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Planning for the future: What does this mean for transport?

Joe Ellis, Operational Director for Transport Planning and Engineering, takes a look at the three pillars of the Government’s White Paper ‘Planning for the future’ in England and discusses the impact for transport.

22 September 2020 | 5 min read
Joe Ellis
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Pillar 1: Planning for development

The Government wants “to establish a clear and predictable basis for the pattern and form of development in an area”.

The transport verdict: the aim to simplify the planning system is welcomed but without better integration between transport management and land use planning, the transparency and certainty the White Paper seeks is unlikely to be achieved.

Key point to note:

  • The single statutory test of ‘sustainable development’ for Local Plans seems sensible, and according to the Government should mean fewer requirements for assessments; but somewhat hidden away at page 31 is the statement that ‘Plans should be informed by appropriate infrastructure planning, and sites should not be included in the plan where there is no reasonable prospect of any infrastructure that may be needed coming forward in the plan period.’ 

This is similar to the existing challenge in promoting strategic development, as is attempting to define “no reasonable prospect”. So despite good intentions, from a transport planning perspective there's unlikely to be any substantial shift in the volume and complexity of the evidence base to support deliverability.

Pillar 2: Planning for beautiful and sustainable places

The Government wants to create “beautiful” and sustainable places.

The transport verdict: this will be challenging for the transport sector, and in particular highway design which is governed by extensive design standards, advisory notes and guidance; most of which is ‘conservative’ and geared towards motorised vehicles.

Key points to note:

  • A National Model Design Code is intended to cover the arrangement and proportion of streets, parking arrangements, street trees, and cycling and walking provision. The success of this Code will ultimately depend with its interaction with the other proposed ‘guides’.
  • A revised and consolidated Manual for Streets is welcomed and hopefully will be the catalyst for local highway authorities to align their own Design Guides and Construction Manuals which, where they exist, are still heavily focused on motorised vehicle travel.
  • The need to consult and engage locally on any design guides and codes is welcomed as currently such engagement is very limited or completely absent, particularly with respect to local highway authority design guides. Such consultation should include the housebuilders as they and their consultants are responsible for delivering the much needed housing.
  • On a development specific level, the need for design codes and masterplans at Local Plan stage to achieve a “permission in principle” will lead to more upfront work. Logistically this will be challenging for many local authorities who are often not sufficiently resourced to deliver.
  • Net gain is a term used a number of times in the White Paper, and if extended to transport would represent a step change compared to NPPF. Undoubtedly a net change requirement will increase housing delivery costs.
  • Whilst initiatives such as tree-lined streets sound great, this approach will result in wider road corridors, conflicts with utility placements and increased cost (capital and revenue for maintenance).

The objectives to: build better-build beautiful, introduce updated codes and guidance, and to appoint ‘chief officers for design and place-making’ are all positive steps towards inclusivity and sustainability. However, to make this achievable it’s important to ensure that local highway authorities have the resource to focus on place-making. A revision to the Traffic Management Act 2004, which requires highway authorities to secure and facilitate the expeditious movement of traffic on the road network, would also be helpful as its requirements often run counter to efficiently delivering new homes.

Pillar 3: Planning for infrastructure and connected places

The Government wants to capture “more land value uplift generated by planning decisions to deliver new infrastructure”.

The transport verdict: Proposal 19 to replace CIL and s106 planning obligations with an Infrastructure Levy may lead to new infrastructure but more clarity is required.

Key points to note:

  • Typical s106 transport obligations include funding off-site highway schemes or public transport interventions. If the Infrastructure Levy covers these items then developers will have greater cost certainty up front but it may mean some developments will carry an ‘unfair’ burden in infrastructure funding; well beyond the requirements of NPPF paragraphs 56, 108 to 110.
  • However, the removal of s106 financial obligations will still allow local highway authorities to seek transport improvements via s278 Agreements, so some uncertainty will remain regardless.

The White Paper is also rather silent on the non-financial obligations often included in s106 e.g. securing a Travel Plan and its contents, and the phasing of development against infrastructure provision.

So what can we expect?

The White Paper makes only a few references to transport, and is silent on integrating transport management and land use planning. However, it appears that:

  • With a planning need to show deliverability, it’s highly likely that the “vast swathes of evidence based [transport] documents” will remain
  • Despite any new design codes, highway authorities will be legally required to seek to secure and facilitate the expeditious movement of traffic on the road network
  • Even with no s106, the s278 process will still lead to uncertainty

Overall, the White Paper is a step in the right direction but it’s unlikely to result in any major change in how the transport implications of land use developments are planned, designed and assessed.