By Cara Jenkinson, Senior UK Programme Officer

Cities and their surrounds bear the weight of expectation in delivering hundreds of thousands of new affordable homes, and in achieving rapid decarbonisation. With the pressure to reach UK government house-building targets, how can we make sure that cities deliver high quality homes that are well-integrated with low-carbon transport and services?

At Ashden we believe that the new metro mayoral city regions offer an exciting opportunity for environmental leadership, and that their strategic planning powers could play an important role in securing more sustainable and liveable cities.  To explore this further, we held a lively Ashden After Work debate on 8th May to consider the question: Is planning the secret weapon in making our cities more sustainable?  We were joined by policy makers, funders, sustainability experts and Ashden winners.

Planners – friend or foe?

Shaun Spiers, Executive Director of Green Alliance and author of ‘How to build houses and save the countryside’ made a robust case for the importance of planners, despite concerted efforts to devalue their role over many years.  One of the biggest challenges for planners has been about who can build homes; housebuilding has become dominated by a small number of large private developers and building by the state has come to a virtual standstill.  This, combined with the pressure to set and deliver ambitious targets for new homes, leaves planners by far the weaker party in negotiations with developers. This results in compromise on quality, energy efficiency standards and connections to sustainable transport.  

However, according to Shaun, there is now some cause for optimism.  There is a growing consensus that the state needs to take a more active role in delivering good quality housing at scale, witnessed by the recent appointment of Tony Lloyd, ex-Policy Director at Shelter as advisor to number 10, and moves to allow councils to create development corporations.  This will allow planners to take a more strategic role, with more influence over regeneration, urban expansion and the communities that they create.

As to the city regions, Shaun thinks they offer real potential for visionary planning. Many consider a ‘larger than local’ approach to planning as key to taking a holistic approach to economic development, transport, energy infrastructure and housing, and the strategic plans that metro mayors will develop allow for this. Their scale and, hopefully, the desirability of building in their city regions, will also enable them to set higher expectations of quality and sustainability. This can be as much about using their soft power as regulation.  Already some of the city regions are leading the way, whether it is Manchester with their emphasis on place-making, Cambridgeshire’s sustainable housing design guide, or Birmingham’s work on sustainable travel.

What does good practice look like?

Attendees also heard from Nicole Lazarus, who is Oxfordshire programme manager at Bioregional, an Ashden Award winner.  Bioregional was appointed jointly by planners and developers as ‘sustainability integrator’ for the NW Bicester new town and Nicole gave an excellent insight into the practicalities of delivering sustainable urban expansion.  NW Bicester has had a number of monikers since the project started, following the policy whims of different UK governments – first as an ‘eco-town’, then as part of a ‘garden city’ and now as part of a ‘healthy new town’.  But key to its success throughout has been adherence to the Eco-town Planning Policy Standard (PPS), which was drawn up by the then Communities and Local Government department in 2009, advised by Bioregional and others. Although now obsolete, as the concept of eco-towns has fallen out of fashion, developers and the local authority both fought to keep the PPS as the guiding document for their development, due to the clarity of expectation that it provided.

NW Bicester Primary School

The PPS addresses all aspects of development, requiring net zero carbon emissions from energy use of buildings, walkable neighbourhoods, high water efficiency, zero waste to landfill and net biodiversity gain. The standard is based on an integrated approach which requires mixed use development, so that commuting journeys are minimised, green infrastructure, so that everyone has access to places to exercise, and strong community governance, so that decisions are taken locally.

NW Bicester will eventually have 6,000 homes, with 180 homes and a new zero-carbon primary school built so far.  Nicole reported that houses in the new town are selling faster than those outside the area.  The project has also catalysed sustainability activities across the existing town, and beyond.

So, what were the critical factors for the project’s success? First, the certainty around standards for developers, which the PPS provided.  Second, robust monitoring is essential and should be set as a planning condition, as there can be gaps between actual and designed performance.  Third, the key role of a sustainability champion who can work collaboratively with planners and developers to interpret and solve sustainability challenges.

Ashden’s cities programme has recently launched and we’ll be working with sustainability and cabinet leads from the metro mayoral city regions.  This network will be a means of sharing experience and developing new approaches to energy, housing and transport challenges. We’ll be showcasing the solutions that Ashden winners can offer, whether it be in sustainable urban planning, low carbon building, or encouraging modal shift in transport, encouraging and supporting the change that we need to see in cities as we shift to a low carbon future. 

To register for our Ashden After Work network events or to find out more about our cities work please contact:

Faye Scott, UK policy and research manager, faye.scott@ashden.org

Simon Brammer, UK programme manager, on simon.brammer@sfct.org.uk

Cara Jenkinson, Senior UK programme officer, on cara.jenkinson@ashden.org