Is anything more important to us than our health and wellbeing? How happy we are and how long we’re going to live for? How healthy our children are?
So what makes us healthy and happy?
The answer to that is a very personal one, but there’s no doubt that the environment we live in - and the way we move around - plays a huge part. Being physically active when going about our daily lives. Breathing in clean air. Just two key factors which will help us – and future generations – live longer and be healthier.
And what increases our wellbeing?
More attractive, accessible and people-friendly streets. Good social interaction. Green spaces, parks and recreation grounds, trees, nature and other wildlife. Being part of a strong neighbourhood with a mix of homes, schools, jobs, local facilities and amenities close by, encouraging us to walk or cycle more. All this contributes to making our cities and urban areas more ‘liveable’.
Politicians around the world are starting to deliver more liveable cities. In England, much more political leadership and funding is needed from central government, although some progress has been made with the recently published Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy with the stated objective of doubling cycling activity by 2025 and reversing the decline in walking.
Significantly, the government now recognises that this will lead to substantial benefits for people, for business and for society as a whole.
The good news is that legal powers are also moving away from central government and are being passed to city regions and politicians who are directly accountable to us within these regions. Devolution is bringing decision-making closer to home.
London leads the way
We’ve seen it happen in London, with a directly-elected Mayor since 2000 and Sadiq Khan in post since May 2016. His new vision for London and his recent policy announcements have shown his ambition to make London a more liveable city, with healthy streets and public spaces, clean air and priority given to walking, cycling and public transport over the private car.
He is also committed to establishing London as a national park city, protecting green space, creating wildlife corridors and major tree planting. This is a huge opportunity for London and reflects the Mayor’s statutory duty (under the Greater London Authority Act 1999) to promote improvements in the ‘health’ of people in Greater London, together with the reduction of health inequalities.
The Mayor has a legal duty to produce a ‘spatial development strategy’ - the London Plan - to provide an overarching strategic planning policy framework for the future growth and development of the city. The Mayor must also publish a Mayoral Transport Strategy (MTS) setting out a transport vision for London. He can set up Mayoral Development Corporations, such as the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation which has responsibility for the multi-billion pound regeneration of Old Oak Common in west London, linking to HS2 and Crossrail.
These Mayoral duties and powers are important because land use planning and transport policy has a critical role to play in delivering liveable places.
Legally, planning decisions must accord with relevant planning policies in the statutory ‘development plan’ unless material considerations indicate otherwise. In the Capital this includes the London Plan; and borough Local and Neighbourhood Plans must be in ‘general conformity with’ its policies, creating a vital ‘trickle down’ or cascading effect London-wide.
The Mayor’s stated aim is to ‘embed’ his new vision in planning and transport policies from the outset. The Greater London Authority has begun work on a new London Plan, with a draft for consultation likely to be published this autumn. The new MTS will be also published this year.
And as of 4 May 2017, we have directly-elected Mayors in six regions across England: Greater Manchester, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands and the West of England. Cornwall is also taking forward a devolution deal, with no directly-elected mayor.
Powers, budgets and responsibilities have passed from central government to these more locally accountable politicians. All the directly-elected Mayors will be responsible for producing a Local Transport Plan for their areas, including details of how air pollution will be tackled.
Like the London Mayor, some will also be responsible for preparing spatial development strategies, setting out a vision for the development of the whole area which they represent.
Crucially, the Local Plans of individual councils will have to ensure that they ‘fit’ with these strategic plans. And powers have been granted to set up Mayoral Development Corporations in certain circumstances, with powers to acquire and develop land to deliver regeneration and economic development.
So what should we be asking our directly-elected Mayors to do with their new powers?
1. We can ask for our neighbourhoods, streets and public spaces to be attractive, well designed, safe and accessible for all.
2. We can make it clear that our green spaces, trees and wildlife are extremely valuable assets and should be protected.
3. We can ask for Clean Air Action Plans to be implemented.
4. We can also ask for the Mayors to support a new ‘Clean Air Act’ to ensure a joined up approach to air pollution across the country.
5. And as in London, we can ask for walking, cycling and the use of public transport to be prioritised over the private car.
5. We can ask for big improvements to our public transport systems which connect us to other people and places, building physical activity into multi-modal journeys with attractive walking and cycling links.
6. And we should ask for the opportunity to live in or close to centres that have a mix of uses which bring our neighbourhoods to life, with jobs, schools and services a short distance from where we live.
That’s how we can help to shape our own communities and environment, and make them more liveable. How we can make a real difference to our long term health and happiness.
And at this early stage there is huge potential for us to influence the Mayors’ approach to these issues.
So let’s take this opportunity now to ask our new Mayors to take action, to deliver the kind of cities and urban areas that we really want to live in.