Planning for Growth – the sum of the parts

Design Council Cabe’s David Waterhouse discusses the various initiatives that will continue to be at the forefront of local and national politics in 2017 and provides a view on what is working, what is not, and crucially, why

A new year brings new announcements and initiatives and January 2017 is no exception. Already, we have seen announcements on garden villages and starter homes, while the long-awaited Housing White Paper is due to be published towards the end of the month. The continued challenge with multiple initiatives is how to join up and create thriving, sustainable and inclusive places on the ground.

City Region Growth
At a macro level, the continued devolution of powers from Whitehall to cities and city regions provides the blueprint for empowered leaders to drive locally led growth, given the freedoms and flexibilities that new funding regimes bring. However, the reality is somewhat different. Each City Deal is bespoke with varying degrees of financial freedoms and, in certain cases, the lack of drive on planning is providing a major challenge to the delivery of housing, infrastructure and wider economic growth ambitions.

Many city regions are moving towards joint local plan arrangements to help deliver their growth aspirations. There are many examples of excellent joint working to agree spatial plan priorities and mechanisms for delivery, but there are equally authorities who – either through lack of leadership or vision – are unable to seize the mantle and work jointly.

The Duty to Cooperate introduced in the 2011 Localism Bill on cross-boundary strategic growth issues has been ineffective in many cases and is providing major blockages to collegiate joint working. The recent example of South Oxfordshire and Oxford City Council is a prime example. It is precisely these overheated housing market areas that require joint approaches to delivery, providing certainty and consistency to all partners and, critically, including local communities.

Getting local plans in place is fundamental, and the recent Local Plan enquiry led by John Rhodes of Quod Planning provided some useful analysis. However, as authorities look at new joint working arrangements and planning across city region areas, slicker investment-focused local plans are required alongside a radical overhaul of the timeframes needed to get these in place. Recent experience suggests that some local authorities are hiding behind local plan timetables to avoid taking difficult decisions on major developments. This is therefore hindering inward investment. This is as much a phenomenon in London as it is in the city regions and counties.

Estate Regeneration
Recent announcements on estate regeneration also need to be considered in the context of city region planning. Growth and regeneration are complimentary and different cities require different solutions. In Liverpool, for example, there is a need to use growth to regenerate some parts of the inner city as well as the outer estates and to explore how new development and growth can stimulate economic development and regeneration in the inner core. This thinking may also apply to other cities in northern England; Hull, Leeds and Manchester for example, where estates should be seen as assets rather than liabilities.

Back to the Future – Garden Villages
As someone who was involved closely with the Eco Town programme from 2007 onwards, it is encouraging to see locally led, large-scale planned growth in the form of freestanding or urban extensions, back at the forefront of national political thinking. Reading the zeitgeist is always dangerous, but we should learn from the eco town programme, its ambitions of course were only partly fulfilled, political change and economic crisis notwithstanding.

It is vital that garden villages, whatever the scale, are properly planned in a sound policy context and delivered as part of a solution to increasing housing in a location. The location, size, density and facilities of future settlements are vital in order to ensure they are sustainable, have the right amount and type of transport linkages, and are seen as places where people genuinely want to live and work.

Delivering growth at this scale requires a number of critical ingredients. The work of Design Council Cabe on the ground points to a number of key attributes required to make delivery happen. Firstly, a joint sense between developer, landowner and the local authority of a shared vision. Secondly, governance and mechanisms that enable joint working to take effect and provide clarity and certainty to all in the decision-making and delivery of new development. Thirdly, it is vital to have the leadership and skills, on all sides, to deliver. From political and chief officer level at the local authority, to the developer and their teams, the skills and competencies and adequate resources should not be underestimated.

A healthy environment
Early planning of social and physical infrastructure is vital in creating and providing a sense of place. This relates to the importance of a clear phasing strategy to deliver the housing and infrastructure in tandem and to ensure that wider issues such as health and well-being are considered in the round and as early as possible.

Recent experience from the NHS England Healthy New Town programme suggests that the joining of planning and healthcare delivery systems, while beneficial, is complex. Language, culture, understanding, commissioning processes, etc, are different and require joint working to ensure optimal outcomes. Many of the sites being supported currently have multiple and various health inequalities which new development and regeneration can help tackle, but only through joined-up working and collaborative planning.

Significant experience from Design Council Cabe’s city programme suggests that simple early measures to bring cohesion to the public realm can quickly create unique attributes of place and, allied with social infrastructure, begin to create a sense of community that responds to the opportunities for economic growth while facilitating healthier, more inclusive places to live and work.

The shortlisted sites announced on 2 January are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, their geographical location and their relationship to the wider economic mainstream. Some sites are inherently unsustainable due to their location and wider transport connections, others arguably are simply too small and need to be seen as part of a portfolio of housing solutions to a town’s housing need. Delivering development at some of these sites will require strong governance, partnership working and ability to weather political and local community challenges. Design and how a place will function and operate is often key to unlocking community concern for new development.

The role of design
Much of the work that Design Council Cabe undertakes across the country is to provide brokering and enabling support to places undergoing change at various scales. The skills and expertise within local authorities is something that is increasingly subject to change and challenge. Local authorities and planners need to stand firm and be clear about what they want to see out of new developments and to communicate this clearly and frequently to both the developer and local communities. Consistency of message and vision is paramount. This is as much about design as a road layout or orientation of a building.

Testing new developments through wide-reaching engagement and mechanisms such as design review is crucial. In our work with cities and boroughs, we always advocate bringing new and fresh thinking at the earliest possible stage to make developments work not only for the local authority and developer, but also for people and businesses that will work, operate and live within them. An individual development is only one element to placemaking, understanding what development and applications mean for policy both current and future is just as vital. The evidence needed to ensure robust and testable policy is again an area where many places are weak, yet the long-term impact on investment and viability of this work is fundamental to success.

When delivering development at city region scale – be it garden villages, urban regeneration or estate regeneration – clarity of vision, working in partnership and being clear about the benefits of inward investment and growth are critical. Only then can we work to deliver growth that is transformative, providing much-needed quantity of stock, while also responding to the myriad challenges and opportunities that communities across the country are facing.

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