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Putting Places First

July 24, 2018

By Keith Mitchell

What is needed to create healthy, prosperous and sustainable communities?

The 2017 Housing White Paper explains the scale of the challenge; a challenge the Government is trying to meet by putting pressure on Local Authorities and the development industry to deliver.

There is also pressure to deliver economic growth, improved productivity and market resilience, particularly in light of Brexit. The National Infrastructure Plan and Industrial Strategy give clear indications of Government’s ambitions.

But there are legitimate concerns being raised about the effects of rapid growth which need to be considered. Recent studies have highlighted the potential for our planning system to reinforce car dominated forms of development, especially outside the main urban conurbations, and linked this to poor environmental and health outcomes for the communities the development is designed to support. Rapid growth is not necessarily good growth. We need both.

The tension between viability and ability to provide local infrastructure to support development often requires choices—and compromises—to be made. A precautionary planning process continues to rely on previous experiences to inform decisions about the future, leading to choices which fail to address emerging trends, risks or opportunities. Yet we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution in which physical, digital and biological technology are coming together to revolutionise the way we live. Our previous experiences should not be the basis for planning our future in the face of the disruptive environment we are living in.

In the world of transport and energy, we are at the start of an autonomous/electric vehicle revolution. We don’t know where this is going to lead—it will be driven by the tech companies, vehicle manufacturers, power generators and distributors, the behavioural responses of users, and policy makers—but it is highly unlikely to be the same as the last 20 years in which we have planned roads, railways, energy generation and distribution—and places—in silos. The recently published Road to Zero report from the Department of Transport, (and my colleague Scott Witchalls’ blog—The Road to Zero or The Road to Roadworks?), demonstrates how hard it is to come up with a logical, cross-sector response to these factors.

Even so, in planning, we now need to think more widely, across the issues that define places—the places that people want to live. We need to reinvent the planning process so that we put the quality of place first, and use our technical and analytical skills to assess the best way of delivering it. This is wider than simply a transport issue it affects the full gamut of technical, financial, economic, environmental, health & wellbeing, policy & political issues involved in the planning process. Not a big agenda then….

Why is this important to us? We understand that there is a big challenge to respond to the housing and growth agenda. We are concerned that the application of ‘business as usual’ solutions will not result in the best places, impacting the quality of life of the communities we are planning and designing for and the value we bring to clients we are working for. It also has a direct bearing on the pace and cost of delivery from concept to implemented scheme; lose-lose.

We are looking for win-win. We would like to use the opportunity presented by ongoing technological and behavioural changes to create better places, more effectively—at pace, with better quality of life for future communities. A good outcome for everyone if it can be done.

Today we are publishing our first Places First paper. It describes some of the issues, and the thinking that has influenced our assessment of the challenges—and opportunities facing us. We look forward to publishing more about our thinking, and some potential solutions over the next few weeks and months, and engaging with our clients and colleagues so we can gauge thoughts, reactions and ideas.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Keith Mitchell

    Keith provides strategic advice relating to major infrastructure planning and transport decarbonisation. He has worked on a wide range of national infrastructure and planning projects in the UK, as well as in the European Union and Australia.

    Contact Keith
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