This month’s guest blog is from Nick Small, Head of Strategic Development and the Built Environment (South) at Stagecoach.
For the first time since the 1950s there is an all-party consensus that more homes are needed, and quickly. In November 2017, an already challenging delivery target of at least 200,000 per year, now no longer looks sufficient. 300,000 per annum is the new goal, by the mid-2020s: a target not sustained since the mid 1950s.
It’s hard to avoid the evidence that the burdens on our existing transport systems are growing beyond the rate at which capacity can be added. This is particularly true of strategic roads, and heavy rail investment. Since 1998 government has consistently prioritised sustainable modes in policy, and as congestion increases, and network resilience and air quality decline, by now one might have expected evidence to emerge that public transport, and buses in particular, are at the heart of efforts to keep people mobile, while achieving a raft of other policy goals, not least addressing carbon reduction, public health and social inclusion targets.
Yet in parts of England where housing and population growth are among the fastest, the evidence consistently points in the opposite direction. Local and national statistics show high and increasing levels of car dependence. Focusing on recent large-scale developments, it is even clearer that public transport and other sustainable modes have at best been an afterthought, whether in the location of sites chosen, or in the urban design approaches taken. Multiple bodies, including the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, have picked up on this, with increasing concern.
Having got to this position it is essential that the next wave of development is sited and designed to avoid exacerbating and entrenching the resultant problems further.
Unlike road and rail, the bus industry has consistently shown it can deliver fast, and deliver major impacts, without hugely risky and complex capital works. Rarely is this evidence properly looked at and deployed in support of growth strategies.
At a strategic level, planning and transport policy must align to ensure that “patterns of growth are actively managed to make the fullest possible use of public transport” to quote paragraph 17 of the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework verbatim. Equally, design of developments large and small, and the transport mitigations strategies that support them, must effectively “rebalance transport systems towards sustainable modes, giving people a real choice about how they travel”: again, a direct quote from the NPPF at paragraph 29.
Yet there is a real barrier to this occurring, that not even more effective and visionary local political leadership can wholly resolve. It is lack of specialist technical resource within local government across much of the UK, particularly the Shire Counties in England where such a large part of the burden meeting housing needs is falling, and will continue to do so.
Local Plans need to be soundly and robustly evidence-based. That includes the transport and wider infrastructure needed to support the chosen location of development. Plans are nominally expected to rely on transport strategies set out in Local Transport Plans (LTPs). Since 2011 however, such plans have been shorn of most relevance in determining funding for schemes, which lies with LEPs and other bodies.
While the law requires the Local Transport Authorities to consult widely on such plans, unlike Local Development Plans, there is no evidential standard, nor are they independently tested by experts, either. Even where planners can rely upon a recent LTP, these are all but toothless in steering funding and delivery of key projects. They rarely set up the conditions whereby buses and other sustainable modes can play the fullest possible role required, if England’s towns, and key approaches and links between them, are not to choke to death, in more ways than one.
In any case, the challenges set up by the imperative to deliver housing numbers require much more comprehensive and radical strategies, given current conditions and the scale of growth required. Much more comprehensive evidence is needed, including on the deliverable potential for a shift away from private car use. This depends on the measures taken to make the alternatives both more effective and more attractive. These measures in turn, could be facilitated with focused attention on relatively modest and highly cost-effective schemes that maximise the attractiveness and productivity of buses in particular, as the most efficient users of scarce road space, as well as being in the vanguard of low-emissions technology.
Properly understanding the challenges and the potential for mode shift requires proper modelling, including use of the right simulation packages, and expertise in scheme specification and design. This expertise is in short supply, and in any event comes at a price. So do model “runs”, particularly the complex digital tools that allow proper consideration of the alternatives to the car, rather than merely informing a crude “predict and provide” approach to local highway improvements.
Compared with the capital costs of even relatively small scale schemes, these costs are very small beer indeed. But at a time when budgets have been squeezed over a decade, there is little or no incentive to make these expenditures, especially when local electorates are largely wedded to their cars, and there is such pressure to make plans that deliver the numbers, and hope that when it come to transport impacts “everything will pan out” in due course.
The result is an increasing number of strategic plans, covering whole city regions, where the transport evidence represents little better than a wish-list of large-scale capital schemes, with minimal discussion with key public transport operators. Even where it to be shown that these schemes could allow the travel demands of the development strategy to be accommodated, it is far from clear that they are technically deliverable, never mind affordable.
It is vital that in our headlong rush to house the nation, our local transport systems are not driven into a cul-de-sac.
Alongside the recent welcome focus on sustained capital investment in infrastructure, Government needs to provide clear guidance to local authorities for developing more robust transport strategies in support of growth, with clear standards of robust and objective evidence, on which all stakeholders in the systems, including the public, can have confidence. Government would also do well to ensure that the funds needed by those councils that have the greatest challenges to plan for growth, is put in place, not least to ensure that sustainable strategies for growth are just that; and that the projects that arise, can be swiftly implemented.
The alternative is at best, an even more unhealthy, polluted and car-dependent nation. At worst, it risks complete gridlock.
About the Author
This post was written by Nick Small. Nick Small is Head of Strategic Development and the Built Environment (South) at Stagecoach.