Thursday, 8 September 2011

Planning for our future

In an excellent piece in the Guardian (Monday 5 September 2011;, George Monbiot wrote the following:
Impervious to experience, strangers to reason: the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, and the chancellor, George Osborne, have learned nothing from the economic crisis. They claim that laxer town planning ‘is key to our economic recovery’. But the European countries hit hardest by the economic crisis – Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland – have weak planning controls and urban sprawl. The nations that have proved most resilient have tougher laws and compact settlements.
Strong planning is one of many factors, but it is symptomatic of a political culture that puts the national interest above the self-interest of the rich and the long view above the quick buck. Pickles and Osborne are seeking to rip up England's planning system for the same reasons that they want to drop the proposed new banking rules: corporate power, cronyism and plutocracy, the forces that got us into this mess.
Weak planning exacerbates economic problems because capital is diverted from productive uses into speculative ventures; cities decline as they hollow out; and badly sited businesses, disaggregated settlements and long travel times drag down economic efficiency. On Sunday the New York Times reported that doubling urban density raises productivity by between 6% and 28%.
Economic growth should not be the purpose of the planning system. It should ensure that human needs are met while the environment is protected. But if growth is your aim, strong planning is more likely to deliver it than weak planning. The government's attack on planning is likely to deliver the worst of both worlds: trashing the environment while trashing the economy.
In Malvern, we are being asked to consider the South Worcestershire Development Plan, the successor to the plan developed under the last government’s regional spatial strategy. It is a plan that seems to be grounded on the belief that building houses – whether or not they are needed, whether or not they are of the right kind, whether or not they are affordable, whether or not they are sustainable, and with no reference to any other policies to promote the local economy – is in itself sufficient to ease the worse effects of the financial crisis.

Very quickly, a consensus seems to have emerged – on the Town Council, the District Council and, judging by the Gazette features this week, among the Malvern population more generally – that the current ‘preferred’ option is seriously flawed, in that the density of housing that Malvern has been allocated cannot be supported by the current infrastructure (not only road transport, but shops, schools, health service and so on), and that the planners are unable to offer any guarantees that such infrastructure will be put in place any time soon. There is also a perception that housing is being planned with no clear indication that it will be required as a result of economic/industrial growth within the town – that in effect it is being planned in a vacuum.

That being the case, we have a number of options:

1) We can plan to put in place the infrastructure, namely the roads, that will support the planned development. Each one of us might have our own ideas about what roads need to be improved or built and where any new roads should be routed. I suspect that such a proposal will find a lot of support locally – there is already a perception that the traffic situation in Malvern generally (and along the routes to Worcester in particular) has deteriorated and that ‘something needs to be done’. An assumption that more housing will mean better roads will be welcomed by many.

I have a number of reservations about this approach. Firstly, putting in new routes to support such housing simply allows us to plant a large urban development on the outskirts of the town, and to move the population of that development in and out of Malvern more easily. In other words, the assumption that we would be making is that such developments would largely be for those working outside the town – perhaps in Worcester, but more likely further afield. (And it assumes that travelling to and from work would largely be by road – as it would take no account of our existing rail or bus network.) So we would be planting a significant development on the edge of town on the basis of supporting a workforce largely based outside the town. Apart from a boost to house builders and in the short term the local council, it would do very little longer term for the economic health and the vitality of the town. Nor would more road building ease our current congestion problems and the concerns of local people. It would simply mean that there was more traffic on more roads – and that traffic density would remain unaltered. This would do little for existing businesses and would not allow us to promote tourism and to bring more visitors into the town.

Perhaps the most important reservation is that plan as we may to build these routes, all the evidence suggests that in the short to medium term (at the most optimistic), those routes are simply not going to be built: budgets are being slashed, services are being cut – there is no political will for significant infrastructure investment. And we must take care not allow ourselves to be burdened with developments on the back of unsubstantiated and unsustainable promises of future investment.

2) If we are to site significant new developments within Malvern, then we must ensure that employment opportunities are included within or as close to those developments as possible – permanent office space for companies or to allow remote working for example – so that those living in such developments have the opportunity to live as close as possible to their working environments and other local amenities – perhaps within walking/cycling range. There must be much greater mixed use development. A seriously forward-thinking and visionary plan would be one that actively promoted a much more integrated approach to development – that would link industrial production with housing (not separate them) – so that the creation and use of energy would be in close proximity with one another (and waste and sewerage treatment too – because that can also become an essential element of a zero carbon energy economy rather than representing another piece of the infrastructure burden to be dealt with). (As an aside the SWDP policy on sustainability and renewable energy seriously lacks ambition and in 20 years’ time will look prehistoric, It needs to be seriously reinforced.) 

The current plan presumes ‘business as usual’ – and you certainly get the impression that 2030 is being treated as though it were just next year, with much the same proportion of the population expected still to be travelling in much the same way from home to the factory or to the office, and to shops in Malvern and Worcester, in their motor cars, and still grumbling about how long it will take because of the traffic congestion, just as they do now.   

It is already apparent that ‘online’ and ‘out-of town’ shopping is changing retail patterns dramatically; and that teleconferencing, the internet and the new generation of electronic communications is set significantly to transform the way we work – with far more work time being likely to be spent remotely from the office – in the ‘home-office’, and that the need for face-to-face meetings – the thing that still takes most of us to work – is steadily being replaced by electronic conferencing and communication. And this is all before the rising costs of transport fuel, as world oil supplies peak, really kicks in and forces more home-working.

All that, of course, is a comment on trends that we know are going on.  But the other big problem with this Development Plan is that it does not seem to allow for ‘the uncertain’ or for the unknown changes – changes that history tells us surely to expect, but which we don’t yet know much about. So if we have to do 20 year land-use plans then at least we should be: a) more imaginative in anticipating and responding to change; b) more flexible in relation to changes in technology about which we don’t yet know; and c) more committed in embedding ‘sustainability’ into the pattern of development – which implies a much widely distributed pattern of additional housing across South Worcestershire – not just more urban extensions to Worcester and Malvern and the like.

Which brings me to the third option.

3) While not wanting to drill down too far into the numbers, there is a real question to be asked (and answered) as to whether the numbers of houses proposed for Malvern is not only wrong for our town, but whether it is the best way to ensure the viability of the many local communities in the countryside around our town. Opting for more urban extensions/bolt-ons (like Newland), providing cotton-wool protection for the ‘open countryside’, and allowing for only very limited development in the villages, may seem the safest and most comfortable choice when viewed from today’s context and sets of assumptions – but it is surely to be questioned whether it is sufficiently far-sighted in terms of achieving real sustainability for communities over the next twenty years. There is significant evidence to suggest that allocating a small number of houses to a far greater number of outlying communities will not only relieve the pressure on Malvern, but will boost the local economies of those communities without putting a significant strain on their current infrastructure. Some of these communities are struggling to survive – with post offices, local shops and pubs, garages and so on closing. A small number of additional housing would provide a much needed boost to those local economies. And it would allow us to plan realistic and sustainable growth for Malvern that would benefit existing citizens and businesses.

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