Here are four reforms the British planning system needs to support growth

A man gazes at pictures of houses he will never, ever be able to afford. Image: Getty.

What is the point of urban planning? To answer this question we need to look at why people cluster in the small parts of the country in which land is scarce and expensive.

Cities account for 54 per cent of the UK’s population and 60 per cent of it jobs, but only 8 per cent of its land. As a result, the decisions we make about how to use valuable land in cities – and how we make those decisions – have an outsized effect on national productivity and the economy.

Planning, therefore, has an important role to play in coordinating economic activity in cities and ensuring city land is used efficiently. This thinking was at the core of the Centre for Cities’ response to the government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

In it, we stressed four reforms the government should make to bring planning back into balance in cities – that is, to ensure it meets the commercial, residential, and environmental and transport needs of urban areas:

  • Offer clear guidance on the role of planning for urban economies;
  • Release land for “button development” of housing near train stations;
  • Grade green belt in terms of suitability for new homes;
  • Explore alternatives to our permission-planning system.

In combination with our recommendations, these changes would result in a planning system that is much more focused on supporting economic growth within places.

Here’s some more detail on each of the recommendations.

Offer clear guidance on the role of planning for urban economies – and giving cities the powers to act

The NPPF clearly states that planning should help to drive local productivity by aiming to create conditions for the growth of businesses and the local economy.

But while it includes a long section on how planning should recognise the needs of the rural economy, an equivalent for cities is absent. This is a missed opportunity because the failure of planning to release enough land for development is most acute in cities.

To tackle this, we’ve argued that the government should issue specific guidance in the NPPF on how planning can assist economic growth in cities. That means, for example, ensuring high knowledge business services have the space they need in city centres to capture the benefits from agglomeration economies.

The economic growth of cities should be central to any national planning framework.

Cities themselves have also changed since the last NPPF was finalised in 2012, most notably with the creation of metro mayors in seven city regions across England (eight including the North of Tyne). However, only some of them have spatial planning powers – and the mayors of Tees Valley, West Midlands, and the forthcoming North of Tyne authority all lack the ability to lead on planning within their city.

These spatial plan powers should be devolved to the remaining metro mayors as soon as possible. But this is also an opportunity for the government to think about the future of devolution and these new institutions. Ideally, the largest cities with devolved institutions should have full control over their planning policy through documents such as the London Plan and the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, rather than sharing power with the NPPF.

Instead of writing planning policy for cities, the government should set the terms within which cities can write their own planning policy framework. In particular, the government should represent people who want to move to or between cities. Plan-making at present goes to great lengths to involve local residents, but struggles to capture the interests of people who may choose to live there in future. Giving cities the freedom to plan, while ensuring that they provide for new residents, would maximise devolution’s ability to drive local economic growth.

Release land for ‘button development’ of housing near train stations

Although the NPPF proposes minimum densities around “transport hubs” – which remain undefined – the government should go further by stipulating that all land within a 1km radius of train stations should have minimum densities for new housing.

That doesn’t mean Hong Kong-style high rises. But it could mean old-town style neighbourhoods with narrow streets, or the kinds of six-storey flats we see in Maida Vale (the densest neighbourhood in the UK). These “button developments” would create walkable communities with minimal new infrastructure, in contrast to “ribbon developments” along roadsides. The amount of land given over to cars (both for parking and on roads) should be minimised so that the new housing can support public transport and vice versa.

In addition to more homes, dense housing near train stations has an extra benefit for the environment. Building homes near stations makes commuting by rail or metro easy, reducing journeys by car and carbon emissions. More dense housing near public transport is essential for the UK to meet its legal target of a 57 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 while sustaining economic growth in cities.

Grade the green belt in terms of suitability for new homes

Releasing land for “button development around stations will require reform of the green belt, which is why we’re supporting the cross party coalition pushing for green belt reform around train stations led by Siobhain McDonagh MP. But a wider review of green belt land is needed to ascertain other sites which may be suitable for housing.

In the draft NPPF, the government said that brownfield land on the green belt was in certain cases suitable for development, agreeing that not all green belt should be equally protected.

Given that the green belt is a major obstacle to supplying more homes around high demand cities, this is a welcome recognition – but needs to be developed further. The uniformity and inflexibility of the green belt’s restrictions is the central problem with the policy because the suitability of green belt land for new housing varies so widely.

Recent housing stock growth by local authority, in and around London.

The government should, therefore, conduct a strategic review of green belt land to assess whether designations first applied over 50 years ago are still appropriate today. This review should grade green belt land according to the suitability for new homes, prioritising land near train stations for ‘button development’ as outlined above.

This would this improve the evidence available on the quality of green belt land. It would also enhance protection for our most precious countryside and landscapes, and help local communities develop consensuses on sites for new housing.

The Centre for Cities also argues that the current definition of the purpose of the green belt is too sweeping and rigid: at the moment, all English countryside could be said to service at least one intended purpose of the green belt. A more focused and effective green belt could be achieved by instead defining its purpose along the lines of:

  • Checking unrestricted sprawl and encourage a strategic approach to growth in keeping with the needs of local economies;
  • Assisting urban regeneration and the densification of cities and towns by encouraging the reuse of viable brownfield land;
  • Protecting environmentally valuable and beautiful countryside;
  • Achieving local and national climate goals of reducing commuting distances by car.

This would allow planning to more effectively balance the different interests within cities as part of planning’s role to coordinate economic activity than the current inflexible green belt definition. After all, belts are supposed to be loosened if they become too tight.

Scrap planning permissions, and move towards a rules-based planning system

One drawback of the NPPF is that it doesn’t tackle systemic problems in English planning – for example, the fact that each new development requires discrete planning permission.  

This increases opportunities for local Nimbys to oppose new housing and reduce supply. As almost nobody ever lobbies their local councils calling for more housing – although Yimby groups are starting to change that - a system of planning permissions ratchets the supply of housing downwards.

That’s why planning permissions should be replaced with a rules-based system, by which local authorities work with communities to create a plan stipulating where and how housing can be built by developers (in other words, zoning). This would ensure that housing decisions are still democratically agreed by the community, while reducing uncertainty, delays, and therefore costs to building more houses.

The reforms we’ve proposed would complement some of the changes to the planning system which already feature in the draft NPPF. These include the new method of calculating housing need based on local affordability, removing powers to block new housing from local authorities that don’t supply enough homes, and the push for more Build-to-Rent housing.

If the government acts on our recommendations in combination with the improvements that the draft NPFF set out, these changes could lead to a planning system which is much more focused on supporting economic growth within cities.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.

Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.