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Government fails to grasp Smart Growth

Former campaigner's picture

20 February 2013: The government has missed the opportunity to make growth smarter . Despite making various changes to simplify and speed up the planning process – notably in replacing more than a thousand pages of planning policy with the fifty page National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – but it somehow missed this most important element.

More than a century of rising car ownership and sprawling, low density suburban development have contributed to related problems including over-dependence on road transport and congestion, a waste of land and loss of countryside and the decline of many towns and cities and their traditional centres. Ironically, many suburbs have also suffered as local services and amenities disappear, once leafy streets are dominated by traffic and many residents, particularly the elderly, once linked to the wider community by public transport, find themselves isolated in their homes.

The UK is not the only country affected; it has also happened elsewhere. Such problems have taken their most extreme form in the US where mile after mile of suburban housing and ubiquitous shopping malls have seen abandoned urban streets, town centres demolished for parking lots and freeways endlessly blocked by traffic jams.

A response to that type of development, smart growth may first have been given a name in the States where it is also known as new urbanism or transit oriented development. People are starting to move back into the centre of American towns and cities. The approach has also been taken up in Europe where it may be more often known as ‘compact development’ or ‘walkable communities’.

The essential characteristics of this development pattern are higher density (which does not mean high rise) housing in and around town centres and transport hubs, where services and amenities are easily available on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. The demand for housing and other facilities for a growing population can often be met using brownfield (ie previously used) land. This type of development was well proven by the builders of Georgian and Victorian streets and squares and can work on a wide scale. Most of inner London, where around three million people live, is high density, has amenities within walking distance and more than 60 per cent of households don’t own a car.

Unfortunately the NPPF has not followed this approach. It lacks a vision for a development pattern that reduces the need to travel and allows as much travel as possible to be done on foot, by bicycle or public transport. A coalition of civic, environmental and transport groups, including Campaign for Better Transport, has just launched a statement outlining the principles of smart growth and is calling on the Government to adopt them.

The need for smart growth is particularly urgent as the Government prepares to publish its major housing proposals and developers are pushing plans to build 250,000 new homes in sprawling greenfield developments along the M11 and A14. These would force people to travel by car and be the very opposite of smart growth.