In my early days campaigning for sustainable transport I put a huge effort into submitting evidence to local plans in an effort to get public transport more squarely on the map. Finally I realised that my efforts were largely in vain, because local public transport of the quality that I envisaged was desperately under-funded, and because local plans were more or less dominated by a single theme. This was how to accommodate targets for new homes on ‘strategic’ sites. Transport, it seemed, generally took a back-seat position.
Local plans in England are a very complicated apparatus for the non-specialist and I don’t pretend at all to understand the business in its entirety. It seems, however, that the story begins with a number. This number appears to involve how many new homes have been built locally in past years as a way of seeing the demand in the future, augmented by the needs of national population growth, the need for affordable homes, and other finer adjustments.
This number then gives the local authority a housing needs target for the next 20 years and the local plan is about achieving that, at least on paper. In 2017 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consulted on Planning the right homes in the right places and with this came a spreadsheet of indicative housing needs for each local authority. The list makes fascinating reading and what I learnt was that over the period 2016-2026 many rural authorities are given extremely high targets considering where they are, and there seems a heavy emphasis on the southern part of the country. In North Somerset, for example, the figure is 13,050 homes over ten years. For the rural Vale of White Horse district of Oxfordshire the figure is 6,090 but for Kingston upon Hull only 4,090. Surprisingly, there are no maps plotting the targets to allow one to get a perspective on wider geographical areas such as Greater Bristol, Southampton and Portsmouth, or the West Midlands.
Once the targets are in place the local authority planners have the unenviable task of allocating sites for all those new homes. A call for sites is made and developers put forward their suggestions. So complicated is the decision of where to build, because of green belt land and competing developer enthusiasms, that it must be very difficult for spatial planners to get a good night’s sleep! Local planners finally select what the National Planning Policy Framework calls ‘deliverable’ sites, and these often include large sites beyond the green belt with a developer in a good position to build several fields’ worth of new homes to the required timescale with sufficient certainty that the local plan inspector will be satisfied. Smaller sites and brownfield sites are apparently seen as less dependable or insufficient to meet high targets.
The selected sites are then part of the ‘five-year housing land supply’ which is an on-going metric to assess how well the local plan is progressing. For those interested in this, the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance notes explains much more.
Nearly every urban extension or garden village invariably has a campaign against it. A common objection is that these thousands of new homes will just create too much traffic. Others say that there are few jobs locally and services are already being cut. All this brings us back to transport.
As you can imagine, pepper-potting high housing targets to towns and villages without co-ordinated funding of local, sub-regional or wider public transport has severe repercussions. You can see the result by visiting urban extensions recently built, something that I have done for the Transport for New Homes project funded by the Foundation for Integrated Transport (FIT).
The sight that greets you is often extraordinary. Green areas there may be, to accommodate floodable land or provide some open space, but a common picture is of tightly packed new homes surrounded by so much parking that there is no room for urban trees, grass verges or much garden.
University College London has done a very good visualisation of the 2011 travel to work census data. You can see very plainly that new estates on the fringe of towns or further out in the countryside are particularly car-based. These are often sold on the basis of fast access to the strategic road network and new road capacity is built accordingly. The commuter patterns echo work done by Peter Headicar at Oxford Brookes University – his work got me thinking about all this in the first place.
Local planners insert hopeful words into policies about sustainable transport but the reality is that delivering a new station, light rail or dedicated bus infrastructure to reach out to the places we are building is difficult to say the least. Local public transport works best with a series of stops linking a string of residential areas with high concentrations of people living on the route who can see the benefits of leaving their cars at home. Many of the places we are building are at odds with this model completely.
What does the National Planning Policy Framework have to say about all of this? At the start of the NPPF are some core planning principles and these include one that is key: to “actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling…” I can only conclude that the way we calculate housing targets across the country ends up with a spatial distribution of homes that makes our transport policies impossible to deliver.
So what is going wrong? It seems the use of ‘housing needs’ targets are decided too much in isolation. With modern digital technology we could intelligently decide nationally what to build and where, in tandem with an economic strategy and the necessary rapid transit systems, rail links, new stations and coherent cycling networks. Combining new homes, job and transport is done in London and it could be done elsewhere.
It is surely not the aim of the national planning policy to deliver congestion, pollution and inactive and isolated lifestyles and forced car ownership. However, unless we tie local public transport investment much more closely with new house-building, this is the direction we are travelling.
Jenny Raggett is a campaigner for better planning in conjunction with sustainable transport. She is involved with the project Transport for New Homes funded by FIT – the Foundation for Integrated Transport.
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