Why hasn’t neighbourhood planning taken off in Britain?

People power in Totnes. Image: Sophie Wilder/Flickr/creative commons.

It’s been 50 years since the UK made its first serious attempt to give local people greater power over the decisions made in their neighbourhoods. Yet across the nation, regeneration efforts led by councils and developers continue to draw criticism from communities that feel disregarded and disempowered: from traders in London’s railway arches, to community organisations in Bristol and renters in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Policies designed to help communities create a shared vision for their local area and shape its growth can seem ineffective.

In 1969, the UK government published the Skeffington report, with the aim of bridging the gap between town planners and the people affected by their decisions. The report made nearly 50 recommendations about how to get communities more involved in planning. Creating community forums, offering greater access to information, giving feedback on public input and improving public education about planning were all prominent suggestions.

It’s startling just how relevant the report remains today. Local planning authorities are still struggling to address issues of legitimacy, accountability and innovation in planning decisions. The Skeffington recommendations went largely unimplemented.

Cover of the 1969 Skeffington report on planning. Image: FAL/The Conversation.

Yet by the turn of the millennium, there were a number of small scale experiments giving communities the chance to research and prepare action plans for their local areas. One example was parish plans, which enabled people to establish local needs and priorities across rural England. Pilots like these were to form the basis for a new way of planning – one which was to put local people at the steering wheel.


Neighbourhood planning

In 2011, under the banner of localism and “big society”, the coalition government introduced the Localism Act, along with its flagship policy of neighbourhood planning.

Neighbourhood Planning was meant to empower communities and ensure they got the right type of development to meet their needs, by choosing where they wanted new homes, shops and offices and having their say on building new infrastructure such as roads and transport links. They were to do this by developing their own plan which, when complete, would become a statutory part of the wider planning system.

Some years on, the policy still enjoys support from the UK government. Around 2,500 communities have taken up the opportunity to develop a plan – but only around 750 had actually finished one by February 2019. What started out as a light touch addition to the system has encountered many problems. If these cannot be addressed, there is a danger that the initiative will founder and the opportunity to empower communities will be lost.

Since neighbourhood planning was introduced, myself and colleagues at the University of Reading have been researching the issues, tracking the views of the people involved and documenting the problems they have faced. There are a number of reasons why the policy has not delivered what many people, politicians and planners had hoped.

A town hall in England. Image: Gidsey/Flickr/creative commons.

For one thing, the work involved in putting a plan together has placed a significant burden on volunteers, and made it costly in terms of time and effort for people to participate. The need for technical knowledge and understanding can be great, and the work of consulting with communities, assembling evidence and preparing a tight draft plan with workable policies is a lot for volunteers to take on.

There has also been a lack of clarity, structure and consistency in the support communities get from local authorities and governments. When the policy was first introduced, the government was unwilling to tell people what to do, and local authorities were experiencing significant resource pressures.

Staff turnover at local authorities has also contributed to these difficulties, and scholars and communities have raised concerns about the usefulness and accessibility of the policy. Clearly, marginalised neighbourhoods must be better supported and encouraged to participate.

What’s more, changes to the planning system and associated rules that override neighbourhood plans have left communities feeling frustrated by the process. The system needs to be capable of handling these changes, so that they don’t disrupt the efforts local people are making to have their voices heard.

A further concern emerging from our research is that the finalised plans are not being given enough weight when planning decisions are eventually made. This is extremely concerning, as it could deter others from attempting to make their own neighbourhood plans in the future.

Thinking ahead

For local people thinking of producing a plan, there are a few things to keep in mind. In our book, Neighbourhood Planning in Practice, we suggest that communities looking to navigate neighbourhood planning now or in the future should first establish that it’s the right tool to achieve their goals. There are other planning mechanisms out there to improve the local environment – such as neighbourhood design statements, or engaging directly with the local authority over specific local issues – which may be more effective.

Those who decide to pursue neighbourhood planning should aim to develop and maintain strong relationships with partners – critically the local planning authority – by forging strong channels of communication, clarity over aims and agreement on what support can be offered. Our research indicates it’s also vital to maximise benefits by working across the local community and with other parties – not only to develop a plan, but also to maintain communications and develop other ideas and initiatives.

Creating better places is a shared endeavour, and one that takes hard work. Building partnerships between communities and town planners to share the load is critical to giving local people a greater say in their neighbourhoods. And that’s something that the Skeffington report simply didn’t stress enough 50 years ago.

The Conversation

Gavin Parker, Chair of Planning Studies, University of Reading.

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

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.