Amid the controversy surrounding the National Planning Policy Framework as way of finding our bearings perhaps it would be worth while casting our minds back to the planning policies of previous Conservative governments. As I have already indicated here, I believe that the planning-free-zone of the 1980s often led to urban design of a very poor quality. Perhaps if we extend the time frame further, as far back as the 1950s, then we can see examples of urban design which seem relevant today. The fact that the Conservatives won an election in 1951 and the subsequent popularity of that Government has often been attributed to Harold Macmillan’s grasp of this issue. His willingness to campaign on this issue prior to the election and the success of his tenure as Minister for Housing from 1951 -1954 where he famously met his target of 300,000 new homes a year, surely holds lessons for our current government. The failure of the current Conservative Party to appreciate this lesson might explain their failure to secure an outright majority at the last election.
Reviewing planning policies as they currently stand, the approach to planning of the last 10-15 years i.e. the Blair years were generally determined by John Prescott. John Prescott’s approach to planning and urban design was basically guided by the report “Towards an Urban Renaissance”, probably the most influential planning document during this period. “Towards an Urban Renaissance” was produced by the Urban Task Force chaired by Richard Rogers so it really was his brainchild. Rogers argues for the polycentric city, that a city should not be seen as a single entity but as a series of villages or neighbourhoods.
Much of Roger’s argument revolves around density. This is measured by the acronym DPH (dwellings per hectare.) Only when this reaches a critical level is it possible to create a catchment area that can justify local services such as a doctor, bus stop, shops, school etc. This is the way in which a series of mixed-use, pedestrian-scaled neighbourhoods are created. The walkable neighbourhoods thus generated are more sustainable than a neighbourhood which is wholly residential where people have to drive to an out-of-town shopping centre. A walkable neighbourhood also has social benefits were people will meet each other unlike a neighbourhood where the connections are all made with cars.
The idea of the neighbourhood is probably the most interesting and valid initial approach to urban design. It needs to be mixed use and walkable scale. One of the reasons that the out-of-town shopping centres became so popular, an approach which became widespread in the 1980s , was simply that they had large, horizontal car parks. However, in architectural and urban design terms the overall quality of these developments was often very poor. Car parks constitute nothing more than an urban wasteland. And one of the overall effects of out-of-town shopping centres was that many town centre shop closed; this led to what planners refer to as the doughnut syndrome – towns with holes at the centre. So a third quality is added to the requirements of a neighbourhood. A good public transport system obviating the need to always travel by car.
The idea of the neighbourhood is valid, with it’s 3 qualities, as I have outlined above, and can be achieved with a majority of the dwellings consisting of houses with gardens. This has been proven to work, for instance, by the British Garden City Movement. I recently gave an example, namely Hampstead Garden Suburb. This has the quality of a village with a railway station at the centre.
It could be argued that the present Government needs a specifically conservative approach to this, in the sense that it is something generated by private money rather than public money. To achieve this I would say firstly, that ideally an important step would be getting developers interested in the vitally important principle of mixed –use. Rather than building mono-functional zones such as out-of-town shopping centres and business parks, they should be encouraged to embrace mixed-use, both as buildings and neighbourhoods. This can be profitable as well as attractive. Instead of the approach of the single-story shopping shed surrounded by a car park you can have a multi-story building with shops on the ground floor and flats or offices above. This obviates the need for a enormous car park and if it is integrated into it’s neighbourhood, means that there will be houses with gardens within walking distance. All these activities can feed off each other, generating profits , with beautiful squares and landscaped streets instead of over-scaled vehicle parking.
As well as persuading developers of the benefits of mixed-use, we need to rethink attitudes to transport. David Cameron has said that he wants the present government to be the greenest ever. The initiative of the feed-in tariff was a good policy. It means that people can install photo-voltaic panels on their roof and sell the surplus electricity back to grid, meaning that the initial investment can be paid for in a much shorter period of time. However, finding a sustainable approach to transport is going to be much, much more difficult. Although we live in an age of diminishing oil resources, I personally doubt whether the electric car, which some people put their faith in, really is the answer. At present, they take 5 hours to recharge and have a range of 100 miles. I also doubt if the car powered on bio-fuels in the answer since their production depends on turning valuable farming land away from food production. What is necessary is to re-invent the notion of public transport. You may argue that this is socialist, because collective, rather than individual and conservative, but I am not sure I would agree. We already pay for roads collectively through our taxes so perhaps a proportion of this money should be spent every year on public transport. All the roads we have paid for and built will arguably be empty in a few years time so perhaps we need to start modifying them for new types of transport i.e. trams can be retrofitted to existing road infrastructure. All this can be payed for by tax contributions and private developers through thinks like Section 106 agreements ( unfortunately these will be abolished under the NPPF). It is obviously easier to link up a tram to a constant power source than a car i.e. an overhead cable rather than a battery which goes flat every five hours. The electricity can come from renewables i.e. solar, wind, ground source heat pump, CHP, biomass even nuclear. This entire approach will entirely change the look and feel of our towns and cities, reducing sprawl (which is often caused by cars) and leading to mixed-use neighbourhoods. This approach need not be excessively dense, as the example of the garden city movement shows.
Coming back to Harold Macmillan, we should really reflect on what planning policies he implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. He did not simply advocate the relaxation of planning in favour of a developer’s free-for-all. The housing targets he set and met were placed within the context of the planning policies of the day, policies evolved by figures such as Patrick Abercrombie and Frederic Osborne, both of whom were among the most gifted planners this country has ever produced. They were responsible for policies which included the New Towns, Green Belts and inner-city renewal. Looking back on this now, with over 50 years of reflection to draw on, it is clear that not all of these policies were unqualified successes. Inner-city renewal often took the form of demolishing housing considered unsalvageable because of sub-standard quality or because of war damage, and replacing it with concrete high-rises. Not all this housing is as bad as is now often supposed. Some of it was actually quite good. The high-rises, from the gleaming white concrete of early modernism to the grey concrete of the Brutalist era, were a mixed blessing, ranging in quality from good to awful. Some have called for them to be demolished and sometimes this approach has been adopted. However, it is noticeable that no one has called for the New Towns to be demolished and examples of this genre, such as Harlow and Bracknell, are still viewed as attractive places to live. No one as far as I can see, wants to see the Green Belts built on. Hence we can still look back on the Macmillan era as a time when planning was approached responsibly and from which we can still draw relevant lessons today.
A responsible approach to urban design needs to be aware of the two scales at which towns and cities are experienced. I have already discussed the first scale, that of the neighbourhood. The next scale is that of the overall city i.e. a polycentric cluster of neighbourhoods. Urban life can, of course, be exciting, with all the facilities we associate with city life. Its drawback can be that it is actually too stimulating. People feel permanently exhausted, trapped as they are in built-up environment, cut off from nature. This can be mediated by building city neighbourhoods with a high proportion of the dwellings composed of houses with gardens. Another form of mediation is to deliberately limit a city’s size. This can be done by creating satellite towns. This was the idea behind the New Towns of Macmillan’s time and indeed the Eco Towns policy, proposed in the last days of the Labour Government.
Many have voiced fears of a planning free-for-all and indeed it seems that under the draft National Planning Policy Framework, local authorities who do not have a core strategy in place by April 1st 2012 will be able to exercise no control over development in their area. It often seems that all planning policy in this country is directed by developers, nimbys, the heritage lobby and organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England. All these groups sometimes pursue irreconcilable goals; this state of affairs will only get worse if there is not a proper planning policy to reconcile the wishes of all the various groups. Rarely is there a planning policy aimed at meeting the needs of all the British People. Many fear that the effect of the NPPF, if it goes through, will produce very poor quality development which will not meet their housing needs or other building needs.