Planning for place-making, Steven Tolson

We all want to live in lovely neighbourhoods, in places which have been thoughtfully designed and delivered. So, why aren’t we? Chartered surveyor and housing researcher and consultant, Steven Tolson, investigates…

THE Guardian newspaper the other day reported the findings of research into housing built on greenfield sites, which revealed case after case of new housing which – to all intents and purposes – required a car to get a pint of milk.

According to the Community Interest Company, Transport for New Homes (here): “Our visits to new homes on greenfield sites revealed a variety of architectural styles and layouts. However, especially in the case of recently-constructed developments, the housing we saw was car-based.”

In other words, thousands of car miles are being created by poorly-located housing developments. We know that, to save our planet, this habit of a lifetime has to change, but the questions are how and who is going to bring about this change?

The Guardian report (here) echoed a similar one published by the BBC (here). 

And The Guardian quoted a Rosie Pearson, chair of campaigning group, the Community Planning Alliance, as saying: “Developers are building in the wrong place, with the wrong design and the wrong layout. This locks in car dependency from the outset, leading to persistent traffic jams, dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, and air pollution. It’s time for change.”

It’s a claim commonly levelled at developers.

But is it fair to blame the developers? After all, people buy their homes and planning authorities give them approval. Surely, it’s for the rest of us to shape what and where our future homes should be built?

It’s for us to choose against moving into poorly-designed places – a difficult one, given the high levels of demand for housing, compared to supply.

It’s for us to formulate regulations and design codes that are sufficiently robust and – just as important – diligently applied.

It’s for us to fund planning departments such that they have sufficient numbers and breadth of expertise and experience to ensure that housing proposals meet our needs and aspirations for well-designed places. 

And it’s for our elected members (aka councillors) to show courage, to support or object to planning applications to ensure the rest of us can enjoy quality, convenience and comfort.

Policy and process will not fix the challenge without people championing the action.

I agree with the Transport for New Homes campaigners’ spokesperson, Steve Chambers, quoted in The Guardian article, as saying: “We’ve found everything from developers planning applications, through to the local plans of local authorities, right up to the National Planning Policy Framework, have incredibly warm words about walking, cycling, public transport, and ‘creating vibrant walkable places’, and what we have shown through our visits and our documentary evidence, hundreds of photographs, it simply isn’t being delivered.”

In other words, we are good at talking-the-talk, but when it comes to walking-the-walk, we fall badly short.

The Transport for New Homes research did not venture into Scotland. Which doesn’t mean that, somehow, Scotland is getting it right. It too is awash with warm words that are not necessarily being transferred into reality.

Applying the test of the ’20-minute’ neighbourhood – which has been endorsed at the highest levels in the Scottish Government and which aspires to neighbourhoods being self-sufficient (with life’s necessities close at hand) – we can see that lots of existing places in Scotland fail miserably. 

It begs the question, to what extent we are sufficiently equipped to ensure the places of the future are not similarly cursed?

If the crux of the issue is at the planning stage, we need planners to be sufficiently wise to recognise that there is significant complexity that goes well beyond aspirational policy. 

First and foremost, this is about understanding the economics of housing. Why? Because, to obtain public benefit from development value (where, landowners, in the main, and the public together share the spoils of planning permission having been given), one needs to understand the practice as well as the principles.

This includes understanding commercial motivations as well as people’s behaviour, their habits and value preferences.  

At present, people’s habits are based on car dependency and, to persuade them to prefer walking than driving, will require a huge selling job. 

That places a massive burden on planners and politicians, but it’s one we must, as a society, demand.

Steven Tolson is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and past chair of the RICS in Scotland. In addition to his professional work in public and private sector housing and development, he has held academic teaching and examining posts at a number of Scottish universities and is a regular writer on a range of housing and placemaking matters. 

Pictured: Planning inspiration – ? – in the shape of Culross, West Fife, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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