The planning system has a massive impact on the city we live in. It determines how many new homes will be built, where they will be and how they will connect to our transport system. It can help to ensure our homes and buildings are healthy and pleasant spaces with plenty of access to greenspace and reduced climate change impacts. Or, if we make the wrong planning choices, it can create soul-less, bland housing which alienates people, drives mental ill-health and locks in unsustainable lifestyles.
These choices are crucial, and yet we really don’t have a choice. Either we create a pleasant, sustainable city with distinctive places which makes greener choices easier, or else we condemn future generations to a world of worsening climate change, declining mental and physical health and greater isolation.
So that’s why a council consultation which was launched at the end of January is so crucial. The City Plan 2030 “Choices” document sets out some important proposed changes to how new planning applications will be judged in the City. There is a lot in there which Green councillors warmly welcome. We’re particularly glad that, in response to a Green request, there is a question about setting high energy efficiency standards for new and refurbished buildings. In many respects, cutting climate emissions from new buildings is the easy part – it’s making existing buildings more climate-friendly which will be much more challenging.
But there are many other choices in this document which Greens are delighted to see. A major drive to design our spaces to reduce the need to travel. Ensuring that it’s a lot easier to walk, cycle or use public transport for remaining journeys. A presumption against changing family homes into short-term lets. A higher requirement for affordable housing in new developments. And, crucially, an intention to deliver the city’s future housing needs within the urban area, rather than developing in the Green belt.
Greens are particularly pleased to see that last intention. It’s essential that our future homes should be built within the bounds of the current city, to reduce the distance people need to travel to work, school or other essential destinations. But we also need to preserve the city’s green lungs, and ensure they’re not concreted over. We will be seeking to strengthen the proposals to protect the Green Belt, but we’re delighted to see it in the choices document.
We’re also very pleased to see an increased emphasis on place briefs and place plans, which seek to involve local people in creating a vision for their local neighbourhood. This is important because it’s not just the outcome, but also the process of planning which needs to change. For too long, planning has been in the hands of the ‘professionals’ – the council planners or commercial developers – and local people have been excluded from the process. That needs to change.
Our main disappointment in the Choices document is the meagre proposals for new cycling and walking paths, and the inadequate proposals for a ‘green network’ linking our parks and green spaces. What is proposed is not a network, but a series of uncoordinated fragments. Green councillors will be pushing hard to ensure the proposed active travel and green networks are genuine networks, are joined-up and comprehensive in serving the city and allowing most people to choose to walk or cycle easily.
But the document will not be strengthened unless enough people respond to ask for it to be strengthened. So please get involved. Please go along to one of the consultation events, or respond to the consultation questions. With your help, we can plan for a Greener city in 2030.