Tag Archives: planning

Repost: Pickles peddles pointless parking press release

Not having anything new to post, but having been reminded of this antique scrawl by last week’s Cycling Embassy response to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on whether they should interfere in local parking policies, I figured I could fob you off with something originally posted way back in august 2011.

This week, the Department for Communities and Local Government put out a press release about town centre parking. Unlike last time, they didn’t even have to announce that Pickles is ending The War On The Motorist™. On that point, their work was done for them, by 36 newspapers and the Daily Express. Aren’t they well trained?

This time around, Rubberknickers Pickles is ending The War by lifting restrictions on how much of our town centres can be given over to car parking. The idea is nothing new, of course, but it is assumed that most will have forgotten the previous occasions when it was announced. The “news” is that the paperwork has gone through: the new version of the government’s planning rules are complete.

As far as I can tell, the notorious limits on car parking provision that have been dropped were Policy EC8, “Car parking for non-residential development,” in the Planning Policy Statement 4 of 2001 [PDF]. This policy instructs local authorities:

Local planning authorities should, through their local development frameworks, set maximum parking standards for non-residential development in their area, ensuring alignment with the policies in the relevant local transport plan and, where relevant, the regional strategy.

In determining what their maximum should be, the policy suggested that authorities think about the needs of non-car users, the effects of congestion and need to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution, and:

h. the need to make provision for adequate levels of good quality secure parking in town centres to encourage investment and maintain their vitality and viability

j. the need to provide for appropriate disabled parking and access

k. the needs of different business sizes and types and major employers

That is, the notorious Labour control-freakery over town centre parking was, er, an instruction for local authorities to develop guidelines that they think are suitable for their own local situations. The Policy document goes on to state that these local standards that authorities have developed should then be applied to planning applications — unless the planning applicant gives a good reason for them not to apply.

So these maximum limits are locally decided and not really binding. That doesn’t quite look like “centrally controlled parking quotas” to me. In his press release, Pickles says:

The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall. Local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.

Which seems to be exactly what the old Policy document supported.

Perhaps there was some other Labour policy, rule, or law that I haven’t been able to find? Anybody?

I’m not sure what real difference the removal of this policy makes. Previously councils were made to think about the effect of congestion and pollution and the like on their town centres, and the needs of people on foot and bike and bus. When a planning application came in they would know how to recognise whether it would be bad for their town, and they would have a good pre-prepared excuse to reject a development that would make their town centre a more congested and polluted place, or which would hinder walking, cycling, and public transport. But I assume that they’re still allowed to reject those developments if they still don’t like congestion and pollution and dead places?

But perhaps the new policy document will send a message to local authorities: your town centres are in a bad way, and you need to do something about it. In his press release, Pickles says that the removal of this rule will “provide a big boost to struggling high streets”:

The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, will do away with these anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It will encourage new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.

Unfortunately, Pickles doesn’t explain how the new Policy will translate into more competitive town centres with more jobs. More importantly, he presents no evidence to support the statement. So I went looking for it. Luckily, Greg Marsden has already reviewed the evidence on parking policies.

One of the studies that Marsden reviews is the 2002 Lockwood Survey, which divides “town centres” by size of the town/catchment area, and whose summary states:

4.   Findings of the parking survey:

Major District Centres: Poor store performance is linked with low levels of parking, reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Sub Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with high charges for 3 and 4 hour stays (the report gives indicative levels).

But when Marsden looked at the data he found it a lot more difficult to support these conclusions. In “major district centres”, those with very low levels of parking were indeed more likely to be performing badly. But those with mildly low levels of parking did better than those with high levels. And in regional centres, those with higher levels of parking were struggling more than those with lower levels. But those with very high levels of parking did a little better than those with very low levels.

There simply doesn’t seem to be any pattern in this data at all. The authors of the original report had cherry picked those parts of the data that made it look like low parking provision was harming shops, while ignoring those parts that said the reverse. Marsden found the same for parking charges and the proportion of parking spaces within a five minute walk of the main shopping area: the data was all over the place, showing no obvious and consistent relationship with economic performance. Why not? Because if variation in parking provision has any effect on town centre attractiveness and competitiveness at all, it is masked by far more important factors — perhaps factors like whether the town centre is easy to get to, has shops people want to use, and is a nice place to be.

So why is Pickles press releasing his new policy as the saviour for struggling town centres? Why did most of the newspapers toe that line? We’ve developed a national myth that giving over more of our town centres to parking is good for the businesses in them.

Sustrans documented the nature of this myth by talking to traders and shoppers on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Bristol is relatively dense and affluent with above average cycling and car ownership rates and, even by British standards, appalling public transport. Gloucester Road doubles as a major artery with many bus routes and a neighbourhood centre lined with mostly independent shops. As Bristol Traffic documents, its bus and bike lanes are usually filled with parked cars.

Not Gloucester Road, but a near-by case study which might teach us some things about why town centres are in decline

Shopkeepers on Gloucester road estimated that more than two fifths of their customers came by car. In fact it was only just over a fifth. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. The shopkeepers were perhaps being big-headed, believing that their businesses were capable of attracting people from a wider catchment area, when in fact most customers lived within an easily walkable distance.

And the shopkeepers greatly overestimated the importance of drivers to their business in another way: while the people who walked were likely to stick around and visit several shops and businesses, the drivers typically pulled up, ran in to one shop, and got out of there as fast as they could. Perhaps that’s because often they couldn’t even be bothered to park up properly and instead stopped in the bike lanes outside their destination.

High street shopkeepers and business owners greatly overestimate the importance of drivers to their success. Why? Perhaps proprietors are more likely to be drivers themselves, and, as is so often the case with motorists, can’t get their heads around the fact that so many others aren’t? Perhaps their view of the street through the big shop window is dominated by the big metal boxes passing through? Perhaps they see the apparent success of the big soulless out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, attribute that success to the acres of car parking, and leap to the conclusion that car parking is all that a business needs for success — that the model which succeeds on the periphery can be applied to the model that is failing in the centre.

I suspect that the opposite might be true. Those who are attached to their cars will go to the barns on the ring-roads. You won’t attract them back to the town centres. But by trying — by providing for the car parking at the expense of bike paths and bus lanes and wider pavements — you might drive away the surprisingly high proportion of town centre customers who don’t come by car, who come precisely because, unlike the malls, the town centre is walkable and cycleable and because the bus can get through. Town centres aren’t just competing with out-of-town malls and supermarkets any more. Those who don’t want to drive to out-of-town barns can sit at home, click on some buttons, and have things driven to them. Compared to most of the traffic-choked high streets in this country, that’s quite an attractive option.

Pickles peddles pointless parking press release

This week, the Department for Communities and Local Government put out a press release about town centre parking. Unlike last time, they didn’t even have to announce that Pickles is ending The War On The Motorist™. On that point, their work was done for them, by 36 newspapers and the Daily Express. Aren’t they well trained?

This time around, Rubberknickers Pickles is ending The War by lifting restrictions on how much of our town centres can be given over to car parking. The idea is nothing new, of course, but it is assumed that most will have forgotten the previous occasions when it was announced. The “news” is that the paperwork has gone through: the new version of the government’s planning rules are complete.

As far as I can tell, the notorious limits on car parking provision that have been dropped were Policy EC8, “Car parking for non-residential development,” in the Planning Policy Statement 4 of 2001 [PDF]. This policy instructs local authorities:

Local planning authorities should, through their local development frameworks, set maximum parking standards for non-residential development in their area, ensuring alignment with the policies in the relevant local transport plan and, where relevant, the regional strategy.

In determining what their maximum should be, the policy suggested that authorities think about the needs of non-car users, the effects of congestion and need to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution, and:

h. the need to make provision for adequate levels of good quality secure parking in town centres to encourage investment and maintain their vitality and viability

j. the need to provide for appropriate disabled parking and access

k. the needs of different business sizes and types and major employers

That is, the notorious Labour control-freakery over town centre parking was, er, an instruction for local authorities to develop guidelines that they think are suitable for their own local situations. The Policy document goes on to state that these local standards that authorities have developed should then be applied to planning applications — unless the planning applicant gives a good reason for them not to apply.

So these maximum limits are locally decided and not really binding. That doesn’t quite look like “centrally controlled parking quotas” to me. In his press release, Pickles says:

The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall. Local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.

Which seems to be exactly what the old Policy document supported.

Perhaps there was some other Labour policy, rule, or law that I haven’t been able to find? Anybody?

I’m not sure what real difference the removal of this policy makes. Previously councils were made to think about the effect of congestion and pollution and the like on their town centres, and the needs of people on foot and bike and bus. When a planning application came in they would know how to recognise whether it would be bad for their town, and they would have a good pre-prepared excuse to reject a development that would make their town centre a more congested and polluted place, or which would hinder walking, cycling, and public transport. But I assume that they’re still allowed to reject those developments if they still don’t like congestion and pollution and dead places?

But perhaps the new policy document will send a message to local authorities: your town centres are in a bad way, and you need to do something about it. In his press release, Pickles says that the removal of this rule will “provide a big boost to struggling high streets”:

The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, will do away with these anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It will encourage new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.

Unfortunately, Pickles doesn’t explain how the new Policy will translate into more competitive town centres with more jobs. More importantly, he presents no evidence to support the statement. So I went looking for it. Luckily, Greg Marsden has already reviewed the evidence on parking policies.

One of the studies that Marsden reviews is the 2002 Lockwood Survey, which divides “town centres” by size of the town/catchment area, and whose summary states:

4.   Findings of the parking survey:

Major District Centres: Poor store performance is linked with low levels of parking, reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Sub Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with high charges for 3 and 4 hour stays (the report gives indicative levels).

But when Marsden looked at the data he found it a lot more difficult to support these conclusions. In “major district centres”, those with very low levels of parking were indeed more likely to be performing badly. But those with mildly low levels of parking did better than those with high levels. And in regional centres, those with higher levels of parking were struggling more than those with lower levels. But those with very high levels of parking did a little better than those with very low levels.

There simply doesn’t seem to be any pattern in this data at all. The authors of the original report had cherry picked those parts of the data that made it look like low parking provision was harming shops, while ignoring those parts that said the reverse. Marsden found the same for parking charges and the proportion of parking spaces within a five minute walk of the main shopping area: the data was all over the place, showing no obvious and consistent relationship with economic performance. Why not? Because if variation in parking provision has any effect on town centre attractiveness and competitiveness at all, it is masked by far more important factors — perhaps factors like whether the town centre is easy to get to, has shops people want to use, and is a nice place to be.

So why is Pickles press releasing his new policy as the saviour for struggling town centres? Why did most of the newspapers toe that line? We’ve developed a national myth that giving over more of our town centres to parking is good for the businesses in them.

Sustrans documented the nature of this myth by talking to traders and shoppers on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Bristol is relatively dense and affluent with above average cycling and car ownership rates and, even by British standards, appalling public transport. Gloucester Road doubles as a major artery with many bus routes and a neighbourhood centre lined with mostly independent shops. As Bristol Traffic documents, its bus and bike lanes are usually filled with parked cars.

Not Gloucester Road, but a near-by case study which might teach us some things about why town centres are in decline

Shopkeepers on Gloucester road estimated that more than two fifths of their customers came by car. In fact it was only just over a fifth. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. The shopkeepers were perhaps being big-headed, believing that their businesses were capable of attracting people from a wider catchment area, when in fact most customers lived within an easily walkable distance.

And the shopkeepers greatly overestimated the importance of drivers to their business in another way: while the people who walked were likely to stick around and visit several shops and businesses, the drivers typically pulled up, ran in to one shop, and got out of there as fast as they could. Perhaps that’s because often they couldn’t even be bothered to park up properly and instead stopped in the bike lanes outside their destination.

High street shopkeepers and business owners greatly overestimate the importance of drivers to their success. Why? Perhaps proprietors are more likely to be drivers themselves, and, as is so often the case with motorists, can’t get their heads around the fact that so many others aren’t? Perhaps their view of the street through the big shop window is dominated by the big metal boxes passing through? Perhaps they see the apparent success of the big soulless out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, attribute that success to the acres of car parking, and leap to the conclusion that car parking is all that a business needs for success — that the model which succeeds on the periphery can be applied to the model that is failing in the centre.

I suspect that the opposite might be true. Those who are attached to their cars will go to the barns on the ring-roads. You won’t attract them back to the town centres. But by trying — by providing for the car parking at the expense of bike paths and bus lanes and wider pavements — you might drive away the surprisingly high proportion of town centre customers who don’t come by car, who come precisely because, unlike the malls, the town centre is walkable and cycleable and because the bus can get through. Town centres aren’t just competing with out-of-town malls and supermarkets any more. Those who don’t want to drive to out-of-town barns can sit at home, click on some buttons, and have things driven to them. Compared to most of the traffic-choked high streets in this country, that’s quite an attractive option.

The suburban dream

Paul says:

The post is implies, that there is a huge latent demand for cycling in the UK, which will translate into actual cycling if the infrastructure is provided. The truth is that many adults in the UK prefer to drive a car, live in a low-density suburb, and at least accept (if not prefer) a longer commuting distance. They will not cycle, regardless of what infrastructure is provided.

Perhaps some people in this country do still love their suburbs.  But most British people fell out of love with identikit low-density suburbs decades ago.  The rise of the suburb occurred because a push from the city coincided with an opportunity in the suburbs.  For a long time since industrialisation, cities had been dirty, smelly, cramped, and disease ridden.  They hosted steam trains, steam ships, factories, and a coal fire in every home.  Bankside Power Station (Tate Modern) opposite St Paul’s was just one of several central London power stations pumping coal and oil smoke directly into the places where people lived and worked right up into the early 1980s.  The city was enveloped in a constant cloud.  Nobody wanted to live there; everybody wanted a house as far away from the smog and disease as they could get.

Beginning slowly with the first railways, then rapidly with the expansion of the commuter railway networks, and then in its final trickles during the motor car age, that long pent-up demand to leave the dirty city was unleashed into the suburbs.  People rushed out of the city up to whatever at the time was the limit of practical transport.

Neither the push nor the limits exist today, and the demand has dried up with them.  The power stations have been pushed downwind to the coast and cleaned up with pollution scrubbers, the trains are all electric or diesel, and infectious diseases are nothing like the worry they used to be.  People stopped leaving the inner city a few decades ago, and are now moving back in: the populations of Southwark and Tower Hamlets have boomed with the redevelopment of the Docklands with high-density residential developments.  Every inner-borough of London is The New Islington: the once run-down and undesirable area that has seen the poor kicked out by the returning rich.  It’s a part of the current housing scandal: the fact that the social housing of our inner cities — the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in Southwark; West Kensington and Gibbs Green in Hammersmith; Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets; arrays of brutalist megablocks put up in the last two decades that their close neighbours, the power stations, operated — has and is being run-down ahead of a sell-off to developers who will replace it with desirable private homes.  We don’t need cuts to housing benefit to force the poor out of inner cities — local authorities are already doing it.

Meanwhile, those who really don’t like the city have left it entirely.  If you’re going to commute for over an hour each way just so that you don’t have to live in Inner London, you might as well get on an Intercity 125 or the M4 all the way to Wiltshire.

The people in the suburbs aren’t the people Paul thinks they are any more.  “Suburb” today conjures images very different from the gardens and fields on the London Underground posters of the 1930s, and it’s not an attractive image.

London, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff: our cities are visibly in the process of pulling themselves inside out, if they haven’t already completed the process.  The low-density neighbourhoods on the periphery are not desirable these days; people don’t choose to live there anymore.  They are being left to those who have been priced out of the New Islingtons — people who can’t afford a wasteful car-dependent lifestyle. They are changing demographically, and over time, as the car becomes ever further from the reach of their residents, market forces if nothing else will change them physically.

This pretense of neutrality

On Saturday I wrote about the leaked draft of the Tories’ coalition’s draft new planning policy document:

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?

The line reminded me of the comment made recently by Andrew Boff, summarising the views of Conservative members of the London Assembly, who recently rejected the idea of a “road user hierarchy” which puts cyclists and pedestrians above motor vehicle users:

“It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be.”

Boff’s statement and the planning policy document imply the Tory position is that politicians should keep their own ideals out of transport planning and merely provide for the journeys that are already being made — to remain neutral, and let the people choose.  Leaving aside how this fits with the idea that creating new journeys is required to boost the economy (“roads for prosperity” under Thatcher; high-speed rail and reduced planning control under the current government), the idea that merely “making decisions to accommodate” the modes that people currently “choose” to use could be either a neutral or a desirable policy is either spectacularly naive or spectacularly dishonest.

People’s transport “choices” are informed by the real world. The fact that somebody is making a specific journey by a specific mode does mean that they choose that journey and that mode or that they wouldn’t prefer to go somewhere else or use a different mode if it were available. This should be self evident. I write from a village in Dorset where people have today “chosen” not use the bus or train.  Their choice may be informed by the fact that neither have been provided.

It is impossible to make a transport decision, even a decision to “accommodate” the status quo, which does not affect people’s choices, because people’s choices do not reflect an ideal isolated from the real world.  And “carry on with what we’ve had for fifty years” is no less a political decision than “do something different,” because what we’ve had for fifty years is itself the result of a political decision.  Cities do not naturally grow up with eight lane roads running through them; there is no objectively correct traffic signal priorities determined by the laws of physics.  These are things that we have been given as the result of political decisions, decisions which affect our choices for which modes of transport to use, and more importantly, which modes not to use, however much we might want to use them.

This is a pretty core principle which affects everything in transport.  Politicians must understand this if they are to get it right.

A couple of quick examples that passed my eyes this week (just a couple — really, any transport project or infrastructure could illustrate the principle).

First, Ian Visits reviews the history of the Docklands development, and the reason that the DLR was built.  The original idea was that the Jubilee Line would be extended through the derelict industrial lands of the East.  But the government took a look and realised that nobody was trying to make that journey — well duh, there was nothing and nobody there — and concluded that the £450 million would be wasted building a tube line for a journey that nobody made.  So the Docklands Development Corporation built the light railway instead, and of course the glass skyscrapers and posh apartments soon followed.  Suddenly there were a lot of people making journeys to and from the Docklands, so they reversed the earlier decision and extended the Jubilee Line out to it.  Now there are 64 million journeys a year on the DLR, over 40 million through Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line, and now Crossrail is on the way.  The whole point of the Docklands redevelopment was “build it and they will come”.  Saying “they don’t come so there’s no point building here” clearly missed that point.

Second, in Reversing Dr Beeching, which looked at the fact that Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) is reopening its railways, the new Kincardine Line, north of the Firth of Forth in Fife, was explored.  The line connects the town of Kincardine to Stirling and the rest of the railway network.  In the planning stages, all of the journeys made in the catchment area were analysed, and an estimate was made of how many of the journeys to Stirling would shift onto the railway.  About 150,000 journeys a year were predicted, and the line only really got built at this time because it could also be used to get coal to the nearby power station. But of course, in the first year of operation it took three times as many passengers as predicted.  Why?  Because the railway opened opportunities for people to work and shop and spend their leisure time in Stirling and Glasgow, instead of having to drive to Dunfirmline or Falkirk.  The fact that people were driving to Falkirk before the railway was built is not evidence that they wouldn’t rather have been going to Stirling by train.

There is always a difference between people’s transport ideal and the least-worst option that’s available in the real world.  That difference is latent demand.  There was latent demand for a railway to Stirling, and there was latent demand for a tube line to the Docklands.  The fact that people were making different journeys, to different places, by different modes, was not evidence that the new lines, when built, would not be used.

(This is, incidentally, why the government’s decision not to pursue a network of electric vehicle charging points, though the correct decision, was made for the wrong reason.)

London can never provide for everybody’s ideal means of getting around.  Most people in London travel in overcrowded buses and overcrowded tube trains, not because they want to, but because those are the least worse options available.  Maybe on their journey they are dreaming of an ideal world where there is room and resources enough for all of us to have our own personal helicopters, but there isn’t.  Or perhaps they have a more down-to-earth fantasy of room and resources enough for us all to drive into Central London, where congestion has magically been solved.  Perhaps they have already abandoned those dreams, and merely long for the day when they can onto a bicycle without fear of being run off the roads by the trucks and taxis.  The politician’s job is to eliminate the impossible and decide which are the least worst remaining options.  That inevitably means accommodating some people’s ideals more closely than others’.

I fear I’m labouring the point, and anyway, the Tory assembly members’ argument fails on, from the politician’s point of view, a much more basic and important point: if Tory AMs think that the people who take the bus, or the people on the tube, or the people sat in cars in traffic jams, or the people braving the streets on bicycles are content with the transport choices available to them and would like their representatives to carry on giving them more of the same, they’re clearly not talking to their electorate, who would disabuse them in a second.

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.

Budget notes

It’s flattering and frightening that several people told me that they’re looking forward to my thoughts on the budget.  So here they are, in a crude and hastily scrawled brain dump.

The obvious item to shout about is fuel duty: a 1p cut now and a freeze on previously scheduled increases to help the poor hard-done-by motorist.  Fuel duty is not the problem.  Owning a car is a luxury and it shouldn’t be a problem that it is priced as a luxury.  The problem is that so many people feel they have no option but to buy fuel — that owning a car has become a necessity.  Over the past fifty years people have incrementally lost their railway lines and bus services, their village shops, banks, post offices and doctors’ surgeries; new sprawling housing estates have grown up without any of these services; and employment has moved to car-centric out-of-town developments.

In a recession people cope by giving up a few luxuries.  But this time they can’t give up the luxury of running a car because the alternative options have been taken away.

Fiddling with fuel duty is political pantomime.  Fuel prices are not a problem because they’re especially high — adjusted for inflation they’re not that high.  Fuel prices are a problem because we’re in a recession where people can’t afford luxuries like private motoring — but many find themselves with no alternatives to running a car.  Dropping a penny or two from fuel duty doesn’t change the fact that cars are unaffordable luxuries in recessions.  There is no single quick fix to the problem that we have built ourselves into, but it requires that the government starts putting money and effort into the multiple real solutions now.  The only thing that fiddling with fuel duty does do is send a message to motorists: you don’t need to do anything to change your behaviour or fix this problem; just keep whining and we’ll respond with more tax tweaks.

The chancellor is paying for the cuts in fuel duty with an increase in the levy on oil extraction: ultimately, therefore, the oil companies will be paying for it out of the increased profits that come with higher prices.  (Never mind that this clever scheme can only last as long as Britain’s oil fields, which are well past peak production and in decline.)  He calls the scheme a fuel price “stabiliser”, reinforcing the fantasy that one day oil will be cheap and abundant again: when oil falls back below $75 per barrel (it won’t), fuel duty will rise again, and the extraction levy fall.

Also in the budget there was fiddling with the tax-free mileage allowance for people who drive their own cars at work (rising from 40p to 45p per mile); and to the tax on company cars.  I don’t think there’s anything interesting to say about either — they’re minor tweaks.  There are no changes to the cycle to work (tax free bicycle benefit) scheme.  The budget does abolish tax deductible “cycle to work breakfasts”, as recommended by the Office for Tax Simplification.  I’d never heard of the benefit before and would have difficulty believing it had any importance.

Far more important than any of this headline grabbing tax fiddling, but barely talked about, is the fact that this budget steps beyond its traditional remit and strides into the field of planning law, kicking down many of the safeguards against bad planning that were introduced over the past twenty years.  To aid employment and economic recovery, the chancellor announced the introduction of “enterprise zones”: 21 areas in cities around the UK England where companies moving into the zone could benefit from tax breaks and a streamlined planning process that is weighted in favour of any proposed development.  When done well — with careful consideration of residential, retail, employment and transport needs — planned redevelopment can work excellently.  The Docklands are not a bad example.  But without that careful consideration and planning control, quick-profit companies will build edge-of-town low rise offices and big barn retail outlets in a sea of sprawling car parks — exactly the kind of bad development that helps drive the car-dependency problem.  At the exact moment when action to reverse poor planning is most needed, the government is dropping the guards against it.

The precise details of these zones have yet to be announced, so we don’t know how bad they will be.  The “West of England” zone could be an excellent mixed development of appropriate density with decent architecture and public spaces replacing the harbourside wastelands and scruffy industrial estates near Bristol Temple Meads station; more likely it will be barns and staff car parks amongst the motorways on the northern fringes.  The London zone could be a revived Battersea, but it might be a cloned Brent Cross.  The government has the power to put innovation and employment back into our city centres, where people don’t need to struggle to support a car.  But it also has the option to push existing businesses out into isolated industrial estate zones, sucking life out of cities, forcing people into cars, and moving congestion to the next level.  So far, the signs suggest the latter.

State intervention

In reviewing the Radio 4 documentary Bristol: Cycling City (I didn’t hear it and was too slow on the iPlayer), the Guardian‘s radio critic Elisabeth Mahoney once again revealed the bizarrely muddled thinking of a nation so thoroughly addicted to its car culture.  The Cycling City project, in which a mere £22 million was given to the city to invest in cycling infrastructure and projects, was, she said, a “large state intervention in lifestyle issues”.

The implication is that the billions we spend designing our roads and streets for motor vehicles does not amount to a large state intervention in lifestyle.  Or perhaps Mahoney thinks that the inner-Bristol ring road has always been there, that the M32 arterial motorway is a natural geological landform laid down in the last ice age, and that the traffic signals that allow the narrow old city streets to support such a volume of cars just shoot from the pavement without the council even having to put down the right kind of fertiliser.

The roads projects of the second half of the twentieth century add up to the biggest state intervention in lifestyle choices there has ever been.  Building for the motor car gave some people new freedom and luxury,  to others it gave divided neighbourhoods and cities ruined by blight.  People were pushed out of their villages by richer car-commuters from the city, elderly people were isolated by the loss of their bus service, and people who were quite happy not driving — who couldn’t afford to run a car — were forced into supporting one as the car culture around them led directly to the closure of their local shops and services and sources of employment.  Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.

Amongst those whose lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies are people who would like to be able to walk and cycle.  Currently the proportion of journeys made by bicycle in much of the UK is less than one percent, and even in Bristol is well within single figures.  Again, perhaps Mahoney simply thought that this is the natural state for cycling — that the rates above 25% regularly achieved by some European cities are unnatural, achieved only by the force of the state.  Actually, if you ask a sample of people on the streets of Bristol, or any other British city, about their transport choices then the chances are they will tell you that they would like to be able to walk and cycle for their daily local journeys, but their streets and neighbourhoods simply aren’t designed to allow it.  You have to cross a dual carriageway that has no crossing; you have to learn to love four-lane roundabouts; you have to cycle down a suburban ‘A’ road that has lines of cars each side parked half on the pavement and half covering the cycle lane, while double-decker buses and articulated trucks overtake six inches from your handlebars, and queues of cars grow behind you, honking, just incase you haven’t yet got the message that you do not belong here.  Most streets don’t look safe for cycling and walking, let alone inviting.  Many people want to take advantage of the time and money saving benefits of making short journeys on foot or by bicycle, but they don’t think they can.

There is nothing natural about this state of our streets.  They do not just spring up out of the fields with four lanes and a row of parking places outside the shops and no room for pedestrian crossings or cycle lanes.  Somebody designs them that way, and that somebody is in some way an agent of “The State”.  The state can’t not “intervene” in streets; it has a number of choices for what to do with streets, but all of them amount to an “intervention”, and all of them affect our lifestyle choices.  Designing streets with only the needs of the motorcar user in mind has been a massive state intervention preventing people from making journeys on foot or by bicycle, even if they had really wanted to. Funding infrastructure and projects to make it possible for them to make those journeys is not forcing anybody to cycle.  It is not state intervention.  It’s providing a level playing field.

We’ve reached a point where most of the people alive in this country today have always lived in an era of mass car ownership.  Over half of the population were born after the first motorway opened.  People have a habit of believing that the world they grow up in is the natural and objectively correct way for the world to be; that if it were any other way the world would collapse.  Which is a problem when it comes to our city streets, which over the past fifty years have been designed extremely badly, in what we can objectively say was the wrong way.