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Planning for the Future

Planning for the Future

Planning for the Future, a White Paper published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) was released last week outlining a series of radical proposals to overhaul the planning system in England. Associate Director, Matt Harris, takes a look a what the future might hold for transport planning….

 

The first glimpse into how transport fits into the government’s new world of Planning can be made through a simple search of the 83-page White Paper. Against the backdrop of substantial and wide-ranging planning reforms, ‘transport’ appears five times and ‘travel’ not once.  For all the government’s recent (and laudable) drive to push walking and cycling up the national agenda, there are a few mentions of active modes, whilst public transport gets a single passing line. The detail is lacking.


It would be relatively easy to assume from this silence that not much will change in the transport planning profession following these reforms; however, this would be unwise.

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Transport planning is intrinsically linked to the wider planning process, perhaps like no other of the traditional sub-planning disciplines. Transport is almost always at the heart of stakeholder engagement, by virtue of the fact that it is visible, it is used by the community, and it has a value. As a result, if the planning system is overhauled as intended by government with these proposals, so will the way in which transport planning and development interacts.

The backbone of the proposals will transform the plan making stage, with Local Plans required to identify land under three categories:

  1. Growth – areas suitable for substantial development and where outline approval for development would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the plan.
  2. Renewal – areas suitable for some development, such as densification; and;
  3. Protected – areas where development is restricted.

 

You can envisage the benefits of automatic outline consent for large development in designated Growth areas if led by a reinvigorated Local Plan process. However, and we speak with experience, the large developments that make sense on paper often raise the most complex issues from both technical engineering and design perspectives. Successful developments are not easily delivered and whilst planning certainty through automatic outline consent is likely to be welcomed, many of the detailed challenges with specific sites are likely to remain. At this stage, it seems unlikely that transport issues can be fully and attentively dealt with in a revamped but streamlined Local Plan. Therefore, whilst a site can now gain permission for development in principle, its transport issues are likely to lag behind and require further approval as part of a new Reserved Matters or Condition discharge process. Undertaking these approvals behind a development approval in principle could present a fresh array of challenges for transport planners.

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The removal of S106 contributions and the existing Community Infrastructure Level into a new single Infrastructure Level is particularly interesting. Transport related mitigation measures differ depending upon the precise location of the site and its access to local transport networks. In transport terms, some sites simply require greater levels of mitigation than others because of the surroundings over which they have no control. By creating an extended Infrastructure Levy, possibly at a single rate to be set nationally, the system risks underplaying the importance of understanding local constraints and addressing these accordingly. This could leave development to occur without due attention to the impact it poses. There is a risk that this approach will ultimately result in less money available for sustainable transport and wider active travel interventions in locations where it is needed most, particularly if these occur in Growth areas where development in principle has already been captured.

I’m confident that everyone supports the notion of ensuring beautiful design at the heart of the planning process; another key part of the proposed reforms. However, not only is it unclear as to who defines ‘beauty’ and the criteria they are supposed to use to do so, but it is not even clear as to what ‘beauty’ is supposed to consist of. Conventional wisdom may place the job of creating beauty at the door of the architect, but much of what makes a place is its surroundings - and in the majority of cases the surroundings of the development are defined by public spaces, roads, walking and cycling routes, and public transport. I would therefore argue that transport planners in the future will play a critical role in debating the perceived ‘beauty’ of developments, whether this be from the design of high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure to the introduction of new transport interchanges. A beautiful design can only be a design that works, as such transport planning should, and will need to remain a core part of the development planning process.

In fact, transport planning may need greater focus, linking the traditional aspects of technical work and capacity assessments at an earlier stage in the Local Plan process with new skills revolving around design and beauty. Time will tell how successful these proposals are and the extent by which transport planning will need to evolve. Regardless of the above, and more so than ever in the post-COVID recovery, the way in which people travel will also continue to evolve. Understanding this and reflecting this through good design and transport planning practice will remain a fundamental part of the planning process.

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