The National Planning Policy Framework was a missed opportunity for cities

A generic picture of some houses under construction. Image: Getty.

Some weeks ago, the government published its revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which will act as the new rulebook for planning in English cities for the foreseeable future. The draft version – which we at the Centre for Cities responded to in March – has remained largely intact, and most of the edits have tweaked the emphasis and scope of particular policies.

Nevertheless, there have been two changes which have particular implications for the cities across the country.

Reducing the required quota of small sites in local development plans

Originally the government proposed that 20 per cent of development in local plans should be to small sites of less than half a hectare, to help small builders develop cheaper homes.

This has now been changed to 10 per cent for sites smaller than one hectare, responding to criticism – including ours – that the proposed quota was too high. We feared that increasing demand for small sites risked pushing up the prices of small plots of land, therefore making it difficult for small builders to actually deliver cheaper housing; so this change is a positive step by the government

Giving cities more flexibility over high street planning

The government has also acknowledged that planning for high streets and town centres needs to be more flexible than it initially suggested. As such, it has removed the need to define primary and secondary frontages for retail and leisure uses – giving places more scope over whether high street commercial space is used for shops, or for restaurants, cinemas and other types for business instead.

The new flexibility is welcome, but we shouldn’t expect it to have a huge impact in cities which have struggling high streets. As our recent report Building Blocks shows, the key challenge for these kinds of places is increasing demand in their city centres for other uses, and particularly knowledge-intensive businesses. This will make the biggest difference in bringing people into city centres and increasing footfall for retail and leisure. Ultimately, the most important factors in that respect will be addressing skills gaps and improving infrastructure and transport links.

More broadly, cities remain neglected in the NPPF. Urban areas make up 54 per cent of the population and 60 per cent of jobs, but only 8 per cent of the UK’s land. As a result, how we plan the use of valuable land in cities is the most important way planning affects national productivity, the economy, and the standard of living.


Yet despite the presence of two separate sections for rural housing and the rural economy, no such sections have been written for cities. The word ‘rural’ appears 27 times in the NPPF, compared to 11 mentions for ‘urban’: of these, 6 refer to how the green belt should interact with urban areas.

The omission of cities has consequences not just for the economy, but also for our environment. For instance, the section on climate change covers how construction and planning for renewable energy can reduce carbon emissions, but neglects to mention how city living and denser communities reduce the inefficient use of energy and commuter journeys by car. This lack of attention on cities is a missed opportunity.

It may well be that James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is planning to focus more on urban planning issues in the upcoming Devolution Framework (due to be published in the autumn). One step he should consider is to extend spatial strategy powers to the remaining metro mayors who lack them (Tees Valley and West Midlands) and to clarify the role of planning when it comes to cities. The influence of metro mayors in decision-making over the built environment will need to be enhanced if they are to be leaders of their cities.

More generally, cities should have the powers to plan across the whole of their economic geography, while government retains an important policy role for setting the objective of the planning system, and as a watchdog.

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

The four key recommendations Centre for Cities made to the NPPF can be found here.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.