Sidelining planners makes for poorer urban policy. Future generations will pay the price

The Auckland skyline. Image: Getty.

Modern urban planning first came about to improve industrial cities that had become unsafe, unhealthy and essentially unliveable. However, new policies in Australia and New Zealand view planning as a cause of urban problems, not a solution. Both treat urban planning as a hindrance, which supposedly slows down economic growth and is the main reason for unaffordable housing. The Conversation

But what might this approach mean for future development of Antipodean cities? While urban planning may have fallen short of its goals over recent decades, policy that marginalises urban planning exposes us to long-term social and environmental risks.

Cities in Australia and New Zealand do face particular challenges: both countries are highly urbanised, 89 per cent and 86 per cent respectively. A closer look at land use patterns and infrastructures show they are mostly suburban – closer to Houston than Hong Kong. Therefore, urban policy faces the challenge of governing suburbia.

Why did urban planning fall out of favour?

Several underlying factors explain this aversion to planning.

First, many urban areas developed under the current planning system haven’t produced a very liveable environment. It is difficult to make a case for the value of planning with few good examples. In some cases this isn’t bad planning; rather, traffic engineering has taken precedence.

Giving priority to traffic engineering has compromised planning principles in Auckland and many other cities. Image: Henry Burrows/flickr/creative commons.

Many areas of Auckland, for instance, are designed in such a way that residents have little choice but to drive everywhere. They are unsafe for children or seniors to navigate. And vast amounts of space are allocated to parking for private vehicles.

This is the cumulative result of decades of infrastructure decision-making that prioritises private vehicle movement over safer and more efficient public transport. Residents are living with the consequences of this, and current policy risks more of the same for future residents.

New shared spaces, cycle lanes and frequent transit services are a dramatic improvement. However, greater change is needed to make an impact on everyday life for those who live and work outside the city centre.

Second, delays in planning approvals are notorious for adding significant cost and uncertainty to property development. But inefficient delivery of planning services should not be confused with overly stringent planning rules.

Planning rules are intended to mitigate environmental damage and improve the quality of development. Rather than getting rid of planning, delays can be reduced through better resourcing, training and management of planning departments.

Also, approvals are only one step in delivering new housing. Fast-tracked consenting in Auckland’s special housing areas resulted in 30,000 consented dwellings, but only 1,300 new homes were built over almost three years.

This shows that other factors slow down the pace of development. These include capacity in the construction sector, local construction labour and delays due to land banking.

Putting affordability claims to the test

Poor urban planning is claimed to be the primary cause of unaffordable housing. It is said to be linked to higher house prices and lower economic performance.

Evidence to support these claims shows a correlation – but not a causal link – between the restrictiveness of planning regulations and housing affordability.

The simple correlation ignores other factors driving house prices: speculative investment behaviour, incentives for land banking, record-low mortgage rates and strong cultural biases toward home ownership.

Looking to land supply as the primary policy lever to fix this may do little to moderate house prices. It also overlooks more important causes.

Urban expansion also has implications for transport: it is expensive and inefficient to leave transport authorities playing catch-up to serve new growth areas.

The politics of growth further complicate expansion of land supply and tend to distribute new growth haphazardly. Most residents agree that cities need to allow for future growth, but deciding where this should go is contentious. Recent growth in New Zealand and Australian cities has been accommodated mostly in the city centre and at the urban fringe.

Only a small share of growth is in existing suburbs. Suburban residents (or at least a vocal contingent) often oppose new growth. This is unsurprising since intensification counters the very reason for living in the suburbs – more space and fewer people.

Regardless, urban policy needs to acknowledge the political tensions in accommodating growth.


Good planning involves citizens

National urban policy is important to manage land use and infrastructure differently in cities. Policies don’t have to be prescriptive. They can also enable local authorities to govern better with greater devolution of power and fundraising capabilities.

Scaling back urban planning is an understandable but disappointingly short-term response. In many cases planning hasn’t delivered what it promised. Measures to reduce delays and improve the quality of the built environment are needed. However, policy that simply reduces the role of planning may result in significant long-term costs.

Such an approach risks environmental damage, as well as uncoordinated land and transport development. The next generation living in our cities will pay for it.

Informed citizens are essential to support good planning and infrastructure decisions. For the general public, however, local regulations on urban planning, infrastructure and environmental quality are painfully dull. But they are also fundamental in shaping your everyday life: where you can afford to live, your daily commute, and the chance of air pollution shortening your lifespan.

For those without time to go through lengthy consultation documents and plans, local advocacy groups are leading the way to translate these concisely to the public. Auckland’s Generation Zero is a good example. This organisation is advocating for inter-generational equity and environmental sustainability in local planning and transport, with targeted campaigns on important projects and planning decisions.

Negotiating the trade-offs and politics of urban growth is always a challenge for policy, but quality public engagement is crucial to build cities that are liveable, affordable and environmentally sustainable over the long term.

Jenny McArthur is a postdoctoral research associate in the City Leadership Laboratory: Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.