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.