Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

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Getting to grips with planning law and with neighbourhood planning … New books in our library

Anyone who reads our blog will know that our research team care about supporting the use of evidence in practice, whether that’s in social services, in housing, or in planning. And one of the unique resources we have to help do this is our very own library!

Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in the library collection, as well as hundreds of different journal titles. Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the organisational membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

While quick reads – such as the briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, there’s still a place for real books. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal development or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.

Supporting professional CPD

We’re regularly adding new books to our collection and two that caught my eye recently are in the field of planning. We’ve a lot of members who work in planning across the UK, including the RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute) themselves, and as a profession, planners commit to maintain and develop their expertise through Continuing Professional Development.

Using our book loan service is one way that our members can access new publications and stay up-to-date with current thinking in their sector.

  • Localism and Neighbourhood Planning

Neighbourhood planning was one of the rights and powers introduced under the Localism Act of 2011, and was expected to offer ” a new way for communities to decide the future of the places where they live and work”. Six years on, a new book edited by Sue Bronhill and Quintin Bradley, reflects on whether neighbourhood planning has succeeded in increasing democratic engagement with the planning system.

In particular it examines how localism has played out in practice, especially given the legal and technical skills that are required in planning. As well as exploring the situation in England, the book also looks at how multi-level governance is being applied in the other parts of the UK and in countries such as Australia and France.

It raises interesting questions about whether neighbourhood planning has changed the institutional structure of planning and the power relations involved. It also asks whether an even more progressive form of localism within planning might emerge.

  • Essential Guide to Planning Law

With the planning systems and law devolved within the UK, a book which provides an overview of how practice differs in each nation is much needed. This book covers all the core areas, from development management, planning conditions, planning control and enforcement. It also addresses the planning arrangements in specialist areas such as minerals planning, waste planning and marine planning.

The book serves as a useful reminder of how and why planning decisions are made, and the legal frameworks that underpin planning practice.

The Idox Information Service

As Dr Mike Harris, Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, has said, it’s important that the planning profession is able to access and use evidence and research.

“Research and theory can help to lift the perspective of practitioners beyond the day-to-day demands of the job, to provoke reflection and discussion about the wider social purposes and values of planning. It can also help us better to defend planning from those who would seek to erode it further.”


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.

Idox sponsors RTPI Research Excellence Awards

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2017.

The awards are intended to recognise the best spatial planning research from the Royal Town Planning Institute’s accredited planning schools, and to highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice. In addition, the awards recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research and promote planning research generally.

Submitted research and its potential implications for planning policy and practice can relate to anywhere in the world (not just the UK and Ireland).  The five award categories are:

  • Academic Award
  • Early Career Researcher Award
  • Student Award
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement
  • Planning Consultancy Award

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. Here at the Idox Information Service, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence, and we are proud to be playing a part in these awards to promote academic, researcher and student excellence in this area.

This is the third time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. In 2015, and we sponsored the Student Award, won by Emma Thorpe, a student in the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University. Idox also sponsored the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement Award, won by Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Paul went on to write a guest blog post for us describing his innovative project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

Last year, Idox again sponsored the Student Award, which was won by Adam van Heerden, of the University of Cape Town, for his research engaging with a marginalised group – the ‘Skarrelers’ in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – who survive on the margins of prime urban spaces by either selling or re-using discarded waste material with value.

The Wider Engagement award was won by Place Alliance – a national movement campaigning for high quality places. In addition, we sponsored the 2016 Planning Consultancy award, which was won by Ryden (lead consultants) along with WSP and Brodies, who delivered the Planning for Infrastructure Research Report for the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland.

In 2017, Idox is pleased once again to be sponsoring the Student, Wider Engagement and Planning Consultancy awards.

Further details on the five award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available here. The closing date for applications to the awards is 19 May 2017. The finalists will be announced on 24 July, with the winners being named at an awards ceremony in Belfast City Hall on 12 September.


The Idox Information Service is the first port of call for information and knowledge on public and social policy and practice. For 40 years the service has been saving its members time and money, and helping them to make more informed decisions, improve frontline services and understand the policy environment.

For more information see: http://informationservice.idoxgroup.com

In partnership with RTPI, the Idox Information Service has introduced an individual membership offer, which provides a 30% discount on the normal price.

Destination stations: the role of railways in regeneration

King’s Cross Station, London © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

From Roman roads, to Victorian ‘cathedrals of steam’, transport has played a pivotal role in the development of societies and economies throughout history.

Today, rising energy prices, road congestion, and climate change, as well as reduced household sizes and an increased demand for urban living have put the potential benefits of urban transport hubs back in the spotlight.

Transit-orientated development

Transit-orientated development (TOD) is one response. An American-concept, it involves the creation of high-density mixed-use developments around a transit station or stop, such as a railway station, usually within a half-mile radius (a 10-minute walk approximately).  It may include office space, retail, leisure facilities and housing, as well as public areas and green space, and a variety of public transport options.

The aim is to create attractive, diverse, walkable places.  TOD can also help to significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

Stations as ‘destinations’

In Europe, TOD has yet to ‘catch on’. However, it shares many similar principles with the increasingly popular concept of developing railway stations as destinations in their own right – for shopping, working and socialising.  Railways often form an important part of a town or city centre, and the combination of transport node and central location has the potential to attract people in great numbers.

The redevelopment of London King’s Cross station and the surrounding industrial wasteland made it one of the first ‘destination stations’ in the UK.  Around the station, new homes, shops, offices, galleries, bars, restaurants, a hotel, schools and a university were created, along with 20 new streets, 10 new public parks and squares, and 26 acres of open space.  In fact, the redevelopment was on such a scale that the area now has its own postcode – N1C.

Some other key examples of newly developed ‘destination stations’ in the UK include Manchester Victoria Station and Birmingham New Street Station. Network Rail last year stated that they intend to create many more such ‘destination stations’.

Economic and social benefits

As well as environmental benefits such as reduced air pollution and traffic congestion, mixed-use developments in and around railway stations can help meet housing demand, and spur the economic and social regeneration of their surrounding communities.  Particular benefits can include:

  • Improved passenger experience/satisfaction
  • Attracting more businesses into an area
  • Improving the supply of labour for businesses
  • New job creation
  • Increased demand for food, retail and leisure facilities from greater numbers of commuters, residents and workers
  • Helping high streets to compete with online retailers and out of town developments
  • Contributing to public health goals through increased walkability of areas
  • Making good use of previously inaccessible/waste land

Government support

There is strong government support for delivering improvements around railway stations.

The recent Housing white paper recognises the regenerative potential of railway stations, viewing them as key anchors for the next generation of urban housing developments.

Two new sources of funding for railway station developments have also recently been announced: the second round of the New Stations Fund – a £20 million pot to build new stations or reopen previously closed stations; and the Station Regeneration programme – which aims to develop railway stations and surrounding land, while delivering up to 10,000 new homes.

Alongside this, there are also plans to release large amounts of unused railway land for housing – enough to build 12,000 houses across 200 sites.

Large and small

In addition to developments focused around one particular station or city, there are also a number of major railway-based infrastructure projects currently taking place.  Among these are the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (including recently approved plans to redevelop Glasgow Queen Street station), Great Western Electrification, Crossrail and HS2.  All of these have the potential to catalyse regeneration in their surrounding areas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also a number of successful smaller scale regeneration projects involving railways.

Addressing the challenges

The development of railway sites can pose a number of challenges, including contaminated land, fragmented land ownership and reconciling short-term economic development goals with the longer time scales necessary in larger infrastructure projects.

However, according to James Harris, a policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute, planners are ‘uniquely’ placed to work with landowners, infrastructure providers, developers and the local community to help deliver a strategic vision for these locations.

Planners should also be flexible and creative in their approach towards station redevelopments, focusing on outcomes rather than processes, says David Crook, assistant director of station regeneration at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Cities and Local Growth Unit.  In doing so, he says, planners can help make a station regeneration project ‘more than the sum of its parts’.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in our blog post ‘Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?

Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Helping people with dementia to live well through good urban design

Earlier this year, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published their first practice note on how good planning can play a stronger role in the creation of better environments for people living with dementia.

It summarises good practice guidance from Oxford Brookes University, the Alzheimer’s Society and the Scottish Government, among others.

Living with dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently around 850,000 people living with some form of dementia in the UK.  Although the risk of developing dementia increases with age, it is not just a disease of the elderly.  There are currently around 40,000 people with dementia in the UK under the age of 65.

The vast majority of cases of dementia cannot be cured. However, there is a lot that can be done to enable someone with dementia to live well with the condition. Many people with dementia can continue lead active, healthy lives for years after diagnosis.  Even most elderly people with mild to moderate dementia can continue to live in their own homes.

The importance of good urban design

Evidence has shown that well-planned, enabling environments can have a substantial impact on the quality of life of someone living with dementia and their ability to retain their independence for longer.

For example, being within easy walking distance of shops and other local amenities can help people with dementia to remain physically active and encourages social interaction.

Having access to green space and nature also has particular benefits, including better mood, memory and communication and improved concentration.

Key characteristics of a dementia-friendly environment

Drawing on the principles set out in ‘Neighbourhoods for Life’, the RTPI advises that urban environments should be:

  • Familiar – functions of places and buildings made obvious, any changes are small scale and incremental;
  • Legible – a hierarchy of street types, which are short and fairly narrow. Clear signage;
  • Distinctive – including a variety of landmarks and a variety of practical features, e.g. trees and street furniture;
  • Accessible – access to amenities such as shops, doctor’s, post offices and banks within easy, safe and comfortable walking distances (5-10 minutes). Obvious, easy to use entrances that conform to disabled access regulations;
  • Comfortable – open space is well defined with public toilets, seating, shelter and good lighting. Background and traffic noise minimised through planting and fencing. Minimal street clutter;
  • Safe – wide, flat and non-slip footpaths, avoid creating dark shadows or bright glare.

Dementia-friendly communities

In addition to specific guidance on how to improve the urban environment, the RTPI practice note also highlights the crucial role of planners in the creation of ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’.

This is a recognition process, which publicly acknowledges communities for their work towards becoming dementia friendly.  It aims to involve the entire community, from local authorities and health boards to local shops, in the creation of communities that support the needs of people with dementia.

There are 10 key areas of focus.  Those particularly relevant to planning include:

  • shaping communities around the needs and aspirations of people with dementia;
  • the provision of accessible community activities;
  • supporting people to live in their own home for longer;
  • the provision of consistent and reliable transport options; and
  • ensuring the physical environment is accessible and easy to navigate.

There are currently over 200 communities across the UK working towards recognition as dementia-friendly.  Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project are two such examples.

Local government policy

By 2025, it is estimated that the number of people diagnosed with dementia will rise to over one million.  Significant under diagnosis means that the number of people who experience dementia may be even higher.

However, the RTPI report that at present few local authorities have made explicit reference to dementia in their adopted local plans.

Worcestershire County Council and Plymouth City Council are notable exceptions:

  • Plymouth have set out their ambition to become a ‘dementia friendly city’ in its current local plan; and
  • Worcestershire are currently developing a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document that covers age-friendly environments and dementia.

A beneficial environment for all

While these are important first steps towards the greater recognition of the role of planning in supporting people with dementia, it is imperative that planning explicitly for dementia becomes the rule, rather than the exception.

Not only will this benefit people with dementia and reduce healthcare costs, it may also benefit the wider community, including young families, people with disabilities, and older people.

As the RTPI rightly state, “environments that are easy for people to access, understand, use and enjoy are beneficial to everyone, not just older people with dementia.”


Latest developments in Scottish Planning and Environmental Law

spel-179Moves to transform the Scottish planning system continue to progress slowly, with a new consultation published on 10 January 2017 by the Scottish Government focused on 20 proposals for improving the system. This follows in the wake of May 2016’s independent report ‘Empowering planning to deliver great places’, and despite the fact that a number of the “immediate actions” identified by the Government in its response to the review, are still to be completed.

The latest issue of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal contains reaction to the consultation paper from stakeholders and also considers how the main proposals in the consultation align with the provisions of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997. The consultation closes 4 April 2017.

Case law update and commentary

The February 2017 issue also includes articles focusing on:

  • The reduced recognition of planning within the Scottish economic policy environment, as reflected in the outputs of the Council of Economic Advisers
  • Freedom of Information and Registered Social Landlords
  • Scottish Government proposals to raise planning fees
  • The UK Government’s new Industrial Strategy and land-use planning
  • Amendments to the CAR Regulations – Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011/209
  • Prematurity and a ‘plan-led’ system, as seen in the appeal decision for Taylor Wimpey UK Ltd v The Scottish Ministers

There is also discussion of recent case law and environmental law.

Valued for over 30 years

SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) launched over 30 years ago and is one of the leading information sources on land use planning and environmental legislation across the country. The bi-monthly journal is written by a wide range of subject experts.

Every issue includes accessible commentary on topical subjects and current issues; details of new legislation and significant court cases; expert comment on key planning appeal decisions, government circulars and guidance; as well as notes about ombudsman cases and book reviews.


An annual subscription to SPEL Journal is £145. For further details or a sample copy, please contact Christine Eccleson, SPEL Journal’s Advertising Manager, on 0141 574 1920 or email christine.eccleson@Idoxgroup.com.

An Englishman’s home is his rabbit hutch? Implications of the national space standard for the building control profession

When the coalition government launched a fundamental review of England’s building regulations in 2012, it was called “the biggest change in housing standards in a generation.”  One of the review’s major outcomes was a standard that prescribes space sizes for all new-build homes, bringing the rest of England into line with London, which has had its own space standard since 2011. But a year on from its introduction, the national space standard has been branded too complex to implement and too easy to evade.

Looking back on housing space standards

Housing space specifications are not a new idea. There were prescribed floor space minimums in England’s public housing between 1967 and 1980. These were based on the recommendations of the Parker Morris Committee of 1961, which linked space to the utility of homes, rather than to expected occupancy levels (a benchmark that’s still applicable in Scotland). This standard was sidelined in the 1980s, and the focus shifted to housing delivery.

The new national standard

The government’s 2012 Housing Standards Review aimed to reduce the cost and complexity of building new homes by streamlining the large number of codes, regulations and technical housing standards applied to new housing through the planning system.

Most of the outcomes from the review (such as those affecting security, energy and accessibility) required changes to the building regulations. But when it came to the national space standard, the government decided there was no case for statutory regulation. Instead, the standard is optional for local authorities to adopt, subject to local plan viability testing and approval by the planning inspectorate.

The national space standard, which came into effect in October 2015, includes requirements such as:

  • A new three bed, five person home should be a minimum of 93m²
  • a one bed, one person flat should be a minimum of 37m²
  • Two-bedroom homes should have at least one double bedroom
  • A double bedroom should have minimum floor area of 11.5m²

House builders strongly disagreed with the changes, claiming the standard would reduce the number of new homes being built and increase costs. But the space standard won vociferous support from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who went on to argue that it didn’t go far enough:

“Local authorities should be able to set space standards in order to improve new build homes in their communities. However….the most effective solution would be for a national space standard to be applied through building regulations so that it applies to all homes, in every location and type of housing.”

England’s shrinking spaces

England has the smallest homes by floor space area of any EU country. In 2013, the average size of a home was 93.6m², compared to 115.5 square metres in the Netherlands and 137 square metres in Denmark.

The contrast has given rise to new family homes in England being described as “rabbit hutches” because they are not big enough to comfortably meet the needs of residents. Smaller rooms have implications for wellbeing and quality of life, creating problems for storage, preparing food and entertaining visitors. More fundamentally, smaller living spaces can have impacts on mental health and family relationships.

Fighting for space

Shortly after the introduction of the national space standard, in October 2015, RIBA claimed that administration costs, red tape and potential challenges from developers on site-specific viability grounds, made it unlikely that the standard would have any meaningful impact:

“All of these bureaucratic processes place an excessive and unnecessary burden on local authorities to justify something which the government has already recognised is sensible and fair.”

Again, RIBA called for the space standard to be included in the building regulations, and again house builders voiced their opposition. Stewart Basely of the Home Builders Federation claimed buyers were content with the size of new builds, and warned that mandatory space standards could make the housing shortage worse:

 “Imposing space standards and so restricting what builders can build takes away choice from home buyers. This would not only prevent more people from buying their own home but also exacerbate the acute shortage of housing that we have experienced over several decades.”

Space: a place for building control?

On the face of it, the national space standard is not an issue concerning building control, whose focus is on enforcing the national building regulations.  But government guidance on the internal space standard has indicated that building control surveyors may have a role to play in the approvals process:

“Building control bodies may choose to provide checking of the space standard in development proposals as an additional service alongside carrying out their building control function. In these circumstances, local planning authorities may wish to avoid further additional checking of plans with regard to space standards.”

And the national standard could yet be included in the building regulations. In a House of Lords debate on the Housing and Planning Bill in May 2016, Labour peer Lord Beecham, put forward an amendment to make the standards mandatory. His intervention followed the Labour Party’s Lyons Housing Review, which recommended that space standards should be applied nationally, but suggested that more work was needed to consider exemptions in certain markets.

Later in 2016, the government launched a review into how the space standards are operating in practice. The findings of the review will be published in the spring, and it will be interesting to see the effects of the standard, and whether RIBA’s argument for mandatory implementation has taken hold.

Building control surveyors may have their hands full, not least because of changes to the building regulations resulting from the Housing Standards Review. But it’s not out of the question that the national space standard could yet become part of their workload.

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Bike sharing schemes are now a familiar feature of the urban landscape. From Montreal to Marrakesh, London to Lublin, more than 1000 cities around the world are learning that bike sharing can play a supporting role in reducing congestion, cutting air pollution, improving citizens’ health and boosting their reputations as great places to live, work and invest in.

But not all bike sharing schemes are progressing at an equal pace. While some, such as those in Paris and London are moving into the fast lane, others are struggling to stay upright. In today’s blog, we look at how two different cities – Seattle and Dublin – are tackling bumps in the road to better bike sharing.

Seattle

In recent years, bike-sharing schemes have been springing up in cities all over the United States. Among the success stories is Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare programme, which is rapidly becoming an integral part of the city’s transportation system.

On the other side of the country, however, Seattle’s Pronto bike share scheme had a difficult birth. In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes (the comparable figure for Capital Bikeshare was one million rides). A year after its 2014 launch, Pronto became insolvent, and Seattle’s city council bailed out the scheme at a cost of $1.4 million. Last year, the council announced that Pronto would cease operations in March 2017.

Pronto’s disappointing performance has perplexed cycling enthusiasts in the city. One Seattle bike blogger observed:

“Washington, D.C. is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting.”

The factors behind the failure of Pronto have been the subject of considerable debate. Some have blamed it on compulsory helmet laws in the city, pointing out that similar rules in Melbourne also resulted in poor take-up of its bike share scheme. Others have put forward a range of theories, from poor cycling infrastructure and inadequate marketing to Seattle’s rainy climate and hilly topography. The city’s bicycle club also weighed in, arguing that the scheme’s small size, insufficient density of bike stations and prohibitive pricing structure put the brakes on what should have been a success story.

Bike sharing in Seattle may be down, but it’s not out. The city council is preparing to launch a successor to Pronto that will provide electric bikes and double the number of stations. There are still concerns that the mandatory cycle helmet rule may discourage take-up, although helmets will also be available for hire.

The council hopes the new scheme will be launched in summer 2017. It remains to be seen whether motorized cycles can kick start Seattle’s bike sharing journey.

Dublin

In contrast to Seattle, Dublin’s experience of bike sharing started off with positive results. Within seven years of its 2008 launch, the Dublinbikes scheme had 55,000 long-term subscribers and had recorded over 10 million trips. An expansion in 2013 took bike sharing stations beyond the core of the city and delivered an extra 950 bikes.

The popularity of Dublinbikes has continued to grow, but would-be users have often been frustrated by the lack of available bikes and delays in further expansions. Funding difficulties lie at the heart of the problem.

Dublin City Council contracted the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to operate the Dublinbikes scheme. In exchange, the company was given the right to advertising space at a number of locations around the city. Dublinbikes also secured sponsorship from Coca-Cola, and managed to stay in the black for its first six years. However, the scheme has been running a deficit since 2015.

The stark figures tell their own story:

  • the Dublin Bikes scheme costs €1.9m to run
  • subscriptions and usage charges generate €1.2m
  • sponsorship by Coca-Cola is €312,000

Under its contract with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council must fill the €388,000 shortfall, but the council is itself under financial pressure.  Expansion of the scheme would cost €1.2m, with a further €500,000 a year of running costs for the additional bike stations.

To fulfil its side of the Dublinbikes deal with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council proposed the placement of advertising screens in the southeast of the city. However, these plans were thrown into question in August 2016 when Ireland’s national heritage organization lodged objections. One heritage officer described the proposed screens as “nasty” “contemptible”, “tacky” and “grossly offensive”. City councillors subsequently voted against installation of the screens, leading to concerns that the costs would have to be shouldered by bike users.

In November 2016, the annual Dublinbikes fee rose by €5 to €25. That’s still lower than annual membership of London’s more extensive Santander bike share scheme (£90), but there are now concerns that the price increase will exclude people on low incomes or unemployed people, who may have found the bike share scheme more affordable than getting around by car or public transport.

Overcoming spokes in the wheel

Seattle and Dublin have experienced different problems in establishing their urban bike sharing schemes. But it’s worth remembering that Washington, DC’s early bike share scheme suffered very low use rates, while Montreal’s first attempt at bike sharing went bankrupt. Today, DC’s Capital Bikeshare is among the most admired in the world, and is contributing to cuts in congestion. Meanwhile, Bixi, which now operates Montreal’s bike share scheme, is exporting its expertise to other parts of North America.

Clearly, successful bike sharing schemes require careful planning, public participation, adequate funding and – perhaps most important of all – time to grow.

Is it time to start building on the Green Belt?

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The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, 1799

The forthcoming Housing White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government is expected to tackle the thorny issue of the Green Belt. Initially due for publication at the end of 2016, the paper has now been delayed twice, heightening speculation about its contents.

The Telegraph has suggested that councils are likely to be encouraged to make greater use of the controversial policy of ‘green belt swaps’. Green Belt swaps allow councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.  This may enable councils to better meet demand for housing.  Current planning legislation for Green Belt swaps already exists, but often fails to work in practice. Proposals are often rejected at the planning stage due to the newly identified land failing to meet Green Belt definitions. The Times indicates that the White Paper may contain a more aggressive approach towards the use of the Green Belt for housing.

Potential benefits

There is no denying the need for more housing.  In general, experts agree that a minimum of 200,000 new homes will be needed each year in order to keep up with demand.

Recent government statistics on Green Belt in England in 2015/16 estimated that it covered around 13% of the land area of England. It has been argued that development on just 1% of reclassified Green Belt would allow for almost half a million new homes to be built. However, building upon the Green Belt provokes much passionate debate.

Proponents of green belt flexibility argue that:

Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, argues that many opponents of building on the Green Belt hold a romanticised image of the nature of the land, which is not truly representative of the majority of Green Belt land.

“Of course parts of the Green Belts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Or rather, the beautiful bits to which there is public access. Such areas really need to be preserved against development. But almost all Green Belt land is privately owned, so the only access is if there are viable public rights of way.”

He goes on to suggest selective building on the least attractive parts of Green Belts, which are close to cities where people want to live.

A similar sentiment is found in the recent LSE report ‘A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt’. Dr Alan Mace, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at LSE (one of the authors of the report) concludes that:

“People often look at the Green Belt and say, ‘who would want to lose this?’ but often they’re looking at land that is protected in other ways, such as Metropolitan Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and this would not change. Some parts of the Green Belt are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally valuable and these are the areas that should be looked at for potential development.”

Potential limitations

However, Green Belt swaps are not without potential problems.  For example, Shelter has cautioned that Green Belt flexibility “could create a mini industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices”.

There is also much opposition to building on the Green Belt among the general public and environmental groups. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, is concerned that the Green Belt is being chipped away, arguing that, among its benefits, the Green Belt:

“…continues to provide impetus for urban regeneration, and makes environmental and economic sense in protecting the breathing space around our towns and cities.”

Perhaps Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, neatly describes the desire of many to protect the Green Belt when he states “The fact that it is named in the singular, although there are many green belts, indicates its status as an idea, even an ideal, as well as a place. It is part of English, if not British, national identity, protected by the shade of William Blake”.

Future policy

The government has remained tight-lipped on the contents of the White Paper, but if they do choose to include Green Belt swaps as a key feature of the paper, they will face an uphill battle in tackling public perception and reassuring environmental and conservation groups.

Reconciling these differences of opinion will not be easy.  Ensuring that there is no overall loss in the total land area and overall quality of the Green Belt will no doubt be a key step towards addressing this.


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