Subjectively Assessed Places

I was reading up recently on ‘objectively assessed need’ – for housing, not transport. Our land use planning colleagues in England who work in policy development at local government level start their plan-making by calculating something called ‘objectively assessed need’. The number of court cases related to housing allocations since this calculation became national policy 8 years ago suggests that it is not necessarily ‘objective’. Indeed, even with a new ‘standard method’ introduced by the revised National Planning Policy Framework, I would argue that it is still very much subjective. Yet that is only a problem because of claims to objectivity in the first place. This is a problem long faced by transport modellers, and which, for both, could be overcome by embracing subjectivity of place.

But let me take a step back. Objectively assessed need is intended to be a transparent methodology to tackle the lack of housing, house-building, and affordability in the country by calculating how many houses need to be built, ideally within, local planning authorities over set time periods. The idea is that this calculation should take place at the outset, before considering any other matters, including land availability. The basis of the calculation in the new standard method is national demographic statistics that have already been pre-processed into ‘household formation’ forecasts, which is then boosted by a ratio of the affordability of local housing stock compared to local income. It is the ‘predict and provide’ of housing.

Yet just as studies have shown that population growth, economic growth, and fuel prices are no longer (if they ever were) directly linked to traffic growth, so household formation and house prices do not appear the best indication of how many new houses people need. Mainly because all these things are taken out of their spatial context. Demographic and economic trends affect urban and rural places differently. The availability and quality of technology and its future uncertainties differ by region. Accessibility to local services and living costs might have a greater influence than housing affordability on household formation or its suppression, never mind car dependency, commuting patterns, and the availability and quality of existing residential stock. A standard methodology is hardly likely to be equally and objectively accurate in every place.

Furthermore, even if and perhaps because these various input statistics are for use at the level of the responsible local authority for planning or transport, subjectivity is unavoidable before the analysis even begins. Local authorities and their administrative boundaries were determined by history and politics, not by functional economic, labour, or transport considerations. Boundaries can sever locally-recognised neighbourhoods, service catchment areas, and appropriate housing or transport inputs for forecasting. Thus, such forecasts cannot be objective.

But is this a problem? Not if the subjectivity of places is embraced. Not if professional land use and transport planners are empowered to apply knowledge of local circumstances to their understanding of future demographic or economic trends, and to integrate their vision of accessibility and sustainability. Not if local people are engaged to consider a future that tolerates growth and change and is sensitive to the community’s existing culture. We need transparent methodologies, but not ones divorced from the places for which they are planning. Places which may be best assessed with subjectivity, sensitivity, and professionalism, rather than objectivity, standardisation, and regulatory rubber-stamping.

#NPPFlaunch – the transport take

IMG_20180305_103852_resized_20180307_084743602After spending the best part of three hours to travel less than 40 miles (don’t you love rail replacement buses with incredibly unrealistic timetables), I found myself in a slightly surreal position among members of the press with a front row seat for a speech from Prime Minister Theresa May.

I was at a conference jointly organised by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) to [re]launch the National Planning Policy Framework. The PM was there to explain how this revised policy would address the national housing crisis. Presumably, I was invited as a long-time RTPI Member and current Chair of their Transport Planning Network.

Not that transport was specifically mentioned by the Prime Minister or Secretary of State, and it was hardly mentioned in the technical sessions or during my casual chats during the long ‘networking’ lunch. I understand it was on at least one slide during the technical session on development locations – my late arrival meant that I had not been able to register for that most popular of sessions – and yet, looking around at people’s badges, I didn’t see job titles suggesting that many transport planners were there to take away any messages that might have been given.

This frustrates me as much as the lack of land use planners at transport events which I have attended in the past year. Transport infrastructure is, more obviously than other types of infrastructure, the warp on which the weft of the built environment is woven. It is the gravy which holds the stew together. Public land, known legally as ‘highways’ that include carriageway, footway, verge, parking spaces, street furniture, and more, make up the majority of what happens in between the private property boundaries, or in other words the ‘buildings’, of our settled, planned places.

And yet the prime minister made far more mention of open space – and preserving the openness of Green Belt land – than she did of the spaces between the 300,000 new houses per year they are planning to build. Perhaps this is because the transport-related changes in the new draft of the NPPF out for consultation are more minor than those relating to the natural environment? It still seemed like there were missed opportunities.

The section in the updated NPPF on sustainable transport is re-structured, with an emphasis on incorporating and engaging with transport planning at the outset, which is encouraging, yet there are no references to the Local Transport Plan or joint spatial plan-making. Some authorities do this anyway, but surely national policy should clearly link the disciplines?

Fortunately, the ill-defined ‘commuter hubs’ proposed in previous consultations are absent, and local discretion is encouraged in identifying places “well served by public transport” to apply density standards. This suggests local transport and land use planners will be given more freedom to decide how to define a transport hub with appropriate capacity and surround it with appropriate development. Unfortunately, local planners are not supported in this endeavour by the barely revised paragraphs in the NPPF on parking. These, whilst less antagonistic about parking charges and enforcement than previously, are more direct with regard to scorning maximum parking standards, despite the success of such policies in the past and the potential for such policies to better provide for a future of electric, potentially autonomous vehicles that are more likely to be shared than owned.

Still, at the conference and in the document, local governments are no longer scapegoats and planners of all types are given more recognition for their ability to create better places. There is even recognition that sustainable transport is about creating “places that are safe, secure and attractive” that “respond to local character and design standards”. And creating such places should be exactly what all planners, transport and land use, are trained to do. There’s still time to do it together a bit more often.