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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.