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Building connected communities

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2018

Andrew Walker, policy researcher at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), argues councils must be supported to develop good connectivity that goes beyond building new infrastructure.

The push to build more houses is important, and this year’s Autumn Budget revealed some outlines of how the government will seek to make this happen. But it is vital that we focus on quality as well as numbers. We have to build good places for people to live, which are well-connected and encourage residents to walk and spend time outside. This means that there is a vital role for councils and planning departments to play in particular. They need the resources and support, as well as the skills and policies, in place locally to shape and design places.

LGiU’s new research, in partnership with the Ramblers, has found that nearly all councils try to prioritise walking infrastructure and connectivity in new developments built in their areas, but many feel that developers are a barrier to achieving that.

For ‘Building Connected Communities’ we surveyed 118 officers from local authorities across England, and found that 89% say walking access is a key consideration for their council, while 94% have a Local Plan in place that encourages walking and active travel. However, only 49% felt developers share the same priorities.

While housing has shot up the political agenda in the last year with the government’s call for a rebirth of housebuilding, our report found four out of 10 councils say they have experienced difficulty meeting their walking and active travel priorities when delivering large developments. And, while most developments over the past five years were in line with targets, around 10% were seen as not in line with health and wellbeing strategies.

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of LGiU, said that “with all the emphasis on the government’s plans to deliver a rebirth of housebuilding, it is increasingly important that we have a conversation about the places that we build, not just the numbers of homes we deliver. We need to ensure good connectivity, not just a large quantity of buildings. We need places for people to live healthy, happy, active lives. This means they need to be well-connected, with good access to walking, cycling and green infrastructure.”

Despite this, councils regularly experience challenges in making this happen. Eight out of 10 councils surveyed felt viability assessments make it difficult to meet priorities, while seven out of 10 felt influencing developers was a challenge. The lack of resources in planning departments was also highlighted as a barrier by half of respondents.

While there are encouraging signs that councils are active in this area, there is a lot more to be done to overcome the challenges. The key is to find ways to make walking the easiest and most appealing option for getting around. 

But the issue goes beyond planning itself. It encompasses a whole range of council activity and departments. Highways, parks, public health, housing and regeneration all have a crucial role to play. Case studies in Gateshead, Tamworth and Preston illustrate some of the ways that councils could seek to make progress in improving walking connectivity through new developments.

Councils should have strong policies in place to require connectivity. It is important that it is required, more than just suggested or recommended. They should also seek to improve their strategic engagement with developers and have dialogue as early as possible to establish their expectations.

There are certainly challenges associated with increasing development on the scale required. But with right approach and the right tools in place, there are also huge opportunities for improving the public realm.

Top Image: mammuth




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