smart growth uk

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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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SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2020 BLOG

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Dommy Nation

Back in December, this blog predicted the Government is about to launch a fresh onslaught on the planning system in England, with the aim of stripping local planning authorities of any remaining powers to control house building.
This was no piece of clairvoyance on my part or because I'd hacked into the MHCLG computer. It was because I'd read an article in The Sun newspaper published just six days after the general election setting out Dominic Cummings' plans to smash up planning which is, apparently, one of his numerous pet abominations.
The article predicted the usual demands of the building industry. There is to be 'a major overhaul of the system that gives permission to build to liberate up significant new space'. Wow. Liberation eh?
Then there is to be building upwards on existing buildings and building on green belts where there are already developments. As nearly all green belts have existing developments on them, that would pretty much mean an end to most green belts.
Oh yes, and to ensure chronically under-funded local planning authorities do what the Government wants rather than what their electors want, there are to be stiff penalties for not approving any old rubbish that comes their way in a couple of microseconds.
'Dom made the point that every time a review is done, planning always comes up as a big drag on productivity, but nobody ever does anything about it,' one 'senior Tory source' was quoted as saying. 'But we are going to do something about it.'
The paper predicted new proposals in January, so it was wrong on one count anyway.
But in January, the Government received orders from the Policy Exchange 'think-tank' whence so many of its bad ideas emanate. The report was the usual set of demands for 'Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century'. Rethinking, that is, as in smashing up.
All this was to be co-ordinated with the report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which was expected to provide ammunition with which to shoot down critics. Government sources confidently predicted replacing the current development control system for housing with a system based on photographs and design codes for beautiful buildings.
But the Commission's report didn't quite work out like that. Sure, you can find messages about design and design codes, a useful source of good civic design. And much of it had, shall we say, a certain ambiguity, the result, I gather, of robust disputes around the Commission, but it wasn't the Policy Exchange-Lite rant the Government hoped for.
So now MHCLG has the difficult job of cherry-picking the bits of the BBBB Commission report which it imagines might justify the destruction it plans, while ignoring the bits which certainly don't.
But ministers have their orders to impose on England more low-density, car-dependent homes built on flood plains, on productive agricultural land, on land remote from public transport and on sites where you don't actually have to build because the planning consent will yield the profit without actually doing so.
Of course, a Government with 58 months of 80-seat majority in front of it likes to imagine it can do what it likes. And it knows its opponents are fractious and divided.
Well I have news for the Government. Some issues produce a remarkable degree of unity in our divided nation. These include planning and the environment.
Agreement on these matters crosses political divides. And it includes most of the Conservative supporters in the country.
And already they're getting fed up with this tide of Dommy Nation from Downing Street.
So it's time to put differences aside and prepare for battle.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 February 2020

 

High-megalomania Rail

There is something about the open countryside between Aylesbury and Rugby that brings out the megalomania in railway promoters.
In the 1890s it was the chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, Edward Watkin, who promoted a fast, high-capacity main line south through Nottingham to London. And his ambitions didn't end there. The grandly named Great Central Railway was to be the first stage of a scheme to provide a Berne-gauge railway spine down England to a new Channel Tunnel.
The GCR opened in 1899, but it took nine decades more before the Tunnel was built and the Railway never went beyond its comparatively modest London terminus at Marylebone. Although it carried huge tonnages of coal, it never really prospered and Dr Beeching took great delight in closing it in 1966.
Ever since, its trackbed has exercised a fascination with those who want to promote railways. Part has become a heritage railway, there was a scheme to make it part of a national rail freight route and there have been various sensible proposals to use all or part of it in a revived railway network. Then there was HS2.
Designed by engineers rather than transport planners, part of its route from London to Birmingham runs on, or quite often just somewhere near, the old Great Central line. Like the GCR, whose London terminus was inconvenient and ill-connected, HS2 will have an ill-connected London terminus at Euston and a non-connected and inconvenient Birmingham terminus at Curzon Street.
It won't even realise Edward Watkin's vision of a link with the Channel Tunnel. HS2 passengers heading for Europe will face a long stagger with heavy luggage down Euston Road to St Pancras to board HS1. But no doubt the engineers will love creating a third dysfunctional terminus at Euston to succeed those built by the Victorians and the 1960s.
The decision to go ahead with HS2 is wrong on so many levels, even for those of us who dream of restoring a healthy rail network to the country, that it must raise fears about the new Government's capacity for good governance.
But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the decision is that it seems to be yet another example of how Government is mismanaged from HM Treasury.
A decade ago, the Treasury ordered Austerity as a response to the huge national debt caused by the 2008 crisis. By 2010 this had risen to an eye-watering 39 percent of GDP.
Ten years of Austerity later, it stands at 84 percent of GDP. Today the Government, on our behalf, owes its creditors well over two trillion quid. Now, apparently, the Treasury is happy to up that another five percent in pursuit of an ill-designed and destructive rail scheme.
Most readers of this blog are, I expect, pretty well versed on what's wrong with HS2 and how some of that hundred billion quid could usefully be invested in other rail projects.
But I suppose the other question people are asking today is whether it can still be stopped? The answer is possibly, but it's unlikely with an 80-seat majority government behind it. Many Conservative MPs are most unhappy about it, but does anyone really rate the likelihood of their organising a successful revolt?
Will it be built? I suspect it's pretty likely the London-Birmingham bit will go ahead, with all the destruction and mess involved.
There are, of course, still serious issues to be addressed, like the new station at 'Calvert Garden City', on which Mr Oakervee had some interesting views. But I'll park that for now and leave you with another thought.
What still looks most unlikely is extending HS2 beyond Birmingham, a project which is supposed to even up the north's economy, though not until the 2040s. Until then consultants and contractors are the only ones whose economy would get 'evened up'.
These sections are even more ludicrously ill-designed than the southern. Does anyone suppose that future Governments will sustain their support for this scheme for the next 15-25 years? The Treasury even, when costs continue to climb?
So those northern mayors seduced by the shiny artists' impressions of fast trains in their cities could usefully have a rethink.
The 'Northern Powerhouse Rail' some believed could be tacked on to HS2 North appears to be shrinking before our eyes. Once planned to link Liverpool with Hull, it's now down to Manchester-Leeds, a sort of Northern Dollshouse Rail. Unlike HS2, NPR was a useful scheme, but it's unlikely to happen now in the foreseeable future.
HS2 was the first big test of the new Government and it failed it comprehensively. Now it's threatening us with another big onslaught on the English planning system.
None of this bodes well for the future.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 February 2020

 

Prepare To Defend The Environment

Action stations. The Government is preparing to launch a major onslaught on the planning system in England.
On Monday, the Policy Exchange think-tank, long an advocate of bashing up the planning system, published a report called Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century.
The report proposed the usual toxic potion of market demands and environmental destruction familiar from the works of earlier years, only a bit more extreme than usual.
There's the usual ill-informed litany of complaints about planners 'rationing' land, planning producing 'stunted, ugly and unsustainable growth', uncertainty, constraints on 'dynamic places', redistribution of wealth from renters to owners, costlier real estate and harm to SME builders.
'The planning system has been captured by the noisy minority, ' it complains. Presumably that means democratically elected councillors and maybe even the communities under threat from 'the 21st century liberalised economy'.
Well I won't annoy you with any more of this extremism, read it and weep if you really can't resist a little pain. But significantly it was followed by an article in The Times which suggests the Government is seriously looking at the Policy Exchange rantings.
'Councillors could lose their powers to veto housing applications under plans being examined by Downing Street to speed up planning permissions, ' it says.
'They would no longer be able to stop buildings in their area or prevent shops being converted into housing. '
If they mean it, it's a declaration of war on England's communities and its local democracy. I know the Government has almost five years of an 80-seat majority ahead of it, but does it really want a war with its own supporters?
One nugget in the Policy Exchange report did intrigue me, however. In the biography of lead author Jack Airey is a claim that 'his work on raising house building standards has attracted cross-party support and led to the Government creating the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission'.
Interesting. The Commission's report is published on Friday after what reportedly has been far from the smooth ride those who commissioned it obviously hoped for, and that's nothing to do with its late co-chair, Sir Roger Scruton.
If Mr Airey is right, it's plain the Commission was intended to go away and recommend something to the effect that opposition to garden communities and other sprawl development would vanish if the houses looked a bit like Poundbury.
It was always going to be a tough call to get a serious commission to do that and its interim report contained some interesting thoughts on Building Better, as well as Building Beautiful. Smart Growth UK contributed some serious proposals for this.
But public inquiries are often expected to recommend pretty much what the bodies that commissioned them want to hear. The signs are that the Commission will recommend something like the onslaught on local development control that the Government is seeking. I do hope not, but optimism is presently in short supply.
Meanwhile it's quite clear the Government is gearing up for a major attack on planning and planning bodies seem at a loss how to respond.
So it will be up to local community groups to carry this fight forward. For the sake of our environment and the generations to come, it must be fought, and won.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 January 2020

 

Ebenezer Howard Versus Garden Communities

For a long time now, I have had an uneasy relationship with the late Sir Ebenezer Howard.
He was, without doubt, a remarkable man, whose ideas have spread around the world. He disproves Shakespeare's belief about the evil that men do living after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones. Both Howard's good ideas and his bad ones have survived him.
So there's good news and bad news. Let's get the bad out of the way first. Howard's ideas on spatial development have given Britain, and other countries, a development paradigm for more than 100 years which could be characterised as low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl.
His garden cities morphed into a few new towns and vast numbers of garden suburbs which have squandered our scarce building land, trashed our countryside and left us hopelessly dependent on unsustainable transport.
And the good news? Howard was one of those figures whose work at the beginning of the 20th century led to the modern planning profession and planning system. For this he deserves great credit.
But there's another positive angle to his legacy. Howard's main preoccupation was never garden cities themselves or spatial planning. If you read Garden Cities of Tomorrow, it's plain his main interest was communitarian economics and governance.
Now I'm sure the world would be a better place if his ideas had been followed, but they haven't secured very much traction. His admirers, however, continue to press them.
I was reminded of this by the inspectors' letter to Uttlesford District Council, ripping apart its draft local plan as unsound chiefly owing to its support for three wretched 'garden communities'.
The letter is worth a read for anyone fighting these destructive developments, but it's the findings of the two inspectors on 'Garden City Principles' I found most illuminating.
These days it's the Town and Country Planning Association Howard helped found that lays down the Principles on which, allegedly, the Government's 50-odd garden communities are based.
1. Land value capture for the benefit of the community.
2. Strong vision, leadership and community engagement.
3. Community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets.
Valuable principles for any development I would have thought.
The two inspectors cited these principles, but cast serious doubt on the adherence of the proposed Uttlesford garden communities to them.
Now this is not some community group objecting to the inevitable trashing of its local environment that garden communities cause. It's two highly qualified and experienced planners appointed by the Government's Planning Inspectorate to examine the local plan. They raised a whole range of issues.
'All these matters cast some doubt as to whether these vital Garden Community Principles would be met in Uttlesford,' they conclude.
And it means everyone objecting to garden communities throughout the land needs to ask whether their developers and land owners really have signed up to land value capture, community engagement, community ownership of the land and long-term stewardship of assets.
I may be wrong, but I see little sign of it.
Of course, land owners and developers who see potential vast profits heading instead for communities will argue this is just one council naive enough to have insisted on the Principles. But Uttlesford is not alone in this and others have done likewise.
Nor can commercial interests run off to Whitehall and complain they're being bullied. The Government's own Garden Communities prospectus is quite clear on this.
'All proposals must set out a clear vision for the quality of the community and how this can be maintained in the long-term, for instance by following Garden City principles,' it says, and it provides no alternative solution.
Thus both the Government's own stated policy and its Planning Inspectorate are insisting on at least some of Howard's communitarian principles.
So it's time to closely examine the other 40-odd garden community plans and see if the land owners and developers are equally willing to see their profits diverted to communities by this admirable legacy of Sir Ebenezer Howard.
We could start with the Wynyard proposal, dumped into the garden communities programme on the same day as the Uttlesford decision became public, presumably to divert attention.
It's a matter of principle.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 January 2020

 

Augean Stables

I suppose if I had just returned from a long and lonesome space voyage to Mars, I would be delighted to discover the Government is planning to spend around a hundred billion pounds or so on rail investment in England.
But, as we all know, although that cash could pay for many high priorities like light rail or metro for our cities, a national freight network including a new link around London to the Channel Tunnel, network electrification, railway reopenings etc., it won't. It will go to HS2.
Personally I'm not as anti-high-speed-rail as some and I do wish people could put as much energy into opposing road construction. High-speed rail could be the icing on a much needed rail investment cake if, and only if, the schemes are well designed. Well integrated with the existing network too.
HS2 isn't. At last, however, there does seem to be some kind of debate about HS2 going on in 10 Downing Street. The most important figure there is said to favour a review. But enough about Dominic Cummings.
Tony Berkeley's recent minority report to the Oakervee inquiry should have put the current HS2 project to bed but, such is the momentum of the Whitehall Flyer running away down grade with one of its schemes lashed insecurely to a wagon, it hasn't.
Lord Berkeley is well worth a read as someone who understands the rail industry and its needs. The questions he asks about the demand for improved services in the areas HS2 would serve, whether it is the best way to meet that demand and whether there are cheaper and more appropriate solutions must be answered before the country adds seriously to its national debt for this scheme.
I won't go through the arguments in detail here, there are too many and they are pertinent. Most of the benefits HS2 is supposed to generate could be secured at a fraction of the price without the harm it would cause.
The argument that HS2 is vital because it would free up much needed capacity on the existing network also falls apart when it's examined. That capacity is needed for sure, but there are better ways of securing it.
As with so much else in national transport and planning policy, a full and proper debate is needed. It needs to be conducted away from Whitehall whose own 'reviews' are all too often designed to produce the answer that Whitehall was right all along, and probably brilliant to boot.
But the entire HS2 fiasco is yet another example of Whitehall not knowing best. The NPPF, garden communities, the Expressway and the rest of the trunk road building programme, the Arc, fantasy housing targets, airport expansion etc., etc..
Need I go on?
A new Government ought to be an opportunity to ask these questions. We urgently need a proper national debate on HS2, not a closed-doors fudge.
Will we get one? We shall see.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 14 January 2020