Can better planning fix the problems that led to Brexit?

The Kings Square Estate. Image: Pollard Thomas Edwards.

With so much government energy and resources devoted to hammering out the UK’s future with the EU, and with the call of a second referendum ringing louder by the day, one has to ask: what is being done to address those issues that has led to Brexit in the first place? 

There has been plenty of analysis about why people voted to leave the European Union. Whatever the reason, the Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. It signifies deep-seated social and economic difficulties experienced by people up and down the country.

Could this political outcome in fact be the result of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? At the Royal Town Planning Institute, we’d argue that it is: lack of housing, public services, jobs, social cohesion, and a sense in these communities that they and their voices don’t matter, are the real problems facing Britain today.

Place-making might sound woolly, but the result of our long-running failure to consciously design and invest in communities in ways that build on their potential and promote people's health, happiness, and well being is far from abstract. Town planning was created to mitigate poverty, inequality, disease and the resultant disillusionment of communities. Whatever deal we are to strike with the EU is not going to solve these problems without investment in place-making.

If Theresa May’s government is serious about building one nation, starting with the divisions so clearly brought to the surface by the Brexit vote, then this means a country that is planned properly.

It means, firstly, stronger strategic planning so that cities and regions benefit from more coordinated investment. It also means, secondly, stronger planning at the local level.

The finalists of this year’s Awards for Planning Excellence – announced on Monday – is a celebration of what good local planning can do. The projects are being created and implemented by Britain's planners, to deliver better places with obvious improvements to our health, well-being, economic security and housing.


Building more houses

How does a 2,500 home (40 per cent of them affordable) mixed-use development near Cambridge with improved access to the countryside, two new schools and health facilities and a new park around an adjacent creek to improve biodiversity sound? Impossible? Well, it’s half completed and helping address the housing shortage in the area.

Similarly – albeit on a much smaller scale – four new homes have been built following the transformation of a semi-derelict kennel and cattery in the green belt near Chertsey, Runnymede. The environmentally friendly homes have carbon emissions 10 per cent lower than regular homes, and, through clever design, have reduced the building footprint on the site – situated in the green belt – by 40 per cent.

Or what about the scheme by one local authority in London which has seen 28 new homes built across four scattered brownfield sites?

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Job insecurity is a problem across Britain – not just in the areas that voted predominately to leave. The redevelopment of the declining Bracknell Town Centre – being led by planners – is a £240m project delivering new shopping, dining and leisure facilities and 3,500 new jobs.

Meanwhile, a plan to develop a major new economic hub around Birmingham airport and international train station identifies infrastructure needs and design principles to support up to 77,500 jobs and 4000 new homes.

Improving health and wellbeing

Where you live plays a major role in health and well-being. Earlier this year, Public Health England released data showing life expectancy had gone backwards in some parts of the country.

But across the UK there are examples of attempts to tackle this. A farm classroom in South Somerset teaches school children about healthy eating, while ‘Healthy Places, Healthy Children’ in Belfast is a teaching resource introducing children to help them share their ideas on how to make neighbourhoods more healthy and child friendly. These are ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere.

Regenerating declining towns and cities

Estate regeneration is often associated with local opposition and the loss of affordable homes. However, if done properly can be welcomed by the residents.

The King’s Square estate in Islington, London, being regenerated by a partnership between the local authority, residents, designers and planners. They are working pro-actively together to develop brownfield land into 140 new affordable homes adjacent to the estate. It includes an upgrade to the public spaces and new community facilities including a refurbished nursery and primary school.

At the town level, the planners in Stromness have led an inter-departmental council task force to transform the declining town centre through the redevelopment of key buildings, sites and facilities. Importantly, the community helped shape the project from start to finish resulting in a renewed sense of civic pride.

Similarly in Porthcawl, West Wales, the transformation of a former 1800s tram terminal, known as ‘The Jennings’, into a mixed-use scheme, including cafes and live/work spaces, has acted as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider area.

There is cause to be optimistic about our future post Brexit – and planners are leading the way.

Joshua Rule is public affairs officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

 
 
 
 

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.