Decisions will continue to be made that undermine effective transport solutions

 
Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government

 
The UK planning system is often vilified as obstructing development and reaching inappropriate decisions. The reality is that while there are faults with the system, decisions are made carefully and on the basis of the available evidence. Currently, there are one million housing permissions granted where developers have not started to build. The latest onslaught by government is to propose simplification of the planning system by throwing out decades of engagement, democracy and accountability. However, the traditional process does not always promote accessibility and fails to recognise the vital links between land uses and transport planning. This results in car-dependent developments where walking, cycling and passenger transport use are marginalised or often not available at all. Loosening the regulations as proposed will do nothing to address this and will probably result in poorer decisions that fuel inappropriate housing and other schemes.

Knowledge deficiency

A particular problem is that town planning professionals and those in the Planning Inspectorate are not trained in transport (either passenger or goods) and hence miss opportunities to support sustainable communities – something I have raised with the Royal Town Planning Institute as an area of concern. There is an inevitable seduction of new large housing areas with apparently green credentials but which are remote from amenities and have inadequate bus, light rail or rail services – this condemns them to car-dependency. The bad decisions are recognised too late but the lessons are not often learned. Missing out the fundamental principles of transport is a real loss and it needs to be hammered home that the location of a proposed development and its sustainable transport links should be a determinant of the proposal, not an afterthought.

There is lots of legislation and guidance around planning requirements. The process to decide what goes where is complex and drawn out and features various levels of statutory consultation, wider engagement and very often a strong dose of public opinion, usually negative. Key elements of the statutory framework include the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the Local Plan process. NPPF was an attempt to streamline the process but in doing so lost some clarity. In particular, the definition of ‘severe’ impacts of a proposed development has been good for legal businesses. The underlying presumption of ‘sustainable development’ has not proved to be meaningful on the ground, particularly with reference to transport issues. The Local Plans have always been heavy going in determining where new development should take place but they suffer from taking years to produce only to be reviewed almost immediately afterwards. They are also susceptible to ‘windfall’ sites appearing in the meantime with developments being approved despite the local planning authority’s site allocations. On top of this there is a compelling need for housing land to the point where houses are built anywhere regardless of the Local Plan; a steady stream of housing land supply is hard to find.

Meanwhile, some redevelopments are being streamlined such as conversion of offices to housing. On the face of it, this is a good idea as society’s needs have changed. The problem is that extensive building changes are needed to avoid creating tiny housing units with low ceilings, limited accesses and in some cases, no windows. Where offices are located isn’t necessarily a good place to live.

Bigging up schemes

An alternative route was created for schemes regarded as being nationally important with the Development Consent Order (DCO) process which applies to many major transport proposals. Time limits are set throughout the DCO process with the intention of being more open than the traditional and usually confrontational Public Inquiry route. For the granting of a DCO, a direct decision is made by the secretary of state. However, lots of problems remain and scheme promoters need to supply vast amounts of evidence including the transport impacts in support of their application. For most developments, this is made through a Transport Assessment which sets out the details of what transport will be required and the extent to which this can be incorporated into established networks. This used to be all about roads and traffic with very little, if anything, on passenger transport. The tide is turning but it remains the case that car impacts are the greatest concern rather than determining how other local transport services should be provided.

Contributing to impacts

Allied to this is the setting of developer contributions, which are payments to mitigate against transport impacts. This might include road capacity improvements and in some cases bus services for an initial period. In fact, they are not contributions by the developer at all and are actually deductions from the land value payable to the local authority or transport provider. In addition to the traditional contributions, the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) may apply. This covers all infrastructure of which transport is only a part; it includes items such as schools and on the basis that half a school won’t do, transport infrastructure is often relegated to a secondary requirement. It is no secret that developers do not want to pay contributions if it can be avoided, apparently supported by government as evidenced by the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, advised a developer on how to avoid paying millions of pounds for community benefit (just about legal but morally reprehensible). The system clearly has its weaknesses.

In many cases, developers get off lightly with minimal transport provision and little commitment to sustainable transport services

In many cases, developers get off lightly with minimal transport provision and little commitment to sustainable transport services; putting up a bus stop may be as far as it gets. This will not be helped by the latest proposals which are likely to curtail such payments. Developers have a habit of playing the viability card in which they threaten to withdraw their proposal if the contributions are considered to be too high. Planning authorities are stuck between forgoing a needed housing site or hoping the developer will cave in. Viability may be a problem but often it is simply a dent in the developer’s profit. The other popular tactic is to appeal against a decision. On appeal, permission may be granted despite the objections of the local authority or anyone else with a series of options through the legal system and up the secretary of state. Thus planning by appeal manages to bypass the planning element – if this is what government wants, then it should be more open about it.

Doing the wrong thing

The implications for transport are huge. Inappropriate housing and commercial sites mean that bus services are inadequate and developments are designed for car use and not bus use. This can extend all through the design with houses having large garages, apparently because that is what the market wants (it doesn’t) and cul-de-sacs making permeable bus services impossible. In doing so, passenger transport users are alienated and actually getting to some sites without a car can be really difficult. Only the biggest developments can secure a new rail station if this is considered feasible and funding is available but remain subject to Network Rail’s programme, not that of the planning authority. Similarly, accommodating shiny new bus stops provides no guarantee that an operator will use them. It happens all the time with the assumption that bus services will somehow go where the developer would like with no grip on commercial realities at all. Coming back to the lack of transport knowledge among planners, they may well go along with what the developer proposes.

Designing sustainable developments requires designing around sustainable transport and until that becomes the norm, awful developments will continue to be delivered

Reform of the planning system often crops up when government is looking for something that might appeal to its electorate. What is needed is not wholesale reform but clarity which includes consideration of accessibility as a starting point rather than an irrelevance. Designing sustainable developments requires designing around sustainable transport and until that becomes the norm, awful developments will continue to be delivered. There are ways of speeding up the process and limiting the conflicts but the proposals appear to carve out a course that only achieves this by casting aside safeguards and local decision-making. I suspect that this stems from a lingering rose-tinted hope for happy people to live in pleasant surroundings rather than the grim realities of overpriced and poorly designed housing. The furore associated with specific plans is usually about traffic and sadly not about design-led sustainability; people will continue to complain about traffic impacts even though they contribute to it themselves; NIMBYism is alive and well. Unless the planning process can be improved successfully, not by over-simplification, then the consequences are inevitable.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

 
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