Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Who is planning the environment?

I have never been convinced that town and country planning has been an 'environmental profession' in the sense that the net outcome of the activities of the 24,000 members of the Royal Town Planning Institute is being positive for bio-diversity or the quality of soils, air or water.  It is not even clear to me that the outcomes for people in terms of physical or mental health are any better than they would be in a non-plan world.  I am more convinced that land use planning has benefited the economy as it is conventionally measured by GDP and the health of the larger companies and corporations.

Jumping to the inspiration for this post, the Fabian Society has recently published the result of research into the connection between environmental awareness/concern and participation in activities aimed at conserving or improving the environment.  From the study that surveyed the opinions of over 7000 people in three cities found that over 30%  claimed to be part of a green blob concerned about the state of the environment but (very) many fewer, were actively engaged.  Readers should go to  http://www.fabians.org.uk/publications/powerful-people-2/  to go through the findings and explanations given for this participation gap but, for the purposes of this Blog,  the fact that land use planning is almost invisible in this debate is very dispiriting.  The report signs off with a mention of neighbourhood planning but, if the engagement with the preparation of development plans or even dealing with planning applications at district and city levels (and combined authorities) gets a mention then I missed it.

I would suggest that the planners (officers, councillors and ministers) and the general public should be very concerned that the land use planning system seems to be operating with so much indifference to the health of the  environment and so little public involvement (other than objecting to developments affecting the value and enjoyment of private property).  The pre-occupation with housing supply, which is understandable given the crisis caused in part by the failure to understand the true nature of the scarcity and to then  focus on some some of the promising responses (ie building smaller homes and explore custom splitting), has prevented resources being applied to the real crises in respect of food, soils, air, water, climate change and bio-diversity.

The priorities seem to be to:-
- understand that the housing crisis is more one of distribution and the types of housing than total (lack of) supply,
- include policies in development plans which will ensure that carbon emissions are reduced to zero by 2050, that the air we breathe does not poison the lungs and brains of the young, that soils will be preserved and enhanced, that water becomes a friend and not a threat (through extreme weather and flooding) and that the sixth great extinction is avoided.
If we do not start to use the existing planning system for these purposes then the pretense that it is an 'environmental profession' should be abandoned and other and more effective measures must be put in place.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

On the Cusp - as in custom splitting

The idea of 'custom splitting' has been out there for long enough to know whether there are deep flaws or any great attractions.  For a 'magic bullet' it seems to lack penetration but the only adverse comment came in the local paper suggesting that it would be preferable to build on the Green Belt than subject future generations to the 'truly awful conditions' which would arise from dividing up larger houses. This does raise an interesting question as to whether LPAs should calculate the potential of custom splitting (cusping) before any claim that reasonable alternatives to Green Belt development have been exhausted?  That apparently wild claim can be made given the intention evident in legislation, advice and financial incentives that the Government has focused on self/custom building, and the apparent lack of serviced plots to meet the expectations of both the Government and the possible exponents.
To get from the current 7.7% of the approximately 150,000 new homes being built each year (11,550) to closer to 20% of 200,000 plus (40,000) which are said to be required is unlikely to happen without a significant level of cusping.
Before listing the benefits from a previous blog and more recent feedback I want to give a further mention to  Unlocking England’s Hidden Homes (http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Unlocking-Englands-Hidden-Homes_Final.pdf) which estimated that there could be 4.4million dwellings available for sub-division. Another mention should be also made of the need to increase the supply of housing suitable for the elderly that is unlikely to be met even if 200,000 new dwellings were dedicated to that sector each year (https://www.housinglin.org.uk/Topics/type/Housing-our-Ageing-Population-Positive-Ideas-HAPPI-3-Making-retirement-living-a-positive-choice/).
So, done properly, including deep energy upgrades, through conditional planning permissions or Local Development Orders (backed by development plan policy), the benefits of cusping seem to include:
-  reducing unsustainable levels of under-occupation,
- upgrading housing stock from EPC D and below to EPC B and above,
- downsizing in place in a Lifetime Neighbourhood, if not a Lifetime Home,
- choice of garden size without building on it,
- choice of renting or buying,
- equity release without re-mortgaging or high interest loans,
- increasing density of people (potential custom for local services and facilities) with no more buildings, 
- avoid the issues of non-implementation experienced in the new-build sector,
- efficient use of materials and labour that increasingly scarce and expensive even in the EU,
- enable LPAs to meet their legal duty to provide serviced plots to households on the Registers,
- 'realistic alternative' to building in Green Belt and open countryside in way which has Government support and limiting Nimbyism to lack of parking (that should be sorted with shared ULEVs),
-  meeting the needs of ageing households and new households (ability to choose neighbours and fit respective skills, vision and resources).
- consistent with the proposal to change the General Permitted Development Order to allow upward extensions without express permission so long as a separate/additional dwelling would be created.
I make that 13 good  and complementary reasons to promote custom-splitting without also claiming that it would represent a form of 'sustainable development', and more so than probably all forms of residential new build.