Planning Green – How does our current planning system work?
With urban intensification the challenge, for all involved – to deliver carefully balanced high-quality places, in a manner which does not repeat the errors of previous generations – grows. Having spent the last 20+ year’s guiding projects across London, I am all too familiar with the approach taken by many of our Borough’s and the GLA to guide urban development and the green infrastructure within and around it. But it wasn’t until a recent comprehensive review of the standards and sources of some of these ‘rules’, that I have begun to appreciate the complexity of layers inherent. Nevermind the at times, arbitrary nature of so much of our guidance.
My exam question for Greenkeeper, was ‘What is guiding the decisions our Local Authorities, Borough’s, County Council’s and regional authorities take on the type, location and quantum of urban greenspace?’.
At a national level the NPPF and NPPG encourage a diversity of provision, but it is at a local level, that need and therefore quantum and location of provision must become more overt, largely based on the quantum standards and typologies of space set out by the Fields in Trust (some 75% of Local Authorities have adopted these standards nationwide) that specify a series of minimum open space requirements for every dwelling or by mix of accommodation proposed. All well and good, but the standards are based on 1930’s urban planning, and despite an update in 2015, are they really something we can apply in cities such as Birmingham and Glasgow? Do brownfield urban regeneration schemes maximise the benefit of open space by slavishly adhering to the 2.4ha of accessible green space per 1,000 people standard?
In London, although these standards are still present, we have an additional layer of both intelligence and subsequent regional guidance delivered through the Greater London Authority, which encourages Borough’s to consider life beyond their boundaries and seeks to offer some more considered guidance on quality, location and the wider network of greenspaces across the city. But, as a general rule, all guidance we found informing our planning process, across the UK, is expressed as a series of minimum quantum standards and typologies of open space required per dwelling or by mix. As such, spatial standards rule. Yes quality is alluded to and ‘required’, but it seems to me that this this often basic, formulaic application of ’standards’ can be readily misunderstood by members and the wider community. Any deviation from these explicit, measurable standards is deemed a ‘departure from policy’ with little regard for or ability to apply a qualitative assessment of any sort. Beyond the Local Authority standards, we have a further layer of advice or guidance form the likes of Sport England and Natural England. Although helpful in questioning and driving quality and diversity each of these greenspace assessment tools will invariably have a bias inherent, due to their author – Completely understandable but are they therefore able to consider and balance the opportunities and challenge of urban greenspace in the round?
There are however some very good aspects to pull out form the work done so far, the best bits of the assessment tools which already exist and what they are trying to achieve are already being picked up in our tool development. But what can any additional tool add to this landscape (pardon the pun) of legislation? My fear on first securing the Innovate UK grant to develop this tool, was that we might simply add another hoop to jump through, without actually aiding us in considering and measuring quality. This must be avoided.
The conversation continues, but I am confident that if we can move the discussion beyond policy (as one of our pilot team pointed out ‘loads of policy words don’t add up to good green space!’) to provide a tool which can offer a comprehensive, reliable evidence base that informs discussion and understanding, we are taking a significant step forward. In our cities, quantum is getting harder and harder to achieve so we need to work harder on quality and this is where our tool can plug a gap.
Author: Iain Painting