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England lacks strategic bodies for transport and land-use

Peter Headicar Oxford OX1
22 June 2018

Jenny Raggett is absolutely right to highlight the yawning credibility gap, in shire counties at least, between the aspirations for sustainable travel in the National Planning Policy Framework and the reality on the ground (Viewpoint LTT 8 Jun). It is almost inevitable that this should be so. A landscape of small- and medium-sized towns set against a rural backdrop characterised by high car ownership and disparate workplaces is scarcely the most promising territory for promoting public transport. To make any significant impression requires intervention on a strategic scale to achieve a spatial concentration of development and transport investment over a prolonged period. This is not something that either the current system of development planning or local transport funding is geared up to deliver.  

It is not the housing numbers in themselves that are the problem but the accent on deliverability over relatively short timescales that results in the ‘pepper-potting’ Jenny refers to. In fact, areas with higher population projections ought to be the ones where greatest opportunity exists to evolve the inherited land-use/transport pattern in a more sustainable way.

The Oxford-Cambridge corridor provides an exceptional opportunity of this kind and the Government’s aspirations for its growth have resulted in a number of recent ‘strategic planning’ innovations. As far as Oxfordshire is concerned:  

• The Local Enterprise Partnership has been asked to pioneer production of a local industrial strategy

• Highways England is evaluating corridor options for the western half of the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway

• Network Rail and Oxfordshire County Council are undertaking a specially-funded study of the local rail network

• The five district planning authorities are committed to preparing a joint statutory spatial plan (with a 2050 time horizon) to guide their local development plan work and steer infrastructure planning

The cumulative resource being devoted to strategic planning activity (to which might be added the National Infrastructure Commission and England’s Economic Heartland-related work on the corridor as a whole) is potentially transformative – as befits the scale of the growth ambition.

Unfortunately, each of the exercises referred to is being undertaken in parallel and by separate organisations. No one has responsibility for ensuring that what emerges will be coherent and sustainable in land-use/transport terms. There is no co-ordinated programme of stakeholder involvement and no process of public examination that will test the interaction of the individual components. Specifically, there is no place for planning and funding an integrated network of public transport geared to – and facilitated by – the anticipated pattern of new development.

The Oxford-Cambridge corridor should be the opportunity to rescue integrated strategic planning from its present oblivion and provide an exemplar for other areas to follow, albeit on a more modest scale.  On present evidence, however, the challenge involved in simply responding to the quantitative implications of growth appears to be militating against due consideration of its qualitative character.

Policy and Research Advisor, Urban Transport Group
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