What is the Planning Gap how how to Fix it?

In my previous piece I looked at the top 10 causes of the gap between what we need to build to hit the national 300k target and what we are planning for and building.

I’ll call this the ‘planning gap’, planning here having a dual meaning both town planning and programme planning by developers.

As a number of commentators pointed out these problems are largely due to the introduction of a neo-liberal philosophy dismantling planning institutions, and a failed attempt to bridge the gap with systems of ‘spontanious order’ such as the NPPF presumption. I use the term neo-liberal normatively only to describe an institutional ideology.

As a dominant force Neoliberalism is weakened, especially by the increased intervention produced by Covid.

Where preceding waves of neoliberalization resulted in the limitation of democratic control over economic policymaking, the present nationalist wave captained by Donald Trump and his copycats is defined by efforts of political illiberalization, brazenly seeking to undo the institutional setup of liberal-democratic checks and balances, seeing legislative and judicial branches of government subjected to a power-hungry executive.

This is not confined to one party. The most striking development is English local politics has been the rise of Advocado Nimbyism (green on outside brown on inside) , equally amongst Lib-Dems, Greens, independents conservatives and any Labour group in opposition to a conservative Group proposing Green Belt release. The enemy of planning here is a retreat to the local and a denial of the ability of increased supply to meet need.

Hence despite history disproving the Neo-liberal hypothesis government has been thrashing around for institutional solutions to meeting national objectives. Part of this is seen in bodies such as the Policy Exchange, Centre for Cities and Create Streets backing zoning. If done well it would help, but there is no sign of it being done well because of an almost complete lack of analysis of the ‘planning gap’ and how to fix it, what are the institutional barriers to delivery and how to fix them.

If you are to rebuild planning from its ruins I suggest the following.

Looks at housing need (national uncapped) functional region (travel to work area) and determine what are the key issues and risks. This is the approach adopted in project/programme management. You look at your targets (project controls) and look at the systematic risks from worst to least and tackle the root causes of the risks. Such an approach requires collaboration between Central and Local Government and should I suggest be led by Homes England. Looking at West Yorkshire for example we have key risks such as a weak market, with oversupply of apartments able to be absorbed by the market, constrained urban areas to the North and West, weak transport connections in many areas etc. The gap issues will be very different than Oxford say where there is uncertainty over employment growth, the number of overspill houses from London, water supply and rail investment. Doing such an exercise would give some spatial awareness to Government and stopping it persuing impossible policies, such as increasing housing targets for Brighton by 35% whereas it can can only meet 1/3rd of its current target by being surrounded by a National Park. It would also see potential synergies and solutions between subregions

Neom – The Line, an Efficient Urban Form?

I have to be careful what I say here as I might be working on this project soon.

The broad outlines of the high level masterplan for Neom – the largest planning project on earth has been announced.

Saudi Arabia has announced a huge new zero-carbon city to be built at NEOM in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

The project named “The Line” will be home to a million people and have no cars and no streets, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a video released on Sunday.

The city will be a 170 kilometer belt of “hyper-connected future communities,” and will be built around the natural environment, he said.

“We need to transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one,” Prince Mohammed said at an event to launch the city.

“By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising CO2 emissions and sea levels. 90 per cent of people breathe polluted air,” the crown prince said.

“Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? Why should we lose one million people every year due to traffic accidents? And why should we accept wasting years of our lives commuting?” he asked.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announces “The Line” project at NEOM. (NEOM)

Later. Al Arabiya quoted the crown prince saying that the infrastructure of the project is set to cost between $100 to 200 billion, and that the project was announced after three years of planning.
The crown prince also said the backbone of investment would come from Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – as well as local and international investors for the Neom project.

The project is a direct response to some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity, such as infrastructure, pollution, traffic and human congestion, NEOM said.

Construction of the revolutionary city will preserve 95 per cent of nature within NEOM and will commence in the first quarter of this year.

The project forms part of extensive development work already underway at NEOM.

The Line’s communities will be cognitive and powered by Artificial Intelligence and the city will comprise carbon-positive urban developments powered by completely clean energy.

The project will be an economic engine for the Kingdom and will drive diversification in line with the  Vision 2030 reform program.

The city will create 380,000 jobs and will contribute SR180 billion ($48 billon) to domestic GDP by 2030, the crown prince said. 

Walkability will define life in The Line and essential services such as schools, medical clinics, leisure facilities, as well as green spaces, will be within a five-minute walk. 

In addition to this, high-speed transit and autonomous mobility solutions will ensure that no journey will be longer than 20 minutes.

The concept of a high speed spine as the backbone of the city between Tiran (bridge to Eygyt) and Tabuk is a good one, as is walkable car free neighbourhoods, ive designed such. Don’t be alarmed by the idea of abolition of streets. That’s a transliteration problem. Streets and alleys (pedestrian) having different terms. It doesn’t mean the la Courbusiuan abolition of the street.

The problem is efficiency of movement.

Lets say there were two ‘neighbourhoods’ per km with a radius of 400m (5 minute walk) and lets say these were clustered so they covered 50% of the line with gaps between clusters. So that is 170 neighbourhoods.

1 million/170=6,000 per neighbourhood over 50 ha which is reasonable with a density of around 240 dph (net density) given typical assumptions on Arabic household sizes and no developable areas – around 4-6 storeys on average.

The fastest hgh speed train would take half an hour to get from one end to another. You would not want high speed stops less than 40km apart, so three. Then you would need to step down to a regional metro stopping every 4km or so and then to a local system stopping every 500m. If you didn’t then you would have to wait at every station all 170 of them as a local system took many hours. Autonomous vehicles ae no solution. They take too much road space and their weight makes particulate matter pollution worse. If your relied on them you would need a Sheikh Zaid Road type highway with 50 plus lanes. There is no substitute for metropolitan and local level transit.

So you can see the problem with an entirely linear system. It work well at the regional scale (i.e. japan) and along corridor within cities but it does not work well at a city scale. You can of course run four and six track systems but the problem is that it is like building a ladder to climb up rather than a system of ladders and balconies. You are adding lengths, and hence time, to journeys, and time has a generalized cost. Reducing generalized cost of travel is creating urban economies of agglomeration. You reduce that to the mathematical minimum in an entirely linear system. You also constrain headway and overall capacity as on train would have to wait behind another (and of course Hyperloops dont have capacity)

Roughly here’s how I would redesign it to be efficient. Three city hubs where employment would be concentrated. Each would have in parallel and perpendicular looped RER style regional metro system with around 80 stops, then feeding into perpendicular looped stops per neighbourhood, so around four neighbourhoods per district centre.

This overall would form a grid at around 45 degrees to the spine adapted to the areas of relatively level topography. A flexible grid being much more efficient as you don’t have to wait for the very last piece of the line to be finished before the areas can be occupied.

What if they Don’t Want to Plan?

It is a depressing time. No-one is really preparing local plans with enthusiasm and speed.

Why should they when so many ambitious planning efforts have so spectacularly failed.

I pity chief planners making recommendations on what to do on their local plan reviews.

Most councillor’s of course see plan making as nothing but a lose-lose situation.

The idea of the NPPF was that the consequences of ‘build what you like where you like’ would be so painful lpas would get on with plan making.

But most found it easier simply to blaim government for losses of planning by appeal. And if you were a Green Belt authority there was no pressure whatsoever.

Hence local plan making and adoption contines to slow to a crawl.

What are the reasons for this? None of which were anlaysed in the planning white paper.

  • The first is a systematic shortfall in OAN targets. This will get worse in the latest national housing need system which effectively plnns for a capped shortfall for at least the next five years.
  • The second is the complete lack of a system for redistributing overspill of OAN from land and environmentall constrained areas.
  • The third has been the failure of joing plan making efforts.
  • The fourth has been the structural inability of plans to deal with large scale long term startegic sites and the failure of the goverment to support them with infrastructure and land assembly at existing use values.
  • The fifth has been the lack of political courage of so many athorities to plan given electoral threats of the Advocado Nimby alliances of Green Lib Dems and anto development indpendents.
  • The sixth has been in the light of political threats smoke filled room processes to decide preferred options and a lack of transparent inquiry into realistic strategic options. Combined with a gap in skills of local planners in preparing strategic plans.
  • The seventh is the weak demand in some parts of the North for large scale and high density sites.
  • The eigth is the unwillingness of many developers to release for development consented sites whilst land values appreciate.
  • The ninth is the deliberate slow rate of development of many housebuilders to build above the local ‘absorbtion rate’.
  • The tenth is the lack of funding for the proportion of local housing need that is affordable.

I think this is a pretty comprehensive list.

However even if all of the national and development sector constraints were removed you still have the problem in the middle. The unwillingness to plan.

I see two options:

The first would be to set a statutory timescale for planning whereby if you didnt have new plans in place old plans would expire. Green Belt and al. The put the fire up them approach. That would work.

The second would be to take the heat off by having independent commissions, on which local planners would sit, producing plan options. With local politicians voting on the one to go to examination.

I note that many areas with zoning, where of course if you don’t agree zoning you have no control, work of the basis if indepedent planning commissions making recommendations.

Of course you could have both running together.

K&C U-Turn over High Street Kensington Cycle Lane

K&C They had to after TfL camera data showing an increase in congestion.

Friday 8 January 2021

Following representations from groups and partners in the borough, the Council will be revisiting the decision to remove temporary cycle lanes on High Street Kensington.

The Council’s Leadership Team will look again at the factors, the evidence, and views from all sides of the debate, but without the Lead Member for Transport. This will ensure a fair and frank discussion, and a balanced decision based on a new report with the latest evidence.

Cllr Elizabeth Campbell, Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, said:

“I have asked the Council to look again at the decision to remove temporary cycle lanes on Kensington High Street, and I will be seeking views and a decision from the entire Leadership Team. We will do this without the Lead Member for Transport in the interest of fairness and balance.

“It is important we consider the most up-to-date information and views we have available, and so officers have been asked to prepare an up-to-date report for us to consider at our meeting in March. I know the depth of feeling on both sides of this issue, so it is important we make the time to consider this further and understand how the Council can be a leader in all forms of active and sustainable travel.”

View more information about the temporary cycle lane scheme.

Cut and Shut Strategic Planning: Why Joint Strategic Planning Failed

I explore in my forthcoming book why the latest round of joint strategic planning – West of England, North Essex etc. has failed.

There are many reasons but it can be summed up with one analogy – they were cut and shuts – and as such they were doomed to fall apart. They were local plans glued together, by local planners running them as large scale local plans.

Strategic Plans are different beasts, and have one job – allocation of strategic sites and strategic areas for protection.

The South Wales M4 Corridor – The Perfect Testbed for A Shift to Zero Carbon Strategic Planning

The M4 is of course the only strategic route into south Wales (the two lane M50 is not a real motorway). It also has become the main focal point for employment growth with many locations only accessible by car. Cardiff and Newport have two junctions each leading to junction hopping. The M4 is only congested at peak suggesting its strategic function is stymied by local commuting; which is not what motorways are for.

With the M4 relief road stymied the Welsh Government set up the Burns commission ( South East Wales Transport Commission), led by the former Treasury Secretary, which issued a final report at the end of November.

Boris Johnson has sparked a row by saying he will

“do the things the Welsh Government has failed to do”.

The UK internal market bill recently given royal assent effectively gives the UK government the power to devolve transport and economic regeneration if they wish, meaning they could force through a project such as the M4 relief road.

The Welsh Sectrary however poo poos this.

Simon Hart said UK ministers would “much prefer” a “collaborative project” to tackle congestion around Newport and the Brynglas tunnels.

He added that while they “probably could” bypass Welsh ministers it would be “complicated” and “controversial”.

Lord Burns said in the report

“It is clear that people in South East Wales do not have good alternatives to the M4. Many people have little choice but to use the motorway, given the lack of public transport options. We believe that a competitively priced, efficient and reliable public transport network could become the first choice for many travellers.”

Lord Burns added that “even a moderate reduction” in cars on the M4 could “result in a significant improvement to the travel flow”, while the shift to public and active transport would have wider environmental and health benefits.

Now Boris has set up his own commission on Union Transport connections

In October, Network Rail chair Sir Peter Hendy was commissioned to lead an independent review into UK transport connections, which will consider the feasibility of a bridge or tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The review will look at how to boost transport infrastructure throughout Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England via road, rail and air, and across the Irish Sea.

It will examine how such links could be improved to fuel the UK’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, improving connections, creating new ones and levelling up access to jobs and opportunities.

Whether Boris Johnson gets his much-loved Irish Sea bridge will grab the headlines but this report is likely to contain much more including alternatives to the scrapped M4 Relief Road, as well as suggesting improvements for rail links between Scotland and England.

New Civil Engineer

Its proposals centre on improving train services between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol by upgrading the four track South Wales Main Line, so it can be used by more trains with more flexibility.  For the first time, this would allow for local, commuting services to run frequently without disrupting express rail services.

The Commission also suggests an ambitious railway station building programme, which would add six stops between Cardiff and the River Severn. To complement existing stations at Cardiff Central, Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction, the proposed new stations would be Newport Road (Cardiff), Cardiff Parkway (St Mellons), Newport West, Newport East (Somerton), Llanwern and Magor.

The rail backbone would be supported by new rapid bus and cycle corridors across the region, especially within Newport. Taken together, over 90% of Cardiff and Newport’s population would live within a mile of a railway station or rapid bus corridor if the proposals are taken forward. Many these recommendations can be delivered through upgrades to the existing rail and road network.

As a rail guy I can’t see Henry going against the Burns commission, especially as the technical rail work has been done. What is remarkable is that the Cardiff – Bristol Severn Rail Corridor already has 4 track but doesnt function as rapid transit, and it comes through through main stations and so doesnt need any tunneling. Creating 4 track for Northern Powerhouse Rail will probably cost 20 billion. Here it could be done for 200 million.

What is frustrating is that all these options open up because there is for a the first time a well funded strategy. There have been many el cheapo reports about rapid transit is south wales over the years which ask for everything and deliver nothing. Also the Newly formed Transport for Wales for the first time is looking at modes across the board and land use transport integration. Contrast that with Highways England and the Lower Thames Crossing.

If the Welsh Government is canny they will now look at rates of return and do full feasibility studies. Spin it as ‘Severn Express’ project, delivering the kind of benefits of NPR but at a fraction of the cost. Boris would buy into it as he could use it as a means of rubbing Sturgoens nose in it.

I would suggest the sensible thing to do is run express tram trains (3 carriages) on it with high frequency.

A phase 2 of the project would be to extend tram train running along the Seven Valleys corridors – what is currently the South Wales Metro project. Tram trains would allow for on street running in Cardiff City centre and an improved link to Cardiff Bay. Imagine being able to commute from Pontyprydd to Amaon in LLanwern?

Current development plan sites along the M4 corridor should be rezoned as logistics sites only and charged ramp control should be used at peak times as a revenue source for the rail proposals.

The sensible new station locations are already major growth nodes (Llanwern) or could be, please no Cardiff Park – Marshfields instead.

This is in marked contrast to the current approach. The report

In Emerging Conclusions (July 2020), we explained our finding that land use and transport
decisions are contributing to congestion. In particular, our judgement is that a root cause of
M4 congestion is that many important origins and destinations have been located close to
the motorway without meaningful transport alternatives.

We have found prominent examples in housing estates, employment sites and retail parks. In the absence of more developed transport alternatives, the motorway has been a natural axis around which to plan developments.

While it may not always have been a conscious decision, the location of existing settlements and
topographical constraints means the available land has generally been close to the M4.

Without a change in approach, this looks set to continue. In the future, both Cardiff
and Newport are planning for physical and economic growth. The areas for development
tend to be located in an arc across the northern and western fringes of Cardiff and in the east of
Newport. These sites are relatively close to the M4, on the edges of built-up areas and often
poorly served by public transport. Other things being equal, we expect these developments to
increase use of the M4 and hence congestion.

Certain patterns of land use can support the effectiveness of the network we are
recommending, allowing a positive cycle of development and patronage to develop. For
example, increasing public transport services to a station allows a greater number of people to
access that area, which may prompt either a rise in population or employment density around
the station, creating more demand for public transport and hence building the business case
to increase services further.

By changing land uses as we develop a new public transport network, we can positively
influence these cycles. While they may take a number of years to come to fruition, the risk
of not taking action is that alternative cycles persist instead. For example, decreasing public
transport services to a station increases cardependenc e of the people who live and work
in that area, increasing demand for car travel, causing congestion, requiring either additional
roadspace for cars or prompting relocations to places further afield and hence undermining the economics of existing public transport services.

An approach to development that does not depend on cars is possible. Other successful city regions internationally and in the UK have located and designed new developments so that
they can be served mainly by public transport and active travel.
306 As cities and towns develop, they have the opportunity to increase the concentration
of development. Sustainable transport is most prominent in those places which are compact,
dense and promote a variety of land uses.

These features can be characterised as ‘Transit Oriented Development’ (TOD)…planned and projected growth. We understandthis necessarily involves more housing. However,
we believe it is possible to provide medium density developments while promoting high
quality public realm and green spaces. Indeed, we strongly believe the nature of a place is
enhanced if it allows for a greater provision of walking, cycling and public transport….

We make three land use recommendations which reflect the development opportunities
which arise from the network approach….

First, we recommend an increase in mixed use developments.

Second, we recommend employment be located within towns and city centres and not
on the outskirts close to the motorway

Third, we recommend densification around the stations and corridors of the

We recommend the Strategic Development Plan should deliver the function of master planning the region, which cannot be done on an individual Local Authority basis. This master planning should identify the strategic locations most suitable for development in South East Wales. A proactive approach is necessary given the difficulty of retrofitting existing developments with transport infrastructure. A case in point is
our recommendation for a new rail station at Newport West to provide access to the large
employment sites; the options for the station and bus access is constrained by past decisions.
320 Our view is that regional planning is most effective when there is regional governance in
place. This is only partially the case in Wales.
We therefore welcome the establishment of statutory Corporate Joint Committees (CJCs)
to provide for coordination across Local Authorities.

What we have in South Wales therefore is the ONLY urban region in the UK to have a comprehensive intermodal transport and land use plan in genesis which could be backed by a statutory strategic plan. It is the only urban region with a potential pathway to zero carbon growth. Wales puts English Planning, and Boris, to shame.