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.


Blog Archive


Keep up to date with the latest news

A Level Planning Field

If a society is to function smoothly and fairly, one necessity is an adequate level of health among the majority of its population.
For this reason, the medical profession, human and institutional, is of huge importance. It is part of the critical infrastructure of a nation.
And for this reason too, it is essential that medical professionals are both supported by government in their work and held to account for any incompetence or misconduct. If they fail on either count, they can be 'struck off' and prevented from practising. Patient safety is paramount.
But isn't planning and land use as important as health, so should be treated in the same rigorous way?
At the moment, however, standards and accountability in this sector are not always adequately established and enforced especially for those companies and consultants that carry out surveys and appraisals for both public and private clients.
They are commissioned to produce flood risk assessments, sustainability appraisals and reports covering everything from transport, biodiversity and air quality, to sewerage and agricultural land classification.
Although some consultancies strive to be genuinely objective, others are essentially enablers of development rather than disinterested appraisers of challenges and constraints. After all, they are being paid by developers and public bodies to get development and land use change through the planning application process. They therefore compete against one another on the unspoken basis of who is best at massaging plans through each stage of the process.
If this means giving in to optimism bias, limiting the scope of their work or being slightly economical with the truth, so be it. Impartial and accurate thoroughness, especially if it delivers unpalatable conclusions, could mean less future work for the consultancy.
As a result, many plans are approved that should have undergone much more rigorous assessment, not least by a weakened Planning Inspectorate which has found itself under great pressure from governments of all political stripes to sign off plans that are riddled with problems, real or potential, that make them inappropriate.
What can be done about this, when the reality of the market favours the promotion of the often unproven advantages of development over the accurate and thorough assessment of the full range and implications of constraints?
One possible answer it to beef up the power of the Planning Inspectorate by requiring all consultancies carrying out planning work for developments to register with the Inspectorate to become eligible for consideration in open competition with one another.
To register, they would have to demonstrate that they had the staff skills and capacity to do the work to a sufficiently rigorous standard. Having registered, if they were shown to have produced a poor appraisal, they could potentially be struck off and not allowed to engage in such work for a specific length of time or never again. This could apply to individuals as well as companies.
It could be the Inspectorate itself that judged a consultancy to have underperformed, or another body. Given the importance of local knowledge, it could be members of the public or local government members or officers who point out serious shortcomings.
If a consultancy were seen to have been lazy, negligent, biased, selective in its evidence or in any other way incompetent, a yellow card could be shown. Repeated poor performance would lead to a red card. Any dishonesty or corruption would be an automatic red.
Companies would be thus competing against each other against market criteria of thoroughness, accuracy and disinterested application, rather than ability to work the system on behalf of their clients.
This should result in better decisions. The best use of land is as important to the safety and well-being of the nation as health itself. Planning is too important to be left to competitive manipulation.
The 'single statutory sustainable development test' proposed in the Planning White Paper, if it became a reality, would make the policy suggested here even more important, since the public would have only one early chance (too early) to point out serious problems and constraints.
And consultancies would be competing madly with each other for the rich spoils of getting the White Paper's 'growth areas' agreed.

Posted by Nigel Pearce on 26 January 2021


The Glare Of Arc Lights

Given that even proponents of the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc now admit the plan to dump a million homes in the countryside has proved toxic, one needs to ask why one of its main cheer-leaders is now claiming it plans a million-and-a-half.
The claim appeared last week in a blog by Bidwells planning director Rob Hopwood on the PBC Today website.
In it, Mr Hopwood regurgitates the usual hogwash about how the five counties are set to become a new economic powerhouse and the usual green hogwash. Bidwells, you see, has discussed a plan which 'could encompass ecological and sustainable goals without stifling economic growth' with wildlife bodies.
Let's hope the wildlife bodies took their long-handled spoons with them.
But, in what may yet prove fatal to the whole Arc project, Mr Hopwood made a startling assertion.
'The region has been singled out as the location for 1.5m new homes as well as new road and rail links, making it an area of immense potential for economic growth,' he wrote.
The one million usually asserted has sometimes been edged up to 1.2 million by supporters, though it's unclear whether this is just adding the new homes demanded by current local plans to the million the National Infrastructure Commission recommended (on Treasury orders), or just inflation.
But 1.5 million is new. Three possibilities spring to mind.
The first possibility is that Bidwells is simply bidding well, trying to up the game of those with their snouts in the Arc trough and Whitehall, egging them on to further excess.
The second possibility is that it's a clever but cynical bit of PR. Horrify everyone with the possibility of one-and-a-half million sprawl homes so, when the million homes target is imposed, it doesn't look quite as bad.
The third possibility is the most worrying of the lot. Could it be that Bidwells has been tipped the wink by Whitehall that BuildBuildBuild is going to mean building even more of the wrong sort of homes in the wrong places?
I've no idea which of these is the case but all of them shine an arc-light on what a shabby, destructive project the Arc is.
If the Government is still remotely serious about policies to rebalance the economy, the Arc needs to be a very early casualty.
In 2019 we made some suggestions for other places in England where, if (and only if) the Arc concept is a sensible one, it could be applied more beneficially and less destructively.
Our suggested areas were designed to stimulate discussion rather than being definitive, though each of the five areas suggested clearly met the Arc's objectives, but with a greater need for the growth and better able to accommodate it.
Yet no attempt has been made to discuss alternatives, even as the flimsy bases on which the Arc was formulated wash away before the economic tides of recession, pandemic and Brexit.
And while we can't agree with Mr Hopwood that the Arc is 'an area of over 100 miles' (it's actually about 4,500 square miles) or that a project for massive greenfield destruction counts as 'regeneration', we can agree with him on one thing.
'There is a strong need for coherent governance across various levels,' he says.
Hear, hear.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 January 2021


Levelling-up Or Just Levelling

The news that Transport for the North is to have its budget allocation slashed is another blow to the Government levelling-up agenda which remains suspect so long as it continues to pursue southern-based initiatives like the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
It now looks as if the DfT is going to award less than half the funds included in the latest TfN bid. Core funding is down 40 percent and no funding has been provided for the expected contactless payment for the north of England's rail, bus and tram networks.
So the 'game-changer' that TfN was hailed as at its launch, as recently as 2017, has proved to be a mirage. Patience with the Government is now wearing thin.
'Transport for the North's Board has clearly indicated its disappointment and concern that, a time when the Government's levelling-up agenda is needed most, funding is being cut, putting northern investment and jobs at risk,' said TfN finance director Iain Craven. 'It falls substantially short of what we outlined the North would need to level-up infrastructure and accelerate benefits to the region.'
Over 600 million journeys were made on bus, train and tram networks in northern England in 2019. The 33m cut in smart travel funding will mean the roll-out for 2021-2 won't now happen and the programme will be wound down.
There has always been some exasperation with TfN among sustainability campaigners for its close ties to destructive national transport policy. In 2017 it published a Major Roads Report which fed many destructive highway building projects into the regional Strategic Transport Plan.
But even though control from Whitehall has been at least as evident as from northern town halls, the DfT has moved to tighten control.
In September it created the Northern Transport Acceleration Council. This is DfT-staffed and was set up to 'ensure northern leaders have a direct line to ministers'.
Direct lines, of course, are bidirectional. Ministers will now have a direct line to northern leaders. No doubt it was useful to tell them their funding is being cut.
No sign of cuts yet to the disastrous so-called 'Oxford-Cambridge Arc', for which a spatial strategy detailing where the destruction will strike hardest is expected soon.
If the Arc went ahead, it would of course drag further economic activity out of the north and midlands.
Sometimes you have to wonder if ministers want to level-up the north, or simply level it to the ground.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 January 2021