be no more than 159,000 a year. At a stroke, every English local plan based on the high figures as the basis for assessing 'objectively assessed need' is blown to pieces and not just those using the 2012 NPPF but also those using the 2018 Framework and OAN methodology.
And it gets worse for Whitehall's sprawl merchants. One of the big weaknesses in using the 2014-based figures to plan house building was that they showed that 74 percent of the growth in households would be over-65s and most of the rest would be single persons. Despite this we had the big push to build 'family homes', even though we already have a surplus of such housing though, to be fair, many of them are not occupied by families.
Now the new 2016-based projections predict that no less than 88 percent of new households over the next 25 years will be 65-year olds and over.
Obviously a responsible communities secretary would order an immediate halt to his Ministry imposing fantasy building targets on local authorities anywhere in England, even in the overheated south and east. And he would order a review of the NPPF to take account of the very different needs of an ageing population, most of whom, sooner or later, will be unable to drive and would be trapped in the remote, low-density, greenfield homes being built all over the country.
Household projections are, of course, just that, projections. And the definition of a household is a pretty bendy one. Basically it's a person, or group of people, who share a kitchen. That's not the official definition, but it does.
So imagine six students renting a house. The kitchen they share is the usual mess and there's endless bickering over who, if anyone, does the washing up. Those six people constitute one household.
Now suppose the landlord converts it to six bedsits, still occupied by six students with six untidy kitchenettes. They've now become six households.
So the number of households is crucially dependent on the housing stock available and how it's used. The projections were based on the belief that the decline in household sizes seen for decades up to the turn of the century would continue. But it didn't. It levelled out and then rose slightly after the Great Crash.
No doubt the Treasury mandarins who unleashed the building orgy of the past 15 years will be desperately dreaming up ways of sustaining it in the face of damning information.
So we await the Ministry's proposals with interest.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 September 2018


Flat White Knowledge

One of the things about the so-called Knowledge Economy, which is supposed to replace our dependency on traditional industries, is that those involved actually like to meet face to face.
ICT is of course a major component of it, so it was once assumed that people would work from home and communicate via the internet. As a result we were all expected to retire to country cottages and only venture out in our gas-guzzlers to shop, meet friends or shepherd the kids to school.
Mercifully it hasn't worked out like that. The 'Flat White Economy' is based in our major cities where the young and economically dynamic can have face to face interactions as part of their working lives and meet over coffee or dinner. This has enormous and obvious benefits to the environment in terms of reducing demand for sprawl and improved use of sustainable travel.
Central government, however, remains marooned in a little bubble of 1960s thinking. And when it decides to take 'the big decisions on infrastructure, working to maximize growth and productivity across the UK' it reaches for the solutions of half a century ago.
You know, motorways, garden communities and all the most destructive elements of urban sprawl.
So it is with the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, in reality a Cambridge-Newbury motorway, a corridor for which between Oxford and Milton Keynes was announced this week.
The hapless roads minister Jesse Norman was cited as the source of the manufactured quotes in the announcement.
'England's economic heartland, as it has been called, already plays a crucial role in powering the UK's growth, science and innovation, but there is no single route to connect Oxford and Cambridge, ' he was quoted as saying.
As the high-tech industries Whitehall is thinking about are clustered around the two ancient university cities, this is neither surprising nor a problem. Unless, that is, your brain functions to a background of The Beach Boys or The Monkees because you're enmired in 1960s ideas. If it does, then a new motorway allowing long-distance commuting from a million new houses on what was once part of England's bread basket will make some kind of sense to you.
The Highways England web page on the Expressway helpfully sets out a timetable for the scheme.
From this you will see that chancellor Philip Hammond ordered construction to begin on the Oxford-MK section before 2025 in the autumn of last year. This week's corridor announcement is flagged up followed, in the autumn of next year, by consultations. These will be the first ones, but will only cover 'route options'. A preferred route will be announced in 2020, whatever you say, and the new link will open in 2030.
Well, Highways England has already deployed one of its little trumps on the corridors, routeing one option across the nature reserve at Otmoor which it could triumphantly ditch and pretend to have listened to objections. You'd have thought that, after several decades of this ploy, they'd have thought up something better.
But, as you may have spotted by now, there has been absolutely no opportunity for anyone to question whether the whole Arc plus Expressway is a good idea.
This farmland is, apparently, 'Englands economic heartland', which may come as a shock to those in the City of London already contemplating moves to Brussels or Frankfurt.
But then you're just not living in the decade of the Fab Four and the Summer of Love.
I bet you can't even name all the early members of the Rolling Stones.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 14 September 2018


A Wealth Of Experience

Last night I was privileged to attend a 120th birthday bash for one of the very oldest environmental bodies in the world, at the Guildhall in London.
Environmental Protection UK has its origins in the local smoke abatement societies set up during the Victorian period which came together in 1898 to form a national body. It has been through several names since then and older readers will probably remember it as the National Society for Clean Air.
Like many environmental bodies, EPUK has had its share of resourcing difficulties which saw it restructure in 2012. But, to judge from the speeches which included its president Lord Whitty and Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh, it remains a vigorous centenarian still actively engaged in its core areas of air and land quality and noise control.
It was heartening to hear that air pollution, especially from road transport, is moving fast up the political agenda, if not yet the public's.
People at large have long been prepared to accept the deaths and serious injuries to dozens of people every day for the sake of their freedom to sit in their own private car in a traffic queue. Whether they will, in the longer term, be prepared to accept massive damage to their own and their children's health as a result is still in the balance.
But I was most interested to hear about the land quality side, where the society has been a powerful voice in matters relating to land contamination. Recent decades have seen astonishing techniques developed for investigating and remediating contaminated land, and these remain available despite the 15 year erosion of brownfield policy by Whitehall.
The land quality experts I spoke to, however, remain pessimistic about English planning policy despite the small nods to brownfield development of the past two years. The new National Planning Policy Framework, they felt, offers virtually nothing new for brownfield development.
Yet even Whitehall's answer to Darth Vader, HM Treasury, now accepts that maximizing the number of homes built necessitates maximizing the number of brownfield homes built. But the changes it imposed on planning are still, in effect, a greenfield-first policy, so you won't get the brownfield homes that are sustainably located built.
The answer is what it always was, namely robust brownfield-first policies. These wouldn't actually prevent greenfield building, despite falsehoods peddled by the industry. But they would ensure the brownfield sites get used before the unsustainable ones.
Those whose experience stretches back 120 years could tell you that.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 September 2018


Come On, Be Regional, Again

These days you sometimes hear councils describing themselves as a Pro-Growth Authority.
Quite what an anti-growth authority would look like is unclear, the zero-growth economics favoured by greens a generation ago having gone out of fashion. But somehow I can't help feeling that Pro-Growth Authorities are those councils seeking massive housing sprawl and big expansion of local industries. Or at least huge motorway distribution sheds if the latter can't be achieved.
Just this week Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council were crowing because government inspectors had found their local plans 'sound'.
'Sound' in this case means finding sites, almost entirely greenfield, for 33,500 new homes and proposing 44,000 new jobs in an area that is severely overheated and lacking the homes and infrastructure that even the present workforce needs.
Fans of unfettered market economies imagine such ambition is good. If the potential for commercial growth exists, goes the argument, then we must accommodate it. Or it will go abroad.
Or maybe it could go somewhere else in the UK. Somewhere that actually needs it. In seven months' time we'll be out of the EU, so perhaps we should face up to having to consider things in national terms.
And regional terms of course.
I doubt somehow that Eric Pickles is a reader of this blog but, if he is, you can already feel his blood pressure rising.
The word 'regional' was anathema to him. As a young politician on Bradford City Council he made his name in the successful campaign to have West Yorkshire County Council abolished. The idea never left him.
He played a leading role in the Conservatives' successful campaign in 2010 to oust New Labour and a key plank in that campaign was that Labour had imposed 'hated' regional strategies which forced councils to accommodate far more greenfield homes than they wanted, or needed.
That obviously sounds ironic in the light of what followed, but we should remember it was Labour that first accepted, c2002, HM Treasury's view that the UK's economic woes would be solved if we built lots more greenfield homes. That worked well, as we've seen.
Having swiftly abolished the 'hated' regional strategies and regional development agencies, Mr Pickles as he then was, set about finding ways to force even bigger greenfield housing targets on councils. Curiously neither he, nor his colleagues, ever dubbed his wretched 2012 National Planning Policy Framework 'hated', even though it was.
Destruction of regional policy has left a huge hole in national economic policy, removing a key plank in central government's ability to ensure economic growth is more evenly distributed.
Regional policy has had a very chequered history in this country, but in the 50 years following the Special Areas Development and Improvement Act of 1934, a great deal was achieved. The 1945 Distribution of Industry Act, for instance, saw more than half of industrial development occur in designated development areas, compared to less than 5 percent pre-war. The 1947 planning legislation introduced industrial development certificates which gave further assistance.
Since the 1980s, however, central government has lost enthusiasm but, for a long time, the slack was taken up by the European Regional Development Fund etc.. Despite this declining, however, thanks to the EU moving help eastwards, UK governments have been increasingly reluctant to face down the market's more destructive regional effects.
So now we have a desperately overheated economy like Cambridge allowed to let rip destructively while large parts of the UK continue to hollow out.
We have been two nations for decades now and this failure is set to make things much worse. Our country is bitterly divided and economic disparities play a big part in that.
If governments of whatever political stripe continue down this route, the problems they are storing up will eventually engulf them.
The UK is less than seven months away from going it alone as a nation. But it's a nation that's divided between its own various nations and regions, far more divided even than the nations of Europe.
We urgently need regional policy, not the economics of the charnel house.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 September 2018


Prospects Of England

You can pretty much tell when Whitehall is embarrassed about something. They publish it in August, when people are on holiday.
So it came as no surprise when the new Garden Communities prospectus slipped out on the 15th of the month. Apparently, according to the secretary of state, it expands on Government plans for more locally led developments.
And the garden community bubble is expanding to bursting point. Now the Government plans to prioritize garden towns of more than 10,000 homes while garden villages of 1,500-10,000 homes are slipping down the pecking order. No doubt this will upset all those developers with chunks of urban sprawl in their portfolio who thought they could get their snouts in this trough by dubbing them garden villages.
Garden villages are, I'm afraid, so yesterday.
The prospectus is, apparently, aimed at securing bids from councils working with private partners and, hopefully, backed by LEPs and county councils. Proposals will need to say how local communities are to be 'engaged and involved' at an early stage.
'We are clear that local communities, both current and future residents, must have a meaningful say in developing the proposal from design to delivery, ' says the prospectus.
Needless to say, that doesn't include objecting to the proposal. And how future residents will be involved when they don't yet know who they are takes the whole thing into the realms of mysticism, where perhaps it belongs.
But as this is a prospectus, let us help by giving some of the players fore-notice of what they can expect if they go down this dangerous road.
Greenfield land owners anyway. You stand to be the big winners if garden communities go ahead. Your farmland or woods can be worth 100 times as much in the twinkling of a planning inspector's eye.
Don't worry too much about all the calls for taxing land value uplift. It's a no-brainer, but four governments have tried, and failed, to implement such a system since the Uthwatt Committee recommended it in 1942. Some very powerful lobbies know how to see this off.
Of course, you'll have to forget all those protestations about how proud you are of the land your ancestors have farmed for centuries. Don't worry, you can cry all the way to the bank. Meanwhile enjoy all the expensive lunches developers will buy you.
Brownfield land owners need not get involved. The Blessed Ebenezer specified greenfield only.
You too stand to make massive financial gains, but it's all fraught with risk. Remember how little building New Labour's Eco Towns initiative achieved. You can spend millions on planning consultants, lawyers, property consultants, public relations people and nice lunches for land owners, only to see wiser counsels prevail.
But you won't worry too much. You have the Government and Civil Service on your side, plus numerous quangos and a multi-billion pound industry. Oh yes, and a small but influential section of the planning profession.
And English planning policy has been rewritten on the Treasury's orders to make life easy for you.
You can now expect to be offered cash bribes from the Ministry to 'partner' developers and central government to cover large parts of your countryside with the sort of low-density, car-dependent sprawl generations of your predecessors in local office spent decades fighting.
But don't be too taken in. The costs will far outweigh any money you get from that source. And don't be seduced either by enhanced council tax income as your population rises. Costs will rise at least as fast. Think of all those new roads that'll need adopting and maintaining. Forever.
This is tough. You face years of bitter, under-funded and under-resourced battles against wealthy and well-connected developers, central government in all its forms and local authorities who have thrown in the towel and whose officers are overworked and demoralized.
You will be vilified and accused of being 'NIMBYs', a badge you should wear with pride.
You will also be accused of denying young people the opportunity to own or at least rent a home. This is twaddle. The sort of homes to be dumped on your green acres will do little or nothing for them. They're going to provide homes for wealthier older people, whatever the PR people say.
Expect a big challenge in providing such areas with water and power especially. But you should eventually get a return on the investment.
You're likely to be among the big winners. The majority of the five billion pound Housing Infrastructure Fund is already going in to road building and this programme will mean a lot more of that.
Then there will be the major road building, like the Cambridge-Newbury 'Expressway' that will be justified as serving a 'necklace' of garden towns. Of course you know this will just be the first stage of your long dreamt of Outer M25, but there will be lots more of these all over the country.
So you can lie on your rug and purr as taxpayers land themselves with billions of pounds of debt to increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Another big loser. All that biodiversity and all those eco-system services, disappearing under what is known technically as 'soil sealing'. Never mind, some wildlife bodies still cling to the view farmland is ecologically worthless and all those microfauna that perish will be able to tell themselves that at least some homes are being built, even if they are the wrong homes in the wrong places.
The fight goes on.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 23 August 2018


The Silly Season

Journalists call August the Silly Season because lack of mainstream news prompts the less investigative amongst them to print any old rubbish, to fill their pages or their broadcasts.
Now something of the sort seems to be happening to politicians, judging by the number trying to climb aboard the bandwagon urging us to build all over the countryside as a way, allegedly, of securing young adults homes to buy or rent.
And it cuts across the party divide too.
This August Liz Truss was first up supporting Daniel Hannan's call to 'protect our green spaces, not our green belt'.
'Lack of housing supply is hurting our economy and our pockets, ' she said and repeated her belief in the need to build lots more houses in an interview with the FT. She said her party must 'build homes in the countryside or they will hand power to Jeremy Corbyn'.
Mr Corbyn's views on building market homes in green belts are unknown, but are possibly not sympathetic.
She was followed by Jacob Rees-Mogg who took time off from advocating Brexit to tell the Daily Mail that Conservatives should build on green belts because 'it's not all outstanding natural beauty' and 'each village in Britain can take 50 new houses'.
Nor should we imagine this desire to have us all driving vast distances to work and shop is confined to politics' Blue Corner.
For Labour, Mitcham and Morden MP Siobhain McDonagh joined in the planned slaughter of London's green belt urging building of lots of affordable homes on it.
'Green Belts were established not to preserve open countryside for environmental or recreational use but to stop settlements merging and safeguard historic towns, ' she complained.
The two purposes Ms McDonagh cites are in fact only two of five current ones, though London's green belt certainly exists to help preserve historic towns like St Albans, Guildford or Rochester and to stop London merging with places like Reigate, Slough, Watford or Brentwood.
Green belts, however, were never intended to protect rural beauty, so that's a straw man argument, but Ms McDonagh carefully omitted three more current purposes, preventing unrestricted sprawl, safeguarding countryside from encroachment and assisting urban regeneration.
And, of course, it was Labour who unleashed the Barker Reviews to begin the long process of environmental destruction that has marked English planning policy for the past 15 years.
Those reviews rightly concluded the ups and downs of the housing market harm the UK economy and wrongly concluded that building vast numbers of greenfield homes would have any significant effect on it.
In fact, of course, land is not really the issue at all. It's the way we finance housing, encourage private renting at the expense of house purchase and ignore the needs of those who cannot, and may not ever be able to, buy a home.
So if the Government, and indeed back benchers, turn their attention to housing need rather than abstract economic houses of cards, we might be able to move on.
And face the fact that the gathering climate emergency and much else demands we adopt a Smart Growth approach very soon.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 19 August 2018


A Globally Insignificant Economy

Take Out The Trash Day at the end of the Parliamentary sitting seems to have been pretty productive this year for those bits of Whitehall determined to cover England with car-dependent sprawl.
It was more than just the NPPF that got slipped out. Among the many things which crept quietly out of the Ministry for Whatever It Is Called This Week, in the hope opponents would be on holiday, was a letter from housing minister Kit Malthouse to local authorities in 'The Brain Belt' asking them to bring forward 'ambitious proposals for transformational housing growth'.
Transformational looks like an interesting word here. Translated into English it apparently means finding greenfield land for a million houses between Cambridge and Oxford.
'Government will also soon begin detailed analysis to explore potential locations for new settlements across the corridor, their alignment with transport infrastructure and any environmental considerations, ' wrote Mr Malthouse.
There is so much buried in here, it's difficult to know where to start. It's breathtaking that 'any environmental considerations' should have been tacked on as an afterthought.
This is a major part of England's bread basket, more Grain Belt than Brain Belt. And it's pretty mad that a massively indebted country that only produces 70 percent of its food and which is about to abandon free trade should plan for a big reduction in its food production by building low-density garden towns all over its arable land.
But, just like the 'Expressway', the new towns are all being rushed through without any public consultation.
Well, minister, people are watching you. Watching and analysing.
It's interesting too to note the six issues the local authorities being lured into this mucky swamp are invited to concentrate on.
Economic rationale.
Transport and other infrastructure.
Geography and land.
There hasn't been a shred of public consultation on any of this yet. But that doesn't stop Mr Malthouse warning councils that, if they want to share some of the dribble of funds this wretched process may put their way, they must have proposals in by 14 September.
Perhaps the minister is unaware that the cuts his Government have imposed have left councils with few staff, and they are actually allowed to take holidays occasionally, and most likely in August.
Perhaps that doesn't matter. The Ministry knows that most of the sites put forward will come from those who intend to make vast sums of money from building on the greenfield land.
But the growing angry army of local people across the Arc, or voters if you prefer minister, are getting organised. And they aren't going to take this lying down.
Money looks like the big weakness. The 3.5 billion pounds for the Expressway is likely to pale into insignificance compared to the rest of the infrastructure building these homes in completely the wrong places would entail.
'The Government believes that the corridor between Cambridge and Oxford has the potential to be a globally significant economy,' says the minister.
So, apparently, we aren't a globally significant economy at the moment.
And we should presumably assume Mr Malthouse believes the rest of the country, which doesn't happen to lie between the cities where so many Whitehall mandarins were undergraduates, is never going to be one either.
One wonders if that's actually what Mr Malthouse meant.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 August 2018


Take Out The Trash Day

The last day before the Parliamentary summer recess is traditionally known in Whitehall as Take Out the Trash Day.
You know, the day when they dump a vast amount of unpopular stuff in the public domain and scuttle off on their holidays before anyone can cry foul.
The new English National Planning Policy Framework is a case in point. And having been dumped with it, the relatively new housing secretary James Brokenshire obviously felt he ought to launch some kind of defence of it.
Writing on the Conservative Home website, he was keen to stress the new Framework's role which, he tells us, is more or less entirely building the homes Britain needs.
You might have thought that was the role of house builders and social housing providers, but we'll let that pass. According to his piece, the old mantra of building the right homes in the right places, a phrase borrowed from critics, has changed. Now he just wants to build 'the right number of homes built in the right places'.
We'll have to come back to house building another day as the new Framework looks like creating an even more unsustainable disaster than the old one. But today let's look instead at something else.
Something that's crept in unannounced.
The grandly entitled chapter on Promoting Sustainable Transport intones that planning should manage patterns of growth in support of various sustainability objectives, while the equally ambitious sounding chapter on Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change, Flooding and Coastal Change says planning should support the transition to a low-carbon future.
Amen to all of that.
Meanwhile, in his piece, Mr Brokenshire says he has listened to the thousands of respondents who took part in the NPPF consultation before, one might conclude, ignoring any that weren't about housing.
'This really is a shared strategy for building new homes in England, ' he said.
But before we get too irate about this dismissal of all planning's many other aspects, we should be aware that he has actually listened to a handful of other voices. Sadly one of these was the road haulage industry and the Ministry has managed to sneak something in which wasn't in the draft at all.
The new paragraph 82 says, 'Planning policies and decisions should recognise and address the specific locational requirements of different sectors. This includes making provision for clusters or networks of knowledge and data-driven, creative or high technology industries, and for storage and distribution operations at a variety of scales and in suitably accessible locations. '
It's the last part of the second sentence which is the real killer. All over the country distribution operations are opening vast distribution depots in colossal tin sheds on greenfield sites near motorway junctions. The result is industrial sprawl on the grand scale, a huge boost for road haulage and a blow to sustainable transport and the high streets hit by the type of sales operation they support. This was all done without consultation.
Building these tin sheds has been going on for some years, but at least the planning system had a few defences. Now it has none.
Mr Brokenshire notes there are few more contentious issues in politics than planning. In no small part this is due to his Ministry taking out trash and dumping it on our environment.
I'm sorry, minister, I know you inherited this mess. But I'm afraid you haven't heard the last of tin sheds.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 27 July 2018


National Planning Policy Shame Work

Slipping out the new English National Planning Policy Statement in a written statement on the day before the summer recess as if he were ashamed of it, secretary of state James Brokenshire was at least clear about his motives.
The new NPPF, he said, is fundamental to strengthening communities and to delivering the homes communities need.
Any student of the NPPF over the past six years will know it is very good at getting lots of houses built where they're not needed and doing nothing to strengthen communities. But we'll let the latter past, along with the rest of the rhetoric in Mr Brokenshire's statement.
You may remember that Eric Pickles once promised national planning guidance would be reduced to 50 pages. There's a great deal in the 73-page NPPF and a lot more in the vast National Planning Practice Guidance that even Mr Pickles had to accept and which has recently been revised yet again. And in the new Housing Delivery Test.
In fact we must be heading up towards the 700 pages that Messrs Pickles and Boles were so strident about reducing just six years ago.
Mr Brokenshire claimed there are 85 reforms in the new NPPF which will, apparently, 'fix our broken housing market'.
Even setting aside that era when politicians claimed markets were perfect and couldn't be broken, we can dismiss this as windy rhetoric. The NPPF will continue to see a lot more of the wrong sort of homes built in the wrong places, but will do little or nothing for house prices or rents, let alone the social housing we really need.
'Accentuate the positives' they say but, sadly, these are few.
There is a bit more help for ancient woodland, but the house building imperatives are still there and tend to trump anything else. National parks get powers to enhance as well as protect and the RTPI is jolly pleased that 'definitions and processes' have been tightened, despite the additional workload on over-stressed local planners.
And that's about it.
The much vaunted Housing Delivery Test should have curbed major developers whose business model uses the NPPF to secure massive increases in the value of their land, rather than building houses. Instead, it's been formulated to add yet another stick with which to beat local planning authorities which fail to meet the fantasy house building targets the 'localist' Government imposes on them.
No doubt the fresh damage the subtle changes the new Framework imposes will become clear over time. And no doubt major developers making dumper truck loads of cash, and their tame consultants, will continue to applaud from the sidelines.
But if ministers believe, as they scuttle off on their hols, the NPPF might head off the fast-growing grassroots campaign against the environmental catastrophe that English planning guidance has become, they are sadly deluded.
There was real heat in those 29,224 responses to the consultation that the Government response dismissed in a few hundred words and claimed support from. But that heat wasn't warmth, it was anger.
And so, with reluctance, I'm afraid it has to be said.
All those politicians and civil servants involved in the new Framework should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 25 July 2018


National Infrastructure Anomalies

Planning how to spend 179 billion pounds is a challenge few of us ever have to face apart, of course, from those who happen to be manager of Real Madrid.
Football may be dominating national discourse just at the moment, but Tuesday saw more than just the 100th birthday of the RAF and a World Cup semi-final. It was the day the National Infrastructure Commission chose to launch its long-awaited National Infrastructure Assessment.
Even spread over the 30 years to 2050, that sort of spending is a lot of money. And you can make a lot of people very, very happy by suggesting it's coming their way.
That, by and large, is what the Assessment does. The Commission has plumped for an indigestible mixture of courageous ideas and giving something to those whose beaks gape widest, like politicians, industry, consumers, motorists and the Treasury. In some areas it has taken a robust look at the infrastructure the country actually needs, but overall it's pretty much assumed we need to go on as we are at the moment with our unsustainable patterns of living.
It's good to see the Commission believes we can achieve a low-carbon system for electricity, transport, heating and hot water by 2050. We may very well be on course for that in power generation, though less obviously so in transport. Yet that doesn't even begin to address the challenges we face in many ecosystem services like food production, a key element of our infrastructure.
The most obviously tough stance the Commission takes is its acceptance that the nuclear industry has failed to produce affordable proposals for power generation within acceptable timescales. And that is an astonishingly missed open goal, given that much of that industry's environmental opposition has been muted by fear of climate change.
Renewables may still have their problems, but their direction of travel is a promising one, which is more than can be said for nuclear power.
There's a very great deal in the Commission's 160 page report, far too much to cover in one blog, but one issue illustrates just what a confused and often toothless mixture of sustainable and unsustainable development the Commission proposes.
That issue is electric vehicles, by which the commissioners probably mean electric cars and vans. The NIC admits it's 'too early to know' if batteries are the future for larger vehicles. So, given their continuing enthusiasm for road transport, it looks like the dieselheads' control of national freight policy is unlikely to be challenged anytime soon.
Motorheads too. Chapter 3 on Revolutionising Road Transport is full of enthusiasm for electric vehicles which the Commission says will 'change the nature of UK transport debate'. Despite continuing doubts about whether they can ever match the range, let alone refuelling times, of petrol vehicles, you would think Elon Musk had been made a commissioner.
But hold on a minute. Electric vehicles cause as much congestion, accidents and particulate pollution as petrol. With their pneumatic tyres they still squander our scarce energy resources, 50 percent of which are still provided by fossil fuels. The Commission's enthusiasm for cars anywhere outside big cities may reflect the cowardice of our politicians, but it completely ignores the environment.
And yet there's even clear ambivalence about this in the Assessment. Its most positive section is Chapter 4 on Transport and Housing for Thriving City Regions. The Executive Summary summarises a long and rambling argument about the negative effects of road transport in cities by admitting that, 'for all their benefits, neither electric nor connected and autonomous vehicles will solve the problems of urban transport, rather they are likely to increase the number of drivers on the roads'.
Of course, the same could be said about inter-urban transport, but the Commission is not going to discomfit politicians by going the whole hog and say that a sustainable future necessitates a big move away from cars.
We don't have that sort of courage in Westminster.
Chapter 4 takes big steps towards recognising the future thrust of development must lie in our cities and they will need dense networks of rail-based transport, a big step forward towards Smart Growth. What Whitehall, which has spent decades undermining sustainable transport in cities that aren't called London, will make of it is anybody's guess. Delete buttons are probably hovering as we speak.
But despite the fine ambitions of Chapter 4, there's little other recognition of the harm that urban sprawl is causing, nor of the very high and unnecessary cost of providing such dispersed development with infrastructure.
Chapter 8 on Reducing the Risks of Drought and Flooding is a case in point. It has fine ambitions about controlling flooding in response to the very much more severe weather climate change will bring, yet it tamely accepts that water supply problems in the south of England need much more investment in water infrastructure and a national transfer network. No doubt more infrastructure is necessary, but it could be significantly reduced by halting the flood of population south-eastwards to the new sprawl-and-crawl developments by robust regional policies.
It's becoming tedious to have to use the term 'car-dependent sprawl' so often, but it's symptomatic of the failure of national planning policy, something the NIC clearly regards as outside its remit, however problematic for infrastructure.
Despite its empty claims about low-carbon transport, the NIC plainly lacks the wherewithal to stand up to national road-building policies.
Chapter 7's views on the Fiscal Remit accept Highways England's planned 4.3 billion pounds for 2020-25 and 3.2 billion for 2025-30. On top of this there is 500 million and 200 million for the Housing Infrastructure Fund, and hundreds of millions more to follow, which is mostly road building and some of the urban major and non-urban local projects funding would also go to roads. After 2030, much transport spending gets lumped together, but it's clear the NIC believes we need to cover inter-urban areas with more hot-rolled asphalt.
All in all, the Assessment is a terrible missed opportunity. It has its good bits and its section on cities even has Smart Growth elements.
But there's far too much Dumb Growth in there for comfort.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 July 2018


Chemical Warfare

As you may have heard, this last week has been National Insect Week and the alarms are ringing ever more loudly warning that UK insects are in big trouble.
And, as thoughtful people, you will also know that means big trouble for us humans.
We can pretty well all provide anecdotal evidence about this decline. A decade ago my garden would have been alive with hoverflies at this time of year and flying male stag beetles would have been bumbling around the summer twilight crashing into things and imagining they were impressing the girls.
I haven't seen either here this summer.
And lack of insects, of course, has knock-ons. Back then, the summer sky would have been full of swifts, enjoying the insect harvest. This year there are hardly any.
No doubt things are particularly bad this year thanks to the long cold winter and the late dry spring. But this decline has deeper and longer origins.
It would be easy to put all of the blame on to farmers and certainly their wanton use of pesticides and destruction of habitat are hugely to blame.
But I live many miles from any active agriculture and the decline, even among resident species, is clear and obvious. There must be other causes.
I'm hoping the campaign against urban regeneration some wildlife groups ran a few years back, attempting to prevent brownfield reclamation, is over. I don't want to reopen that one, but my blog of 18 September 2017 has the unhappy history, if anyone's still interested.
Finally one's beginning to hear wildlife groups recognise that urbanization of our countryside could be a major cause of biodiversity decline. Not only is soil, once sealed, effectively useless as the medium that supports all terrestrial life, sprawl fragments habitats and introduces noise, light and air pollution.
Yet you even still hear claims that householders can produce more vegetables in their back gardens than horticulturalists can from the undeveloped land. The great geographer Dudley Stamp disposed of that one nearly 60 years ago and, frankly these days, garden suburb dwellers seem more interested in turning their front gardens into concreted car parks and decking over their back gardens.
Yet 'garden community' developers still claim their developments will be good for nature thanks to tiny areas set aside for wildlife and huge tracts of grass and ornamental trees. This is, to use the technical term, twaddle.
But there could be another reason garden suburbs are destroying insect life. Gardening is a healthy activity that is certainly good for humans. But far too many gardeners are still waging chemical warfare on their gardens with the very powerful pesticides they are still allowed to use.
While farmers have rightly received a lot of the blame for this, environmentalists have been fearful of upsetting gardeners. But perhaps it's time we admitted they're a significant part of the problem.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 June 2018


Yours Cynically

Lifting the stone of official secrecy to see what is scuttling about underneath is always a rewarding process and the emails published by the Manchester Evening News are a case in point.
They reveal an email trail between civil servants which show the Government knew three years ago it would be closing down the Southport to Manchester Airport rail passenger service, although it was still claiming otherwise earlier this year.
The emails, whose senders and recipients have been redacted, talk of 'a classic handling strategy' suggesting propagating the closure as a myth before telling people it is merely being diverted to Manchester Victoria, apparently prompting them to 'rejoice'.
The email was, accurately enough, signed 'Yours cynically'.
Exactly which Whitehall department sent the emails is unclear, but long-term observers of the Department for Transport will have little doubt.
It's eerily reminiscent of a memo from Ministry of Transport head of freight, Joe Peeler, leaked just 40 years ago, proposing an inquiry as a way of foisting heavier lorries on the country.
'Recommendations would be made by impartial people of repute who have carefully weighed and sifted the evidence and have come to, one hopes, a sensible conclusion in line with the department's view,' he wrote. 'As a subsidiary purpose, it should provide a focus for the various road haulage interests to get together, marshall their forces and act cohesively to produce a really good case which should not merely establish the main point at issue but should do good to their now sadly tarnished public image. This would make it easier for the Government to propose legislation in their favour. '
Cynical or impartial, it's hard to tell which is which in the world of Whitehall.
While the bean counters at the Treasury look for more ways of paring down our already emaciated public services, the DfT is still bashing ahead with megalomaniac plans for spending on transport which make descriptions like 'eye-watering' wholly inadequate.
Billions are to be borrowed to make our transport system even less sustainable than it is already.
In recent weeks the Department has been insulting our intelligence by claiming that adding a third runway to Heathrow Airport would enable many more planes to fly in and out and yet still reduce air pollution. Apparently the vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions involved isn't 'air pollution'.
The runway itself is estimated to cost 14 billion pounds and there's a great deal of doubt about how Heathrow is going to raise the cash.
On top of that there's a further 10 billion quid for public transport improvements, plus burying the M25 etc.. Heathrow has offered a paltry billion pounds towards this, so much of the cost of this folly would fall on the taxpayer. How much is unclear but, given the massive supporting infrastructure involved, it would be many billions.
Then there's the roads programme, with Highways Englands current Roads Investment Strategy estimated to cost 15 billion pounds, to be followed by another similar programme a few years down the track. That's several tens of billions to increase congestion and greenhouse gas emissions and to destroy vast areas of countryside.
And whatever your view on rail privatization, the way the DfT has set up franchises and the destructive way it has long interfered in rolling stock procurement mean further problems for our railways at a time the market should be dictating a massive renaissance.
Then again there's HS2. Opinions vary about the value of high-speed rail, though we will certainly need some form of it in the long-run once people accept that domestic air services are simply too damaging to the climate to continue.
What we don't need is the wretchedly designed current scheme. It's all too typical of the we-know-best attitude of the transport ministry which it's been displaying for nearly 100 years now.
The decision to locate several HS2 stations away from the main rail network is a perfect way to reduce its effectiveness, as passengers will have to make journeys to and from the existing network to gain access to the high-speed line. That would undermine many of the time savings.
And the decision to go for ultra-high-speed-trains on HS2 undermines the advantages it could bring in greenhouse gas terms.
Meanwhile what remains unfunded is the desperately needed rail-based public transport in our cities. This is, apparently, mainly a matter for local authorities who don't have any money because Whitehall has axed it, much as it axed their efforts to provide several cities with light rail in 2004-5.
Some interesting ideas about urban rail have been published this week by the Urban Transport Group in a new report.
As always, however, central government is ready to interfere, but not to help.
At the centre of this web for almost 100 years has been the transport ministry, whatever it's called this week. Its close, symbiotic relationship over many decades with the Roads Lobby was laid bare by Mick Hamer's influential book Wheels Within Wheels in 1987.
That relationship remains, and was only seriously challenged around the turn of the century when the Department was merged with the Department of the Environment to produce a large, unwieldy department covering transport, local government and the environment.
Unwieldy it may have been, but it did finally challenge the Petrolheads' control of transport policy for a few years. So of course it had to go.
Maybe mixing the three areas was a bit ambitious, but perhaps we should merge transport with environment and also give it responsibility for planning. That would offer a clear route to Smart Growth. Local government and agriculture could be given separate briefs.
But for now the Department for Transport, DafT to its critics, transports us along a destructive road towards carbon disaster.
Perhaps the Department for Investing Money Wastefully In Transport Schemes would be a better name for it.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 23 June 2018


Professional Standards And Advocacy

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 June 2018


Structural Dishonesty In The Planning System

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

Posted by Nigel Pearce on 17 June 2018


Why Land Squandering Goes On And On And On

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 June 2018


Our Precious Landscapes

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 May 2018


The Outer M25

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 May 2018


A Matter Of Principle

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 May 2018


Election Fever

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 May 2018


Sacred Or Profane

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 19 April 2018


Garden Communities And Why Communities Are Saying No

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 April 2018


Housing Targets And The Death Of Oxfordshire

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

Posted by Nigel Pearce on 08 April 2018


Look To The Centre

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 30 March 2018


Mutually Supportive Outcomes

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 25 March 2018


A Funny Sort Of Crisis

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 March 2018


Rethinking The Language Of Planning

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

Posted by Nigel Pearce on 14 March 2018


Inter-varsity Mismatch

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 March 2018


Wise Councils

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 26 February 2018


A Five Billion Pound National Disgrace

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 February 2018


Transformational Dreams

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 January 2018


An Egregious Future

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 January 2018


A Property Desiring Democracy

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

Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 January 2018