smart growth uk

Contributors

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

 

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

 

Blog Archive

SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2020 BLOG

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Show Me The Way To Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle is an attractive little town, popular with visitors and in the news recently for some unknown reason.
Visitors, of course, have been staying away thanks to lock-down but Barney is lucky its economy is not wholly dependent on them or the small shops also closed up as, unusually for County Durham, it still has a major industry based there.
It's a beautiful old town, rich in history and historic buildings. The Bowes Museum, modelled on a French chateau, is also worth a visit and I'm looking forward to going back there once it's safe to do so.
Particularly attractive should be the Market Place, the town's main street, with its busy market and small shops.
But it's also the scene of what's seriously wrong in Barnard Castle. The town is seriously harmed by trunk road traffic, with the A688 running straight through the main street and seriously degrading its environment.
Anyone deterred by the local road network from visiting Barnard Castle, however, will take heart from knowing, a few years hence, it will be slightly easier to drive there and add further congestion to its streets.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has announced the go-ahead for plans to spend a billion pounds, yes you did read that right, a thousand million pounds, on an upgrade to the A66 from Scotch Corner to Penrith.
This runs close to Barney and the DfT announcement made clear it would facilitate driving to the area from other cities. Curiously, however, Durham didn't get a mention.
Several miles of this road lie in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and several more run along its boundary. But nothing must stop this artery of greenhouse gas emissions inflating further.
The route plan involves dualling the few sections of the A66 that aren't already dual-carriageways, a new underpass to a not-particularly busy roundabout at Penrith and a few village by-passes. Though not for Barnard Castle.
Quite how this would manage to blow a billion quid is a mystery, but those with their snouts in the RIS2 trough never find any difficulty in sucking the public purse dry.
The DfT has found lock-down and media wholly distracted with the health emergency all too convenient to pursue its petrolhead and dieselhead agenda.
Civil servants often complain they shouldn't be criticised because they can't answer back. Well I'm sorry, they have enormous power to do harm and the trunk road building programme is harm on the grand scale.
Their Department needs urgent reform. A good start will be support for the Transport Action Network legal action against RIS2.
Give generously.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 May 2020

 

Pompous And Patronizing

When the history of the 2020 coronavirus crisis comes to be written, one thing likely to strike historians is the way the mainstream media took its eye off everything else and devoted its entire coverage to the minutiae of the health emergency.
The results will by then be painfully obvious. While the rest of us were locked-down, the Government was beavering away to push through all the really unacceptable stuff it liked, safe in the knowledge that scrutiny was lacking. And those few brave souls that did try to stand up to it could be dismissed with contempt.
And what contempt. I was reminded of this by an insulting and patronizing letter this week from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to CPRE Oxfordshire in response to a well-reasoned letter to communities secretary Robert Jenrick expressing concerns about Oxford's green belt.
Mr Jenrick is, apparently, much too important to bother responding to letters now he's on telly presenting the Covid-19 press briefing and letting house builders off their tiresome obligations to provide the affordable housing which makes a little hole in their enormous profits.
Instead, the response to CPRE Oxfordshire came from a minion called Luke Stephens who rejoices in the bizarre appellation of 'head of ministerial correspondence'.
And Mr Stephens is no mere stamp licker or envelope sealer. He is empowered to voice his boss's full contempt for the people and environment of Oxfordshire.
Let's just sample some of the patronizing drivel in the letter.
'This Department values the Campaign to Protect Rural England as the passionate defender of the Green Belt and as an informed critic of development and planning policy,' writes Mr Stephens, trying presumably to ape His Master's Voice.
'We both want to see the Green Belt and other designated countryside protected, and the efficient use of urban and brownfield land and you will recognise that meeting affordable housing needs is one of the Government's highest priorities. Whatever extraordinary intervention you may have had in mind, we believe that our aims of sustainable development are best taken forward through the development plans of the elected local authorities of Oxfordshire, in accord with the conclusions reached with care and independence of mind by the examining inspectors. Nevertheless we are grateful to you for iterating CPREs concerns.'
Just savour that 'whatever extraordinary intervention you may have had in mind' and don't feel the need to dismiss the vision of a lofty and bewigged patrician airily dismissing plebeian supplicants.
Savour too the pompous verbiage about the 'elected local authorities of Oxfordshire' and 'independence of mind of the examining inspectors'.
Anyone who has been involved in the destruction by Whitehall of the independence of the local planning process over many years and the way the Planning Inspectorate has been reshaped from a highly respected and impartial body into a force for enforcement of unsustainable house building numbers will know exactly what such statements are worth.
Basically, quite a lot of local authorities have given up fighting and have gone instead for a few teaspoonfuls of cash and the thought that they will at least not be embarrassing ministers of their own political persuasion by opposing them. And, while a few inspectors still take brave stands on genuinely sustainable development, most do pretty much what they're told these days.
It will always be a problem when a brave local authority, in this case South Oxfordshire, decides to jump off the lorry driving the rest of the Oxfordshire flock to the environmental slaughter house. So the full authority of the giant panjandrum, the 'head of ministerial correspondence' no less, must be deployed.
Let's just remember briefly what's happening here. Despite Government planning policy which demands that green belts be kept permanently open except in exceptional circumstances, overwhelming opposition from local people and the obvious fact that Oxfordshire, with its fragile countryside and overheated economy is a totally unsustainable place for further growth, the Government proposes to force nearly 20,000 new low-density homes on to the green belt.
It is, of course, car-dependent sprawl at its most destructive. 'Sustainable development' not.
So I do hope the people of Oxfordshire and as many of their elected representatives, local and national, who still care about their county go on fighting this. It matters.
And meanwhile they should tell Mr Luke Stephens to. . . oh, never mind.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 14 May 2020

 

We Are Still Watching

It must be an extremely frustrating time to be a journalist, not just because they are confined to barracks like the rest of us, but because they are only permitted to report on one issue.
Of course the health emergency is the main issue of the day and must dominate the news, but it has managed to exclude everything else at a time much else is going on. Everyone who wants to push something through national or local government without media scrutiny appears to be taking full advantage.
It is hard to credit that the Department for Transport should have pushed ahead with both go-ahead for HS2 Phase 1 and the 27 billion quid highway building programme at this time of crisis. Read the Road Investment Strategy 2 document when you've read the Department's Transport Decarbonisation Plan. You will be amazed.
Meanwhile don't expect to see much about the ugly clashes between nature defenders and HS2 security goons in ancient woodland along the route.
But do ask yourself why this has to be done during the bird nesting season well in advance of actual construction. Ask why those podgy security goons are ignoring social distancing guidelines. Ask where the police were during ugly clashes, whatever the rights and wrongs. Ask where the media was.
In planning too, it looks like a good time to push through urban sprawl, with no danger of Whitehall objecting of course.
You might have thought that, with a house price crash now inevitable, now would be a good time to pause and take stock. Not a bit of it. They're pushing ahead as if tackling Covid-19 actually depended on trashing farmland and biodiversity and increasing car-dependency.
Some 'pro-growth', i.e. pro-greenfield-housing-growth, local authorities are still handing out consents too.
One such is Central Bedfordshire Council, a devotee of car-dependent sprawl and fresh from approving an A6-M1 Link Road through the Chilterns AONB.
Now, despite the health emergency and in advance of virtual planning meetings, they have delegated planning decisions during April to the chief executive, with an 'advisory group'. This is likely to include at least one controversial green belt development at tomorrow's 'meeting'.
In years to come when we remember the spring of 2020, we will not only look back on the lives lost, the exhaustion of our health workers, the woeful under-investment in our public services and the businesses lost during the pandemic. We will also ask who took advantage of the crisis.
There are some very fed-up journalists out there just raring to go. And some very frustrated environmentalists ready to hand them the ammunition.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 26 April 2020

 

Riding Sunbeams, Chasing Moonbeams

If I were to say in this blog that I remain committed to the Smart Growth principles that regular readers are familiar with and then say that I thought they would be best achieved by pursuing policies like housing sprawl, motorway building, airport expansion and distribution shed sprawl, you might rather abruptly sit up.
You might fairly conclude that I had either gone mad or had sold out to the massive PR industry with which those property interests pursuing sprawl developments such as garden communities or the Oxford-Cambridge Arc have armed themselves.
Yet this disjunct between aspiration and policy is just the sort of thing we're expected to applaud in a Department for Transport publication called Decarbonising Transport, Setting the Challenge.
At first sight it looks like a radical change of direction for a ministry long derided as the 'Department for High-Carbon Transport'. And it starts off by making the right sort of noises about the principles of a Transport Decarbonisation Plan which, allegedly, will put us 'on a pathway to achieving carbon budgets and net zero emissions across every single mode of transport by 2050'.
OK, let's leave aside minor quibbles such as the need to be on a pathway to actual zero by 2030 if we're to avoid existential threats to civilisation within many of our lifetimes. Let's just look at what's on offer.
It wisely begins with looking at current and projected GHG emissions from each mode, both with current policies and with a few tweaks.
First up is the mode politicians are most terrified of changing, cars. So, because of this fear, nothing significant is to be done to reduce car mileage despite the infographic up front which proclaims a desire to 'help make public transport and active travel the natural first choice for daily activities'. Amen to that.
Basically what's proposed is battery vehicles and more charging points. Decarbonising is, however, nowhere to be seen. The DfT expects car GHG emissions will drop by just 52 percent by 2050, despite us using bikes, trains and buses for 'daily activities'. Why? Because, in spite of the aspiration, it expects car mileage to increase by no less than 35 percent over the same period.
Battery vehicles are, of course, no route to decarbonisation because of the high embodied carbon in their manufacture and scrapping. Perhaps the DfT intends to redefine driving battery cars as 'active travel'?
Yet despite the commitment to public transport, it expects bus mileage to drop slightly by 2050 and GHG emissions from buses to fall only a dismal 25 percent. And while it expects rail passengers to treble, it expects GHG emissions from passenger and freight trains to rise 19 percent by 2050, a grim indictment of our failure to electrify our railways, which is plainly expected to continue.
But still, it's happy to extol its Riding Sunbeams project to power trains using solar power. This is known in the industry as the Chasing Moonbeams project.
Aviation is dismal as ever. GHG from domestic flights has climbed no less than 6 percent since 2017 while international emissions are still rising too. So what is the DfT's strategy to tackle this major challenge?
'Airport expansion is a core part of boosting our global connectivity and levelling up across the UK,' says the paper. 'The Government takes seriously its commitments on the environment and the expansion of any airport must always be within the UKs environmental obligations.'
Quite astonishingly, the DfT expects demand for both types of flying to go up no less than 73 percent by 2050, though it hopes that somehow better fuels and bigger planes could keep emissions 'broadly flat'. Much like the trajectory of its credibility.
Then we get to freight. Road transport currently accounts for 91 percent of domestic transport GHG emissions and trucks account for 17 percent of this.
And that's rising. HGV traffic in the UK rose from 15.5bn miles in 2012 to 17.1bn miles in 2018. Maybe this has something to do with current DfT freight policy which could be summed up as 'building more motorways and allowing huge HGV-served distribution depots to be built near their junctions'.
The Department does have a policy of reducing truck emissions by 15 percent by 2025 by telling operators to behave better. Beyond that, more moonbeams are being chased in terms of zero-emission HGVs and longer semi-trailers, which would, at least, help operators become richer.
So, by 2050, at which point transport is supposed to be zero carbon, the DfT hopes HGV emissions will have dropped 26 percent, even though it expects mileage to have increased by 7 percent.
Vans, meanwhile, are expected to drive no less than 70 percent more by 2050, with a fall of just 17 percent in their GHG emissions mostly thanks to a switch to battery.
Can you spot decarbonisation? No, I can't either.
Even rail freight, which ought to be one bright spot, manages to look dismal. The Government has challenged the industry to remove diesel-only trains by 2040 but the paper admits, er, 'current alternatives to overhead electrification, such as hydrogen and battery, do not have sufficient power to pull heavy freight trains'. It says perhaps bi-mode locomotives could help.
Well actually they've been around for nearly 60 years now and they can only help if you electrify railways, something which the DfT finds every excuse not to do so it can waste money on motorways, airports and ultra-high-speed rail.
I could go on, but you get the picture. A graph buried on page 58 shows DfT's current optimistic policy projection which suggests UK domestic transport emissions could drop by about a third by 2050. Not exactly net-zero, despite the actual zero long before that's actually needed. 'We will need to go further,' the document admits.
Well, many of us have long advocated the sort of things that are needed to get the carbon out of 'the great car economy'. Having identified the failure of its own long-standing policies, why not adopt them now?
'Whilst we know the scale of the challenge, we do not currently know the optimal path for delivering a decarbonised transport network,' says the document. 'We, therefore, intend to work with business, academics, researchers and innovators, environmental NGOs and the wider public over 2020 to design the package of decarbonisation policies that can serve the needs of both passengers and wider society, and deliver our goals.'
Of the six 'strategic priorities' proposed, only 'accelerating modal shift to public and active transport' looks soundly based. And that won't happen until the current big spend on roads, airports and high-speed rail is diverted into useful things like rail electrification, light rail and metros in all our cities, a national rail freight network, railway reopenings, remodelling of our towns and cities to prioritize public transport and active travel, a run-down of domestic aviation etc..
Forget 'decarbonisation of road vehicles' and 'decarbonising how we get our goods'. That's pie-in-the-sky. You don't need 'place-based solutions for emissions reduction'. We already know why emissions occur round airports and motorway junctions. We'd like to see the 'UK as a hub for green transport technology and innovation'. The country has no lack of such potential. The problem is resistance at, er, the Department for Transport.
The next steps are to be consultations, but they're to be the usual blend of online questionnaire, carefully facilitated workshops and stakeholder involvement with selected participants.
Oh, and let's not forget the big elephant in the room which the document carefully ignores. Planning may not be the DfT's responsibility, but current Government planning policies are presently the main accelerant of high-carbon transport via car-dependent housing sprawl and lorry-dependent distribution sprawl.
Without tackling them, there will be no decarbonisation.
We can only hope they leave the blinds open during their carefully facilitated engagements. They might even catch a few moonbeams.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 06 April 2020

 

Negotiating With Nature, Two Examples

In my previous blog on Nature and Negotiation, I described the process of negotiation recommended by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Since examples are helpful to see how this might work with Nature, here are a couple of illustrative cases.
Among the many responsibilities of Oxfordshire County Council is that of being the local highway authority. This includes managing trees, hedgerows and other vegetation alongside roads. Powers and duties for maintaining footpaths fall on the County, District and Parish Councils and landowners.
It is in the interests of humans that they can gain safe and unimpeded access to footpaths. Likewise, cyclists and pedestrians should not be forced into evasive action and into the road by rampant growth. Clearance of obstacles, branches, brambles, nettles, roots, etc., has to occur from time to time.
Unfortunately, in West Oxfordshire (and elsewhere) the clearance takes place far more often than necessary and at the worst possible time of year for Nature. In March, large vehicles with massive cutting equipment massacre trees and hedges just when they are ready to come into leaf and blossom, thereby removing valuable habitat at a critical moment, and depriving pollinating insects of food in spring and birds and mammals of food in autumn and winter.
I guess this is because the authorities have some kind of fixed timetable for the services they provide, and a fixed way of doing things. But around where I live, the majority of trees, hedges and undergrowth alongside roads and footpaths do not interfere with movement and access at all, and could be left to grow for several years and cut back on a rolling programme to the minimum amount necessary. Nor does it need to be a skinhead cut: just removal of obstacles that have grown enough to cause a nuisance. I suspect that the current mode of operating is also driven by an outmoded addiction to 'tidiness', as if neatly low-cut hedgerows are the only aesthetic outcome that sensitive humans can tolerate.
Here is a perfect example of how negotiation with Nature on equal terms could produce an agreement that meets both its and our interests: a flexible rolling timetable, at the right times of year, with a discerning and minimalist approach to clearance. It would surely be more skilful and rewarding work, knowing that the fostering and recovery of Nature was also part of the job, and it might also save money.
Secondly, there are many reasons to question whether HS2 is anywhere near the best infrastructure option for people of the Midlands and North of England, but for the sake of argument let's suppose that, on balance, it will be more beneficial than damaging to the economic interests of humans in England.
Fine, but what about Nature? Clearly, any ancient woodland, local wildlife sites, and other land officially unrecognised but still rich in biodiversity or soil or both, will have to be avoided and existing connectivity for Nature must be maintained, and preferably increased. Only that way will Nature's interests be met. Offsetting is an inadequate and largely unproven and unaccountable option.
The route of HS2 must therefore avoid these sensitive areas in almost every case. And much of it must be underground. The burying of the A3 at Hindhead in Surrey in a tunnel has had a miraculously beneficial effect on habitat connectivity, wildlife and human wellbeing, while also helping traffic.
Not prepared to spend the extra money to meet Natures interests? Then think of something else: this is the time for inventing options for mutual gain.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 30 March 2020

 

Nature And Negotiation

For too long humans have forgotten, or have failed to realise, that our relationship with Nature is based on negotiation.
Instead, we have treated this relationship as an imposition by one party, humanity, on the other, Nature, with no clear voice of its own. So, for the most part, we have not negotiated, thinking we could act with impunity, regarding our demands as non-negotiable.
Nature, being voiceless or at least unheard, has had to rely on humans to negotiate on its behalf, but those who act as its advocates, though growing in number, are still relatively weak.
We have discovered, however, that Nature has non-negotiable assets of its own, such as fire, flood, famine, drought, pestilence and extinction. We need to negotiate collectively and seriously with Nature in order to keep these bargaining chips off the table.
People think of negotiation as a means of reaching a compromise in a competitive context. This has two disadvantages.
The first is a tendency to produce a result that falls well short of both parties' desires and doesn't necessarily address their needs.
The second is the perception, particularly in current turbulent times, that compromise only delivers the half-solutions and uncertainties that are typical of the 'liberal' approach to life.
But compromise does not have to mean either concession to the other party or fudge and muddle. In one of the best books written on negotiation, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project set out a programme for negotiation with five principles:
1. Don't bargain over positions.
2. Separate the people from the problem.
3. Focus on interests, not positions.
4. Invent options for mutual gain.
5. Insist on objective criteria.
Our 'might is right' approach has probably been more the result of ignorance and thoughtlessness about the effect we have on Nature, than due to wilful destruction or neglect. But if we apply principles 3 and 4 in particular to our negotiation, we can safely withdraw from absolutist stances, in which beating or ignoring an opponent is paramount, and options for mutual gain will then be free to be invented.
However, we have reached a point at which Nature's interests should be considered first, to bring the relationship back into balance, followed thereafter by negotiation on an equal footing. What are Nature's interests?
-Sufficient biodiversity to sustain complete and healthy ecosystems at local, regional, national and global levels, on land, at sea and in the air.
-Sufficient habitat connectivity to allow safe movement of species around different locations in a bearable climate.
-Sufficient sources of food and water.
-Freedom from all harmful pollutants, solid, liquid and gaseous.
-Freedom from over-exploitation.
-Freedom from damaging disturbance, such as noise, artificial light, topsoil removal and other causes of loss of organisms at the bottom of the food chain.
The list could doubtless be longer, but these points seem to cover the basics.
It is noticeable how far they overlap with our interests. In the end, if Nature's interests cannot be met, ours will not be either.
But if we adopt a relationship with Nature based on negotiation between equals, with objective criteria and the aim of sufficiency for both parties, there is hope that both our interests can be met.
In the UK, as elsewhere, such an approach would bring a dispassionate rationality and a welcome long-sightedness to planning, development and land use.


Posted by Nigel Pearce on 26 March 2020

 

Interesting Times

Expecting the unexpected is one of the trickier things governments are expected to do.
Preparing for the things you do expect is hard enough and the Covid-19 crisis has burst on the scene with enormous speed. The post mortem is, mercifully, a long way ahead and right now we need to concentrate on dealing with it.
But much of the country is meanwhile under partial house arrest and that does mean time to think about, and prepare for, other things. And even if we can't always be expected to prepare for the unexpected, we can at least give some attention to challenges we can definitely expect once this crisis is under control.
So what sort of things should we be preparing for that need a bigger response than they've been receiving?
Climate Change.
Flood and sea defence.
UK food supply.
Biodiversity.
There are plenty of others, but these are some of the most pressing.
On climate change there is a vast range of things we need to be doing, starting with our transport system which remains stubbornly high-carbon. It won't be decarbonised by electric cars. At best they would reduce things by around 50 percent, better than nothing, but not good enough. Meanwhile we appear to be stuck with diesel HGVs for the foreseeable.
So we need to implement radical solutions, starting with major cities, where rail-based public transport and active travel ought to be the norm for moving people around. And we need an urgent rethink of our freight networks.
Climate change is cruelly exposing deficiencies in our flood defences, designed for more temperate and less extreme times. Billions need spending on protecting both our inland and coastal communities.
Beyond that, the whole issue of sea-level rise needs some serious thought. At the moment it's a few millimetres a year. But what happens when the big ice sheets start to go? Either we abandon low-lying areas which include many of our big cities to the sea, or we go for really radical solutions like the North Sea, English Channel and Irish Sea barrages I mentioned in another recent blog.
Food supply too is a Smart Growth issue. We have repeatedly warned about the folly of building low-density housing on our productive farmland. This needs to stop, as a recent article warning how dire our position is makes clear. A country turning its back on its main trading partners needs to take its need to import nearly half its food very seriously indeed.
And then there's UK biodiversity which we have happily been trashing for at least 5,000 years and which, in some areas, is close to collapse. Feeding ourselves, working and travelling about in ways that protect it is actually an urgent need too.
It behoves those of us stuck indoors to think about these things and discuss them seriously in this era of electronic communication. Some commentators are saying the current radical change in government policies shows that things can change for the better once the crisis is ended. Others are plainly hoping things get back to laissez faire business as usual.
There are some tough times ahead with the health emergency but the danger will eventually pass. The other emergencies are only going to get worse until we face the need for similarly radical action.
Meanwhile, stay safe.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 March 2020

 

Melting The Ice

About 30 years ago, the magazine where I then worked made a bit of a laughing stock of itself by claiming a World Exclusive.
Scientists, we reported, were becoming increasingly concerned about the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If it melted, we said, it would raise world sea levels by up to 15 feet.
To ram the point home, the magazine's cover carried a picture of the Houses of Parliament with water lapping around the lower floors.
Hoots of derision followed, despite the report's accuracy, but few are laughing now. World scientific opinion believes it's not a question of whether the WAIS melts in response to global heating, but when.
The Sheet is plainly becoming increasingly unstable. If it does seriously erode, it may do so in three stages, with a 3.6m rise in sea levels the first stage. This would drown many world cities, lots of which are located beside the sea or on estuaries or tidal rivers.
No-one is predicting when this will happen, perhaps some centuries, perhaps within decades. But the process is certainly underway.
And it's not the only terrestrial ice sheet causing concern. Some of Greenland's ice sheets are looking increasingly unstable. That means parts of our heavily populated island, quite likely within the lifetime of people now living, will become uninhabitable.
Large areas of eastern England are under threat, along with much of our coastal areas and estuaries. And that includes major cities.
So, what could be done? The obvious first response is rapid action to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions but, with millions of British people still happy to believe wishful-thinking drivel in populist newspapers, politicians remain happy to do as little as possible.
One imaginative suggestion is to enclose the North Sea and Channel in huge sea barriers, like those used to reclaim parts of Holland but on a vaster scale. One would run from northern Scotland, via the Shetlands to Norway while the other would link Cornwall to Brittany.
One might suggest adding barriers between Fishguard and Rosslare and between the Mull of Kintyre and Fair Head to enclose the Irish Sea. More sensible than the 'Boris Bridge' anyway.
It's certainly technically possible, though the cost and engineering challenge would be immense. As would the political challenge. Currently we're squabbling with our European neighbours over who should be allowed to over-fish which bits of the North Sea. Asking for some trillions of euros to save us from the sea is a bigger ask still.
So the Court of Appeal decision on Heathrow expansion ought to be a game-changer. The Court ruled that, although the Paris Accord hadn't formally been transposed into UK legislation, its ratification by Parliament effectively makes it part of our national law.
Campaigners have been quick to threaten legal action against many of the vast numbers of projects in this country that threaten to exacerbate the climate emergency. Chris Packham, for instance, has already launched a challenge to HS2.
I wish them luck, although the Paris Accord has its limitations. The one-and-a-half degree aspirational target is close to being breached already, if recent temperature readings prove accurate. And its two degree target would require some rapid and radical action.
Plainly now, airport expansion and major road building must end. But we urgently need implementation of so many of the Smart Growth principles.
Public transport and active travel replacing cars in our cities.
Rail-based transport replacing flying and much of our passenger and freight road traffic.
An end to car-dependent sprawl and densification of urban areas where appropriate.
An end to expansion of HGV-based distribution systems and their gradual replacement with more sustainable modes.
Rail reopenings and new light rail/metro/tram train services in our cities.
Regional and local democracy taking back control.
Regional rebalancing of the economy.
Protection of biodiversity and heritage.
Etc..
We live in a time of great peril from climate change, from disease and from expansionist foreign powers.
So, as the ice melts, it's time to turn up the heat on radical, sustainable change.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 March 2020

 

Fit For Purpose

Most new governments over the past 40 years have come to power promising to cull the quango population.
This ambition quickly founders when they discover these bodies are really useful ways of delivering unpopular public services while insulating the minister from blame when things go wrong.
Just at the moment, for instance, the desperately under-funded and under-resourced Environment Agency is proving a useful scapegoat for current levels of flooding. No more ministerial photo-opportunities with a mop for a while, one supposes.
But I was reminded of the need to cull quangos sometimes by a tweet from Henley MP John Howell about a Westminster Social Policy Forum conference he attended on the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
'Confirmed by Commissioner of NIC that government has no powers to impose 1m houses,' tweeted Mr Howell. 'Collaboration and getting agreement from local councils, or not, at the heart of approach and including in local plans.'
This is so far from reality, it took my breath away. Oddly enough, Smart Growth UK wasn't invited to the conference so I've no idea if an National Infrastructure Commissioner did claim this, or whether Mr Howell has misunderstood. Nor do I know the identity of the commissioner who attended.
Whatever, it's utterly false. Yes, under-funded local planning authorities may be bribed with Government cash to accept the plans for car-dependent hypersprawl in England's bread basket. But if any hold out, the Government has very ample powers to impose as many homes as the building industry orders.
If anyone is in any doubt they should read the NIC's own report on the Arc called, bizarrely enough, Partnering for Prosperity.
Now turn to page 40 and read a section entitled, 'Delivering New Places Through Development Corporations'.
The title gives the game away. The Government has powers to impose a million houses, or two million if it prefers, under its powers to impose development corporations. And that's just what Partnering for Prosperity recommends it to do.
'Without intervention, there is little chance that the market will deliver new and expanded settlements at the scale and pace required,' it says. 'Experience from within the UK and elsewhere in Europe also suggests that transformational levels of growth are unlikely to be realised without direct intervention from appropriately empowered statutory bodies.'
Get the picture? In case you haven't it goes on to make things clear.
'Public sector intervention in the development of large new settlements is nothing new,' says the report. 'Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, 32 new towns were built across the UK by new town development corporations. The last new town designation was, however, made in 1970 (Central Lancashire), and subsequent developments in planning policy have tended to eschew centrally-driven models of development in favour of locally based, market-led approaches. But it is difficult to see how an exclusive reliance on locally-led, market driven development will deliver the homes this arc requires.'
It goes on to urge direct intervention by Government to manage the risks that make development of new settlements commercially unattractive.
Few, I expect, will be surprised by this, least of all anyone involved in exposing the unsustainability of the Arc proposals.
But whether the claim about the lack of Government powers to impose hypersprawl came from an NIC commissioner or not, it highlights once again the urgent need to abolish the Commission.
It's not just the Arc and Expressway it's been the cheer-leader for. It remains enthusiast-in-chief for many outmoded and destructive major infrastructure projects. Read its reports and you're instantly whisked in a time-warp to the 1960s concrete era of motorway cities, jet-set flying and exurbia.
So I was about to say the National Infrastructure Commission should be abolished as it's unfit for purpose. But that wouldn't be true.
It was set up to remove detailed planning scrutiny from huge projects which, er, need the most detailed planning scrutiny. As such it's incredibly fit for purpose.
In an era where we have urgent environmental necessities to address, however, it's a substantial obstacle to progress. It urgently does need to be abolished.


Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 February 2020

 

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