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Is the English planning system delivering sustainable development?

10 May 2016 Author: James Harris

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In March 2012, the Coalition Government concluded its major reform of the English planning system and launched the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – a set of streamlined policies united by a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Fast-forward to 2016, and the NPPF has just celebrated its fourth birthday. This seems a good time to see how it has performed. Did the reforms of 2012 encourage sufficient new development, and has that development been sustainable?

When it comes to housing, the general consensus on the first question appears to be ‘no’. An stream of data and analysis from government and other bodies reminds us that we are still not building enough new homes (at least in some parts of the country). The planning system is seen by some as partly responsible for this continued shortfall, and the NPPF has been hauled in for further reform.

However, the second question is harder to answer. Has recent development delivered on the NPPF’s promise of sustainability? And how would we tell if it had?

This side of the argument has been largely absent from the debates over planning reform and housing supply, but is equally important. It’s fine for the Government to set an aspiration of one million new homes by 2020, but we clearly don’t want this in the form of endless urban sprawl or scattered all over the place.

We know that it’s better to follow a relatively compact model of development, where new housing is accessible to a range of jobs and services, and these journeys are possible by public transport, walking and cycling. Sprawling development is more expensive to provide with infrastructure, encroaches into the countryside, and risks car-dependency and congestion. As we make efforts to increase the supply of new homes, is there a way to monitor the cumulative impacts of where all this development goes?

Our Location of Development project tackles this issue head on. Working with Bilfinger GVA, one the largest property consultants in the UK, we mapped out the physical location of recent planning permissions for over 165,000 new homes across England. We then categorised these permissions according to a range of criteria, and measured how close they were to major employment clusters and railway stations.

Our analysis told us that, across the 12 city-regions that we studied, almost 75% of the houses which had been granted permissions since 2012 were within 10km of major employment opportunities. This seems pretty good. However only 13% were within easy walking distance of a railway station, suggesting areas in which a car will still be needed.

46% were in an existing built-up area, while the remaining 54% were in various locations, including the edge of towns and villages, rural areas, and even (whisper it) the green belt. You can download a variety of maps for each of the city-regions we studied, and see these patterns of development for yourself. For illustration, here's one of the maps for the Oxford city-region.

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Now, there is clearly more to the sustainability of a housing location than proximity to jobs and rail, and even these relationships are complex. However, the fact remains that this kind of spatial information is not currently being analysed at the national level, and risks being excluded from discussions over how the effectiveness of policy and how it might need to change.

This point was reinforced last year in a report from the CLG Select Committee, the body of MPs tasked with holding the Department for Communities and Local Government to account. Their inquiry into the operation of the NPPF called on the Government to monitor where new development had taken place in recent years, in order to better understand whether the planning system was doing enough to support the principles of sustainable development.

We think that our approach, while admittedly a first step, is a valuable way to start considering the impact of development on the sustainability of our villages, towns and cities.

We're now organising roundtable discussions with our members in the South West, South East and North West to explore how this type of information can be used in a local context, and to consider the strengths and limitations of our approach.

If you would like to be involved in these discussions, please email james.harris@rtpi.org.uk for more information, or visit the Location of Development page on the RTPI website.

James Harris

James Harris

James Harris is the Policy and Networks Manager at the Royal Town Planning Institute, responsible for our policy work on regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. You can follow James on Twitter @urban_wonder