Localism update

Previously, Eric “Rubber Knickers” Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government has got a lot of press claiming to be handing power to local people when in reality taking away local people’s defences against harmful commercial interests who want to pave the fields with sprawl and ruin town centres.

But Greg Clark, the minister for decentralisation, planning policy and cities, has finally made a suggestion that is not entirely awful: transport policy independence for the English core cities. Devolution of transport policy has been a great success, driving innovation and progress in a way that central government has been unable or unwilling to do. In Scotland, the Beeching Axe is being rolled back. In London, the Congestion Charge has paid for massive public transport and public realm improvements, including innovations from Oyster to the Overground. In Wales, legislation for cycle network standards is on the agenda for the current assembly term.

Giving the core cities — Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester (which already has TfGM), Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield — transport policy powers equivalent to the Mayor and TfL (though hopefully correcting the mistakes in the London model before applying it) could, under the right local leaders, drive further innovation. Bristol and Newcastle might choose to show the country how to design streets in which people can cycle. The Yorkshire/Lancashire cities might club together to improve their intercity rail.

But it all depends on the money. A few of the core cities already have trams or metros, but only because the cities could persuade central government to pay. Others got nothing — Bristol is left desperately scrabbling around for the pennies to pay for a barely-better-than-nothing Bus Rapid Transit system because ministers won’t give it a tram.

Devolution of urban transport policy could be an excellent move, but only if Pickles and Clark make sure that the cities get the money, the powers, and the continuing central government support that they would need if they are to make real progress. Otherwise it’s just the devolution of blame for the current mess — the shirking of responsibility. Letting cities develop policies doesn’t make up for having none of your own.

How localism works: councils lose power to reject sprawl and congestion

A draft of the National Planning Policy Framework has been leaked.  This is the document that Eric Pickles’s department, Community and Local Government, has been preparing to replace some of the previous government’s policies, rules, and guidelines on development and planning.  It’s supposedly prompted by the Treasury’s belief that economic growth can and should be encouraged by making private development easier, and by the belief that the last government was overly controlling of what councils could do, and that the current rules interfere with decisions that should be made locally.

It’s difficult to tell exactly how important the document is, because, not having any real expertise in the way that government does this stuff, I don’t know how much (if any) of it will be law and how much will be a suggestion, or even a mere statement of the government’s position on things.  Large swathes of it were too dull to read properly, telling local authorities that they need to do obvious things like make sure they’re not going to suddenly run out of waste disposal capacity.

But from a quick scroll through, it doesn’t seem any less controlling of councils than the previous government.  It’s just that, where the previous government told councils that they should reject applications for harmful developments, the new document tells councils that they should not reject applications for harmful developments.  Previously, local people had some amount of power: their representatives had an arsenal of reasons say ‘no’ to developments which would have negative consequences for their community, like the sprawling out-of-town barn retail that kill town centres and make people dependent on cars for shopping and employment.  They could tell developers: that’s not an appropriate location, and that’s not an appropriate style.  They could tell developers: not unless you do something to mitigate the effects on the community, or to prevent specific negative consequences.  As far as I can tell, this document is taking away that arsenal of grounds-for-rejection and instead grants developers “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.  Whatever “sustainable” is.

Delightfully, the document comes with tracked changes.  We don’t know who’s changes are tracked — it could be Communities, Treasury, Transport, a random party advisor, a copy-editor… — and “sustainable” has frequently simply been deleted, presumably on the grounds that it’s pretty much meaningless in this document.  Dozens of clauses touch on what it means to be “sustainable”, but they tend to be neither necessary or sufficient, and they don’t add up to a definition.  Are LAs supposed to be able to classify proposed developments as “non-sustainable” based on this document, and what do they do with those proposals?

As far as I can see, the tracked changes on page 23, “Transport”, are the fun part of the document.  There is plenty of lip service to “sustainable modes”, but only “where reasonable”.  And again, there should be encouragement to reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions — where practical.  It doesn’t say who gets to decide what’s reasonable and practical.

An objective to reduce the need to travel at all is deleted, though local authorities are still encouraged to plan developments in areas where the need to travel will be reduced.

Brilliantly, the phrase “the private car will continue to form an important mode in order to maintain communities” is tracked as having been deleted from the objectives.  I wonder who didn’t want it included?  I wonder who did?

To support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, local authorities should plan for development to give priority to pedestrians and “cycle movements”, to be served by public transport, to “create safe and secure layouts which minimise conflicts between traffic and cyclists or pedestrians”, and to have electric vehicle charging points.  All very nice, but it’s not clear what this will translate to in reality.  Local authorities are asked to include these things in their “plan”, but what does it mean for real private developments?  Indeed, what does it even mean to “give priority” to pedestrians and “cycle movements”?  We’ve had a couple of decades of this kind of vague pro-cycling lip-service and anybody who has ever tried to cycle in this country knows what the result looks like.  Planners and builders have a very special ability to turn even the best of intentions into utter bollocks.

At least owners of electric vehicles can look forward to charging points.  If they’re anything like the planning for “cycle movements” they’ll be a single standard 240v socket hidden somewhere around the back near the bins, to which it’s not actually physically possible to get an electric vehicle.  Chances are, it won’t be wired up to anything.

Local authorities will be able to set some amount of “local standards” for residential and non-residential development, though again, I can’t really work out what those will mean in practice.  LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this.  Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?

Finally, LAs are told to bear in mind that there is “an overall need to reduce the use of high-emission vehicles.”  The term “high-emission vehicles” has been inserted in place of the deleted phrase “the car where practical.”

I imagine there are equally interestingly useless guidelines in the “housing” and “green belt” sections, but I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it.

If this is “localism”, localism apparently means a redistribution of power: not from central government to councils, but from public interest to corporate interest.

Participatory democracy (London edition)

Central government have decided to roll back their red tape and give power back to the people!  In reality, this is power going to the county and borough councilors (who don’t have the budgets needed to do anything productive with their new powers), or in some cases it could amount to less power for the councilors to resist the pressures of developers.  It is now more important than ever to keep an eye on local developments: to provide the local opposition that the councilors will need if they are to justify turning down bad proposals, and the local support that they need to get funding for good proposals.

For those who don’t care about London (or care about more than just London), I’ll compile another post.

London boroughs Local Implementation Plans

The London Authority requires the boroughs to periodically outline their transport plans for a forthcoming timespan, to compliment the Mayor’s own transport strategy.  The last set of plans were written five years ago; it’s time for the boroughs to produce new ones and consult with their “stakeholders”.  These plans will include specific detailed initiatives for the next few years, but also propose high-level policy directions for the next few decades.  The boroughs should make these plans available for everyone to read, and any of you can give feedback if you think you hold any stake in the future of transport in that borough.  You don’t need to be a resident — you could comment on a borough that you work in, commute through, or even which you never visit, but whose transport plan you think could have knock-on effects on your own borough’s transport situation (I never visit the northern or western outer boroughs, but it is their pro-car policies that help make much of the central area a nasty place to be).

When reading the LIPs, check what the council plans to do to make the city livable — their plans, if any, for calm residential streets, pleasant high streets, and cycling infrastructure that actually works.  And watch out for failed fantasies like “congestion relief” and “smoother traffic flow”.

Here are a few LIPs that might be of interest:

I couldn’t find anything for Hackney, Islington, or Westminster — perhaps those are not ready yet.  I also searched for Waltham Forest, for a laugh, but they too have nothing obvious available for comment so far.  If you can find those, or any other LIPs that are worthy of comment, do let us know.  So far I haven’t looked at the content of any the LIPs except the City, Camden, and Southwark — if you do look at any of the documents and spot anything outstanding or outrageous in them, let us know.

Other stuff that needs action

Email Lambeth Council to oppose the removal of one of the few off-road routes we have in central London — the riverside path:

Subscribe the TfL’s consultations — they include major streetscape changes on the red routes, Bus routes, taxis, etc.

Find your borough’s streets & transport consultations web page — e.g. Lewisham’s is here — and subscribe to it (if the council are too useless to have provided their own feed, you can improvise one with tools like this).  Look out for changes to speed restrictions, official approval of pavement parking, poorly designed one-way systems, etc.  Most consultations are small and dull so get very few responses, and proposals easily go through unopposed — but this means that when people do speak up, they can potentially get noticed more easily.

Also keep an eye on the major projects in the central boroughs — especially Westminster and The City, since these are usually designed to support our current car-centric mess.  Westminster’s transport/streetscapes consultations page was particularly difficult to find, but I believe this is it.  It includes their proposals for half of the grubbier eastern end of Oxford Street, to be built later this year: more car parking spaces and loading bays; helping pedestrians by, erm, pushing them onto other “under-utilised streets” (shove ’em round the back by the bins — that’s gotta be good for business); and no mention of cycling at all.  (Of course, what Oxford Street and its traders desperately need is proper pedestrianisation — but then, this same observation was made in the 1963 Buchanan report and it hasn’t happened yet.)  You have two months to send Westminster your comments on that one.

I must stop the list there, else I won’t have time to respond to any of these plans myself…

How will High Speed 2 help?

I’m writing this on the Far North Line, a place that is 12 hours from London, and has no need to be any closer to it.

It’s hard to define what you mean when you ask whether something helps — whether it is helpful to do something.  What I mean is, whose lives will be better when HS2 is running?  That question isn’t really any less ambiguous, is it?  What positive effect might HS2 have on our health, wealth, productivity, happiness, or any other measure that you think is worth maximising in life.

At AWWTM, we have noticed that having a calm, quiet, clean and beautiful built environment, designed for people and unspoilt by the noise, fumes, and general intimidatory and isolating presence of cars and trucks, seems to make a worthwhile contribution to all of the above measures.  We have observed that wasting years of your life in unpleasant transport conditions — whether a traffic jam or an overstuffed commuter train — tends to make a harmful contribution.  And we think that catastrophic climate change would also probably not be a good thing for our health, wealth, and happiness, and so avoiding causing that would be helpful.

So how will High Speed 2 help with these kinds of things?  I find it increasingly difficult to answer this question, which worries me, because my prejudice is that high speed rail must surely be helpful, and I instinctively like the idea of our having it.  And I just don’t want to be on the same side as a bunch of Tory nimbys.  It’s a railway, and railways are good things.

The government has been selling HS2 as a means to improve and save the environment while helping sustain economic growth.  Currently, many long-distance north-south travelers believe that the car or domestic flights are more suitable forms of transport for them than the train.  If only the train were a bit faster, for many more travelers, the balance would tip in favour of the train.  This would take cars off the road and planes out of the sky, cutting noise and air pollution, visual and physical destruction of our neighbourhoods, and greenhouse gas emissions.  It would help to achieve helpful things.

(As an aside, rail fares throughout the country have just gone up and the government are trying to justify this by pointing to the improvement programs that the fares will fund, including HS2.  But if HS2 is supposed to be to bring the benefits of rail travel to current car and plane users, shouldn’t they be funding it?  Say, with a tax on aviation fuel appropriate to the level of harm that burning it at altitude does?  This government does, after all, support the principle of people like students paying now for hypothetical future economic prosperity.)

Unfortunately, the government’s own current projections are actually that most HS2 users will be existing rail users merely going faster than before on brand new trains and track, which if true and if sustained, rather spoils the greenhouse gas and road congestion arguments anyway.  (I’m not actually convinced this would remain true though: the first users will indeed come from conventional rail, but if HS2 demonstrates sufficient benefits for car and plane users, over time many people who are currently invested in car and plane based lifestyles will adapt to it.  Just as when the first motorways opened they were used only by existing car owners for car journeys that would otherwise would have been made on convention roads — but over time, they filled up as people adapted their lifestyles and built environment to the motorway world, buying more cars and making more journeys.)

A better case for HS2 seems to be in relieving conventional rail congestion.  We are told that the West Coast Main Line is full.  (Virgin Trains have just this week been allowed to run one extra friday evening train per day to Manchester, but perhaps this is at the expense of a freight or stock slot?)  This means we have overcrowding on the existing WCML intercity and regional trains (though many of these can at least be lengthened as a short-term solution), which will only get worse as passenger numbers continue to grow.  And at a time when we need to be investing in the infrastructure for switching freight from road to rail, road freight is growing and rail freight stagnating, because there is insufficient capacity even for loads that are perfectly suited to the existing rail freight infrastructure.  (Several of you are now thinking to yourselves, “isn’t this WCML argument rather reminiscent of predict-and-provide, and hasn’t predict-and-provide had miserable consequences when applied to road building?”  I’m going to ignore you for this post, but we can discuss it later.)

So I guess HS2 will help: without it, the lack of available WCML capacity is driving people into their cars and freight onto the roads, and is holding back development of better rail freight infrastructure.  But is it the most helpful thing we could be doing with the money?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that most journeys in the UK are not inter-city journeys.  Most journeys are short — within a city, or, between nearby towns and villages for shopping, services, socialising and employment.  Most people easily go for months without leaving a 50 mile radius of their house; long-distance journeys are an occasional luxury, for holidays.  But it is these local journeys, though short, which tend to cause more problems per mile — because they are in our town centres and residential neighbourhoods rather than on the motorway.  And these are the journeys that are ignored by the government as something uninteresting that the district council can deal with as they see fit.

Local councils never do deal with transport issues as they see fit.  They deal with them as best as they can afford, and (biggest, densest cities aside) local councils can only afford roads, and even then, only roads that they can build bit-by-bit over the course of a decade.  Somerset and Dorset yearn for their railway to return.  Portishead desperately needs just three miles of track laid on an existing clear trackbed.  Scotland and Wales, where the railways were really hacked to pieces, and London, are leading the way in actually rebuilding these railway lines that people want for their simple short and medium-distance everyday journeys.  But Scotland, Wales, and London all have their own big-budget regional governments to help do this.  Everywhere else has little uncooperative local councils who don’t have the resources to do things like rebuild branch lines.

Spending tens of billions of pounds on getting these sorts of projects going — reconnecting those towns of over 10,000 population which were kicked off the railways; and bringing back the little lines that each connected dozens of villages to the market and county towns where the jobs and services are — would ultimately affect a great many more people than HS2, and I suspect it would have many more positive knock-on effects on development patterns and a far more profound effect on people’s health, wealth, productivity and happiness, than would increasing the top speed of a few intercity trains from 125 to 200 mph.

Of course, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do both.  They would still cost less than a bank bailout.  We could privatise the motorways to pay for it.