Housing is not just about the numbers

By Tim Burns,
Lady cycling in front of a housing block

The UK Government’s long-awaited housing white paper: ‘Fixing our broken housing market’ puts additional pressure on councils in England to build more homes.

Whilst the numbers are important it is equally vital that we build homes in the right places, at the appropriate density, and following good design principles. This can enable new attractive and sustainable communities where travel by foot, bike or public transport is the norm.

Integrating transport and planning

At Sustrans, we recognise the urgent need to build more homes, however we also recognise the need to ensure this renewed emphasis on housing targets goes hand in hand with creating attractive, liveable communities that enable people to travel sustainably, especially by bike and foot.

This means integrating the objectives of planning and transport more closely both in policy and more critically in practice by enabling local authorities to better manage how this plays out on the ground.

With this in mind, how does today’s housing white paper recognise the need to build in the right places and encourage sustainable transport in new developments in England?

Increasing building in urban areas and building at a higher density

The Government’s white paper retains protection for the Green Belt, apart from in exceptional circumstances, encouraging the prioritisation of the regeneration of derelict developments in cities instead.

We support greater building in urban areas which tend to be the most appropriate locations if we are to make cycling and walking viable. This is simply because in urban areas people live closer to the jobs, schools and other services they need to access on a day to day basis.

Furthermore, proposals are included to encourage developers to increase the density of developments where there is a shortage of land, especially in areas close to public transport hubs.

Building at an increased density supports more compact urban areas. Studies have shown more compact cities tend to reduce car use, as well as make cycling, walking and public transport economically viable[1]. Furthermore, higher density, mixed-use developments containing homes, local shops, restaurants and offices together bring life and culture to places and help to attract people to inner city living; a phenomenon already underway in many UK cities.

It is welcoming to see greater emphasis on amending the National Planning Policy Framework to encourage urban development at higher densities, however this should be cautioned; there is little in today’s white paper to clearly show how planning practices will change in this respect on the ground.

One positive step within the paper is a proposal to require developers to start building within two years, rather than the current three, once planning permission is granted. This may have an impact on speeding up the completion of proposed developments on land already with permission, many of which are located within urban areas. This move may help to increase housing supply in urban areas and reduce pressure on building in greenfield or Green Belt sites.

Embedding sustainable transport infrastructure in and around new developments

Whilst building in the right locations and at the appropriate density is important we also need to do more to encourage developers and local authorities to ensure sustainable transport infrastructure, especially walking and cycling is accounted for.

High-quality cycling and walking infrastructure should be part of the design of developments and help finance infrastructure to connect the development to existing networks. Motor vehicle use and car parking should be effectively managed within the development. This makes active travel more attractive and convenient for people whilst reducing car dependency. Reduced car use creates streets and public places designed for people that are attractive, encourage community interaction and improve safety.

The UK Government’s white paper fails to take this opportunity in England and more needs to be done to improve planning standards for new developments that enable sustainable transport.

Our policy position on integrating housing growth and sustainable transport

With the population of the UK expected to rise by 10 million over the next 25 years[2], pressure upon transport networks will rise. In urban areas, there is no additional space for roads and therefore walking, cycling and public transport offers the only solution to manage congestion and increase transport efficiency.

Our recent policy position on integrating housing growth and planning with sustainable transport recognises some critical needs, if we are to get this right:

  • Better integrate housing growth, transport and health within local authorities
  • Build within or adjacent to existing towns and cities or nearby commuter hubs wherever possible
  • Design and account for walking and cycling in new developments
  • Enable communities to play a role in the planning process
  • Connect new developments to existing cycling and walking networks
  • Secure investment and support for cycling and walking

[1] Kenworthy and Laube (1999) Patterns of automobile dependence in cities: an international overview of key physical and economic dimensions with some implications for urban policy. Transportation Research Part A 33 691-723.

[2] ONS (2015) National Population Projections: 2014-based statistical projection.