Bottom Up

You may well ask what a lecture on water management, a webinar on neighbourhood planning and my specialism of transport planning have in common. The obvious answer is that they are all subjects of RTPI-sponsored events this November (the transport planning one is on the 23rd) that I am attending for Continuing Professional Development and networking opportunities. This is true, but gives no indication of the insights I have gained from presentations about subjects only tangentially related to the work of a transport planner.

Major water infrastructure such as barriers and dykes have strong parallels with major transport infrastructure like roads and railways. These are projects of national scale and investment. One seeks to reduce the probability of flood damage and the other to provide increased capacity, usually for long distance travel. Neither actually manages water or movement. Nor do they directly address the consequences thereof, be it a flood that breaches the barrier or the increased traffic brought in by a new road link or attracted by a new high-speed railway station. Nor do they create resilience in a local community to adapt.

Professor Woltjer’s lecture on 16 November was called A Place-Based Approach to Water and Infrastructure Management, and although mainly about water management, one of his first points was that infrastructure in western cities is part of ‘complete’ networks. Therefore infrastructure management is more about replacement and adaptation to changing circumstances, rather than building new major infrastructure, be it dyke or road.

Later in the talk, I was struck by a slide on local flood groups. These are people in communities coming together to plan for potential consequences, by having evacuation procedures or emergency food stores. They also seek adaptation strategies together, perhaps identifying areas suitable for water storage or objecting to development that increases land area impervious to water drainage.

The link between the flood groups and the parish councils or urban forums who come together to make neighbourhood plans is plain. But the flood groups do not have any legal status nor funding stream. The Environment Agency has limited resources to adequately manage its own workload, never mind support these groups, although it may be that this happens on a more ad hoc or voluntary basis.

It occurred to me that local transport planning is in a similar position. With the disappearance of 5-year funding allocations tied to the Local Transport Plan back in 2011, the capacity for capital projects in individual neighbourhoods like public realm enhancements or new pedestrian crossings was greatly reduced. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) offered certain opportunities, particularly for revenue-based schemes, e.g. personal, work or school travel planning, but not all areas were successful in winning funding. Nor would all local highway authorities be aware of the needs of every neighbourhood or invest in every neighbourhood.

Furthermore, LSTF is almost over and there is no indication yet that it will be replaced. All we know ahead of next week’s spending review is that the DfT, the DCLG and Defra have all already agreed to extensive additional funding cuts. Devolution deals may be the main silver lining to all this reduction in local spending, but the webinar on neighbourhood planning did make me wonder whether localism cannot successfully be taken even further. It was a question I asked during the webinar, and I look forward to receiving feedback.

I have already expressed my general support for devolution in earlier blogs: https://go-how.com/2014/10/22/municipal-independence-referendum/ and https://go-how.com/2015/09/28/devolution-is-in-the-detail/. I have also expressed my reservations about devolution without appropriate tax and spend powers given to the optimised geographies.

Professor Woltjer asked if flood-prone areas could locally tax households that increase their hard-standings. The webinar asked multiple times about the appropriate geography for a neighbourhood plan, particularly in an urban area. So, in conclusion, I ask whether we need an even more bottom-up devolution of legal and financial powers for water management, transport planning and other neighbourhood impact management, resilience and adaptation issues? Or am I reading too much into a couple CPD events?

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