At the end of June, the Royal Town Planning Institute launched Plan the World we Need – a national campaign calling on governments across the UK and Ireland to capitalise on the expertise of planners to achieve a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. RTPI chief executive Victoria Hills sets out her case
Never before has there been such a crucial time to address the glaring inequalities across our land, enable a green industrial revolution, prioritise healthy and sustainable modes of transport and coordinate the rapid deployment of zero-carbon infrastructure.
The pandemic has laid bare the profound effects a decade of austerity has had on some of our poorest communities. Only a strong, well-resourced and proactive planning system can address these issues, while at the same time ensuring that the renewed focus on sustainable and active travel, reduction in pollution levels and use of digital technology witnessed in lockdown is sustained.
A successful economic recovery depends on healthy individuals living in healthy places. Healthy places can only be created by a planning system that considers the needs of all.
Perception of planning
Indeed, modern urban planning was conceived during Victorian times as a public health intervention, responding to the spread of disease through overcrowded slums. The UK’s current systems were designed to help the country rebuild after the devastation of World War II. In the decades that followed, planning evolved to reflect wider objectives: improving access to public parks and open spaces, setting standards for high quality and affordable housing, protecting cultural and historical assets, and shaping neighbourhoods.
However, over recent decades there has been a loss of faith in the concept of planning. Successive governments have increasingly favoured market-led solutions: whether that be to stimulate innovation and economic productivity, tackle the housing crisis or cut carbon emissions. This has led to planning being increasingly perceived as a reactive and regulatory function, rather than a positive way to direct change. With this narrow perception, planning has come to be seen by some politicians as a barrier to growth that can be temporarily scaled back during times of crisis. As the scope has narrowed, it has become easier to assert that planning is unable to tackle modern challenges: and thus we see a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The planner-bashing rhetoric coming out of government recently has deeply concerned me – not only on behalf of the planning industry but also on behalf of every single community in the UK.
The announcements by Westminster promising a “radical overhaul” of the planning system prompted me to write an open letter setting out why planning is so important.
Without proper planning, developers will be given carte blanche to build in places that perpetuate car dependency and health-sapping deprivation, or deny neighbours sunlight and daylight, erect tall buildings in the wrong places, houses in areas that may give little consideration to the health and wellbeing of the people who will live in them.
Replacing the current English planning system now would be catastrophic to say the least. Lockdown has shone a bright light on some of the consequences of deregulation. For example, it exposed the failures of Permitted Development Rights (PDRs), introduced by the Coalition government as a temporary measure in the last recession, which allowed all (not just empty) office blocks to be converted into flats. Some of these developments have been described as modern-day slums which have had a detrimental effect on the mental and physical health of some of the most vulnerable in society. Some developers gave little or no consideration to natural light requirements, the size of living space, access to green space or local facilities. Residents literally became prisoners in their own homes.
In recent weeks, PDRs have been extended to allow “a wider range” of commercial buildings to be converted into flats without planning permissions and building owners will be allowed to add new storeys to blocks of flats via a “fast-track approval process”.
The RTPI is concerned that this gradual disempowerment of the planning system will lead to more substandard housing and fewer affordable homes. Even the government’s own Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission pointed out that PDRs have “inadvertently permissioned future slums”.
Our campaign report, Plan the World We Need: The Contribution of Planning to a Sustainable, Resilient and Inclusive Recovery, sets out in detail planning’s vital role in tackling place-based inequality, enabling a green industrial revolution, prioritising healthy and sustainable modes of transport and accelerating the deployment of zero carbon infrastructure:
Tackling place-based inequality
Much-need investment in energy efficiency retrofit is vital to improve the quality of existing homes and neighbourhoods and the focus of planning on new build supply must be complemented with efforts to improve existing housing stock.
Housing should come from a more diverse range of providers, including SMEs, housing associations, local authorities and the custom and self-build sector, with clear design standards for space, light and thermal efficiency. Significant growth should be mixed use and targeted on brownfield sites that support wider regeneration efforts.
Parks, public gardens and other open spaces should be integrated into strategic plans for critical green and blue infrastructure. These should improve quality, scale and accessibility of green spaces, especially in areas of deprivation, while delivering multifunctional benefits such as flood mitigation, cooling, air quality, active travel, biodiversity gains, habitat creation and space for urban agriculture.
Strong climate mitigation and adaptation policies are also required to achieve net zero carbon and increase resilience to environmental risks and these policies must be designed to support the most vulnerable in society.
Enabling a green industrial revolution
Strategic planning over wide geographical areas and close engagement with business groups, trade unions, skills agencies, infrastructure providers and investors is vital in order to meet land, housing and infrastructure needs, which can deliver emission reductions, environmental gains and job growth. Furthermore, measures taken to stimulate construction must be coupled with investment to deliver sustainability and resilience.
Planning for mixed-use communities with accessible local services, digital connectivity and networks of green and active transport infrastructure will capture the benefits of more flexible and remote working patterns, as well as reduce pressure on local transport networks, which in turn avoids the need for costly upgrades.
We must also regenerate, revitalise and diversify our town centres and high streets by taking a holistic, plan-led approach to the integration of high-quality affordable homes and the repurposing of vacant commercial space for uses that support community resilience and environmental sustainability.
Prioritising healthy and sustainable modes of transport
Multi-disciplinary place-based teams should be utilised to integrate active travel measures with plans for high street regeneration, green infrastructure, new car-free residential and commercial developments, electric vehicle charging points and last-mile deliveries.
It is also vital that communities have a say to ensure changes meet a variety of mobility needs. Initiatives to provide access to active and shared mobility options, such as electric bikes should be explored in car-dependent locations and new developments should be designed and located to maximise accessibility by public, active and shared modes of transport, rather than diverting public funds towards the expansion of the road network to accommodate car use.
Accelerating the deployment of zero carbon infrastructure
Planning can ensure that new development is delivered in locations and densities that maximise the potential for low and zero-carbon energy and transport infrastructure, and work with providers and regulators to deliver investment ahead of demand.
As well as minimising energy and transport demand in local places by planning mixed-use neighbourhoods with accessible local services and high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure, site allocations should also maximise opportunities for onsite renewable energy and connections to decentralised low-carbon energy networks.
I caution the government to consider very carefully the contents of its forthcoming Policy Paper and to remember that failing to plan is planning to fail.
The fact is that our planning system has seen a 42% reduction in funding over the last decade. A series of stealth reforms over many years has led to a fragmented and disenfranchised system. I call on government to urgently address this and resource planners properly.
Let’s address 21st century issues together with long-term strategic planning to integrate economic, infrastructure and environmental priorities. Let’s #PlanTheWorldWeNeed and build back better for the benefit of all.
Royal Town Planning Institute
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