Prize-winning planners take a bow: winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence

At this week’s Planning Research Conference, hosted by Queen’s University in Belfast, the winners were announced for the 2017 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for Research Excellence.

These awards recognise the best spatial planning research from the RTPI’s accredited planning schools, and 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 in general.

Idox is proud to have supported the awards since 2015, and this year we sponsored three of the five awards.

 

Student Award

Winner:

Tangible Places for Intangible Products: The Role of Space in the Creative Digital Economy, Tech City, London

Dr Juliana Martins (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London)

Juliana’s research explores the relationship between space and creative digital production in the Shoreditch area of East London. It seeks to identify the spatial conditions that mediate and support the operation of digital industries in inner-city locations.

The prize for the winner of the Student Award is a one year subscription to the Idox Information Service and an iPad mini.

Commended:

Exploring the Potential of Technology in Enabling the Inclusive Co-Production of Space

David Corbett, University of Cape Town

 

Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement

Winner:

An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions

Dr Alasdair Rae (University of Sheffield), with Dr Garrett Nelson (Dartmouth College)

The award-winning research provides a new perspective on the functional economic geography of the United States, drawing on data from more than four million commuter flows as the basis for the identification of large-scale “megaregions”.

The prize for the winner of the Sir Peter Hall Wider Engagement Award is £350 towards one paid conference fee bursary to a practitioner or policy-focused conference.

Commended:

A Sustainable and Resilient Northern Power House: A Charrette for the North

Sue Kidd (University of Liverpool), Dr Sebastian Dembski (University of Liverpool), Dr John Sturzaker (University of Liverpool), Dr Alex Nurse (University of Liverpool), Dr Sam Hayes (University of Liverpool)

 

Planning Consultancy Award

Winner:

Start to Finish: How Quickly Do Large-Scale Housing Sites Deliver?

Rachel Clements (Lichfields)

At the heart of Rachel’s research is a recognition that the need to deliver more housing requires an understanding of the length of time it takes for sites to come forward and the rate at which they deliver homes. Rachel’s research provides wide-ranging insight and analysis on the lead-in times, planning period and delivery phases of large-scale housing sites.

The prize for the Planning Consultancy Award is one Planning Convention place and two one year’s individual memberships to the Idox Information Service.

Commended:

Retirement Living Explained

Sam Clark (University of Newcastle) and Andrew Burgess (Planning Issues Ltd), with Housing LIN and Churchill Retirement Living

 

In addition, the following award-winners were also announced:

Academic Award

Winner:

Cycle BOOM. Design for Lifelong Health and Wellbeing. Summary of Key Findings and Recommendations

Dr Tim Jones (Oxford Brookes University), Dr Ben Spencer (Oxford Brookes University), Nick Beale (Oxford Brookes University), Dr Emma Street (University of Reading), Dr Carlen Van Reekum (University of Reading), Dr Louise-Ann Leyland (University of Reading), Dr Kiron Chatterjee (University of West of England), Dr Heather Jones (University of West of England), Dr Justin Spinney (Cardiff University), Carl Mann (Cardiff University), Shaun Williams (Cardiff University)

Early Career Researcher Award

Winner:

Neighbourhood Cohesion under the Influx of Migrants in Shanghai

Dr Zheng Wang (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London), with Dr Fangzhu Zhang (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London), Professor Fulong Wu (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London)


The full list of finalists in this year’s awards is available on the RTPI website, and information on past entries and winners is also available.

In this 2016 blog post, Dr Paul Cowie, whose Town Meeting project won the 2015 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, reflects on the impact of winning an RTPI Award for Research Excellence.

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.

Countdown to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence

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. So we are proud once again to be playing a part in the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

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.

Shortlisted entries

Earlier this month, the shortlist for the 2017 awards was announced. The shortlisted entries for the awards supported by the Idox Information Service are:

Student Award

 

  • Exploring the Potential of Technology in Enabling the Inclusive Co-Production of Space

David Corbett (University of Cape Town)

  • The Impact of Land Ownership Patterns on Delivery of New Housing in Brighton and Hove

Amy Kennedy (University of Brighton)

  • The Impact of Housing Related Welfare Reforms on the Enactment of Front-line Housing Practices

Nathan Makwana (University of Sheffield)

  • Tangible Places for Intangible Products: The Role of Space in the Creative Digital Economy, Tech City, London

Dr Juliana Martins (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London)


Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement

 

  • A Sustainable and Resilient Northern Power House: A Charrette for the North

Sue Kidd (University of Liverpool), Dr Sebastian Dembski (University of Liverpool), Dr John Sturzaker (University of Liverpool), Dr Alex Nurse (University of Liverpool), Dr Sam Hayes (University of Liverpool)

  • An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions

Dr Alasdair Rae (University of Sheffield), with Dr Garrett Nelson (Dartmouth College)


Planning Consultancy Award

 

  • Start to Finish: How Quickly Do Large-Scale Housing Sites Deliver?

Rachel Clements (Lichfields)

  • Night Blight: Mapping England’s Light Pollution and Dark Skies

Diana Manson (Land Use Consultants), Chris Green (Land Use Consultants), Emma Marrington (Campaign to Protect Rural England)

  • Retirement Living Explained

Sam Clark (University of Newcastle) and Andrew Burgess (Planning Issues Ltd), with Housing LIN and Churchill Retirement Living

The shortlist is available on the RTPI website. The winners and runners-up will be announced on 12 September during the 2017 UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference at Queen’s University Belfast.

This is the third time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. Information about previous award-winners can be found here.

In this 2016 blog post, Dr Paul Cowie, whose Town Meeting project won the 2015 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, reflects on the impact of winning an RTPI Award for Research Excellence.


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.

 

Accelerated development: do Simplified Planning Zones work?

The Hillington Park SPZ has accelerated a number of developments, including a “motorbike village”.

by Donna Gardiner

A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.

Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.

However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept.  As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.

In their most recent position statement, they state:

Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal

Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.

There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland.  In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.

At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park.  The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”

Viability

So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s?  In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:

  • removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
  • faster decision making and accelerated development
  • greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
  • simplified planning control
  • reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
  • saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
  • offers more flexibility than a masterplan
  • attracts investment
  • can help to promote the reuse of existing space

However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street.  They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:

Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington

In 2014, the first SPZ in Scotland in 20 years – the Hillington Park SPZ – was established by a partnership between Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.

The SPZ is valid for 10 years.  So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment.  Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.

Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”

Case study: Renfrew Town Centre

Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres.  Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.

According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Challenges

However, SPZs are not without their challenges.  These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme.  There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years).  It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.

Future directions

In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.

SPEL Conference 2017 open for bookings

We’re pleased to announce that this year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on Thursday 21 September in Edinburgh, and we already have a great lineup of speakers confirmed.

This conference remains the flagship conference in this field, reflecting our commitment to supporting knowledge sharing and excellence within the built environment professions.

The last year has witnessed many developments which impact on the planning system and the conference will provide a space for the planning and environmental law community to discuss and debate these.

Key topics

Moves to reform the planning system continue, with a Planning Bill now expected to come before Parliament in Winter 2017. The publication in June of a Position Statement from the Scottish Government indicates their future priorities for the planning system in Scotland.

Planning Minister Kevin Stewart recently said that “I firmly believe Scotland’s planners can lead the delivery of great places, empower communities and provide a stable environment for investment through the uncertain times we live in.” However new skills, knowledge and behaviours will be required to make the ‘new planning system’ successful.

Added to this the uncertainties around Brexit, especially the possible impact on environmental legislation, and it is clear that significant changes are likely to affect the sector.

The SPEL Conference will be addressing key issues of infrastructure development, housing supply and energy strategy, as well as planning and environmental legislation.

As usual we’ll also be reflecting on recent case law and considering how it relates to daily practice. The conference is an excellent opportunity for solicitors and planners to refresh their knowledge of recent changes in planning and environmental law, as well as providing time for quality networking.

Conference programme

The programme features a broad range of speakers, bringing perspectives from the private sector, local government planning, academia and central government to bear on the issues.

Confirmed key speakers include:

  • Professor David Adams, Ian Mactaggart Chair of Property & Urban Studies, University of Glasgow
  • Dr John Boyle, Director Research & Strategy, Rettie & Co
  • Fraser Carlin, Head of Planning and Housing, Renfrewshire Council
  • Greg Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning, Ulster University
  • Ross Martin, former Chief Executive, Scottish Council for Development and Industry
  • Pauline Mills, Land & Planning Director, Taylor Wimpey
  • Mark Mohammed, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Alasdair Sutherland, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Robert Sutherland, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Laura Tainsh, Partner, Davidson Chalmers
  • Ian Turner, Community Empowerment Team Leader, Scottish Government
  • Rt. Hon. Brian Wilson, former UK Energy Minister, Chairman Harris Tweeds Hebrides

We’re also delighted that Stuart Gale, QC, will be chairing the conference for us.

If you’re interested in planning or environmental law in Scotland then SPEL Conference 2017 is the perfect chance to hear about the latest developments and network with others.


The 2017 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on 21 September at the COSLA Conference Centre, Edinburgh.

The full conference programme and booking form are available here.

The conference is supported by Terra Firma Chambers.

It’s a kind of magic: how green infrastructure is changing landscapes and lives

Daisies in Victoria Park sent in by Fiona Ann Patterson

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

The greatest change happening to the face of our planet is the rapid growth of urban areas. Every ten years, an area the size of Britain is colonised by urban development, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This urban growth is already having a profound impact: while cities occupy 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 75% of the Earth’s natural resources and produce 75% of global CO2 emissions.

Last month’s Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) forum in Edinburgh explored how green infrastructure projects can help cities and towns repair the damage of urbanisation, while making urban areas more healthy and prosperous places for the people who live there.

The importance of green infrastructure

Green infrastructure includes elements such as parks and gardens, woodland and wetlands, canals and cycle paths. It’s a natural life support system that can play a key role in helping urban areas adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Three projects showcased at the CSGN forum admirably demonstrated how green infrastructure can benefit the environment, the economy, large cities and local communities.

Milan: building forests in the sky
Francesca Cesa Bianci, senior architect at Stefano Boeri Architects in Milan described a ground-breaking project in her city, called Bosco Verticale – the Vertical Forest.

She explained that, while urban growth cannot be stopped, it is possible to build cities more in harmony with nature. The Vertical Forest project is a response to this challenge.

Almost 800 trees and 5000 shrubs have been planted on the balconies of two residential towers built on a brownfield site in central Milan. The result is visually striking, but even more outstanding is the greenery’s environmental impact. The two towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 per year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced and the buildings now provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.

The Bosco Verticale idea is now spreading beyond Italy, with similar projects in Albania, Switzerland and China. Some municipalities in China are also exploring the idea of entire cities composed of vertical forests – which could bring significant benefits to urban areas where air pollution is a hidden killer.

Belfast: telling a different story

East Belfast is an area of multiple deprivation, with some of the worst levels of physical and mental health in Europe, low educational attainment and a deprived physical environment. The 2014 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland warned readers that it was “inadvisable” to visit the area.

That scenario is now changing, thanks largely to a green infrastructure project. Wendy Langham, Programme Manager for the EastSide Partnership, outlined to the CSGN forum how the Connswater Community Greenway  (CCG) is changing lives and changing the way people think about the area.

Wiggle-8713

Connswater Community Greenway Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast

Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Executive, two major phases of development have created a 9km linear park with 16km of walking and cycling routes, 30 new or improved bridges crossing over three rivers, and works to deliver elements of Belfast’s Flood Alleviation scheme and improve water quality.

An ongoing assessment of the project has estimated the potential economic return of the CCG to be up to 14 times the investment. The flood alleviation investment of £11.7m has saved an estimated £54.7m.

The study also highlighted the wider benefits of the project:

“We have shown that environmental interventions, such as the Connswater Community Greenway, could be a cost-effective way to increase physical activity levels, prevent major chronic diseases and decrease healthcare expenditure. In addition, the Greenway may have benefits beyond health such as reductions in traffic and carbon emissions, crime and improvements in safety.”

The project has been keen to tell a different story about East Belfast from the negative narrative so long associated with the area. Celebrating local heroes, the project has developed a public square named in honour of author C.S. Lewis, while a Van Morrison music trail has attracted locals and tourists to the area.

Wendy explained that the project is far from finished, and has ambitious plans for the future. She concluded with a quotation from Michelangelo that captures the spirit of the project:

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Copenhagen: connecting people with nature

For many years, the Danish capital has been the envy of cyclists the world over. But now, the city’s well-developed network of on-road cycling routes is being supplemented by a new set of ‘green cycle routes’. Winding through parks, open spaces, woodlands and other habitats, the new paths will give cyclists and pedestrians safe and enjoyable access to nature.

Niels Jensen, traffic planner with the City of Copenhagen, explained that the first of these green cycle routes opened in 2012, and a further 23 routes are planned, covering an area of over 100km. One of the routes connects central Copenhagen with the suburban town of Albertslund, 22 km outside the city, while another follows the course of an abandoned railway line.

Albertslund Bikeway

Albertslund Green Cycleway. Image: Soren Rud/LifeExhibitions. Further information – Copenhagen Green

Niels acknowledged that the investment in the project is significant – €20.7 million, But Copenhagen believes the benefits are worth the money,with more non-cyclists – including children – taking to bikes, using safe, direct and unpolluted connections. Since 2012, the first two routes have experienced a growth in the number of bicycle users of 61% and 34% respectively. The project expects to see a 25% increase in cycling traffic by 2025, advancing Copenhagen’s ambition to be the best cycling city in the world.

Conclusion

In her keynote speech to the CSGN forum, Scottish Government minister Roseanna Cunningham described the transformation achieved by green infrastructure as “magical”. She highlighted the examples of a project that will transform a landfill site in Glasgow into a community woodland, and another programme to improve mental health by bringing people into contact with woodlands and forests.

These projects, and those showcased during the CSGN forum demonstrate that our urbanising world need not be a concrete jungle, and that the benefits of green infrastructure go far beyond its face value.

Orangefield Park Celebrations

Orangefield Park, Belfast Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast


Further reading on green spaces in our blog

The CABE Experiment and housing design: where have all the leaders gone?

Bad design? Housing development in Melton Mowbray by Persimmon

Guest blog: Matthew Carmona and Lucy Natarajan

Here at The Bartlett, UCL we recently completed a major study of the eleven years of publically funded CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. We evaluated the work, history, and impact of the organisation, and the ‘tools’ it used to promote good urban design across England. When it came to housing design CABE had real impact and, as we argue here, the leadership it provided is sorely missed. But there are ways that planners, urban designers and the government can draw on the CABE Experiment, which will be increasingly important in light of the intended increase in the volumes of housing being built.

CABE was never well understood. External perceptions were often of a monolith swallowing up huge dollops of tax-payers’ money to conduct design review. As we reported in our book Design Governance: The CABE Experiment, the organisation was tiny by government quango standards, and only around a fifth of its staff were dedicated to design review. The rest of the staff worked on lower profile but typically highly regarded and effective activities such as: enabling within local authorities; its research projects; the work of its public spaces and parks arm (CABE Space); production of its very well used guidance and website; and various educational enterprises such as its summer schools.

These ‘informal tools’ of CABE were not mandatory or statutory and instead influenced and guided the professions. Yet they created a culture that improved design, for housing as for many other aspects of place. The work of CABE even reached some, although not all, of the volume house builders. Such progress will easily ebb away without continued efforts and leadership.

But how did improvement happen?

The answer is relatively simple: CABE’s tools were flexible and the activity was coordinated across the country, with the voice of government behind them. CABE addressed the issue of housing design from different angles, with:

  • national housing audits to embarrass the housebuilders with a stark national picture of the generally poor standards of their products
  • case studies and guidance to demonstrate principles and help raise aspirations
  • training for local authority staff
  • ‘enablers’ within local planning authorities working directly with councils, assisting with policy frameworks and large-scale applications
  • hundreds of design reviews were conducted on residential-led masterplans around the country

In addition, the Building for Life consortium helped establish nationally acceptable standards and an awards system for the best housing designs. And last but by no means least, government strengthened national policy, including on highways design in residential areas.

So where are we now?

Since CABE’s demise we have seen a large scale withdrawal of government, at national and local levels from engaging in design, and a fragmentation of the non-governmental design governance services that remain.  We have also seen a retrenchment of house builders, highways authorities, and planning authorities across the country back to the old ways of doing things.  Respectively, these are based on standard (and inappropriate) housing types, rigid and over-engineered highways standards, and planning authorities without the time, skills or confidence to challenge the house builders.

This is not to imply that nothing is happening. The Place Alliance provides a forum for ‘grassroots’ exchange and, bubbling up from these connections, UDL initiated and lead the work to produce a collaborative and comprehensive guide: The Design Companion Planning & Placemaking. This publication demystifies the principles behind ‘good places’ and explains with detailed examples how planners and placemakers can deliver the highest standards in urban design. In addition the largest metropolises particularly benefit from local leadership, particularly the Mayoral SPG for new build in London and Manchester’s City Council’s guide. However without the national coordination of such initiatives, housebuilders can and surely will cherry pick where they build quality homes.

But learning the lessons from the CABE era…

What should the government do now?

  • Show leadership: Minsters should speak out when residential design is poor and celebrate it when it is not, and appeal decisions where residential schemes were rejected on design grounds can provide rich illustrations for that work.
  • Support proactivity in local authorities: LAs can move away from reliance on generic policies in local plans and prepare simple non-statutory site-specific frameworks and design codes for housing sites.
  • Promote design review: This constructive peer-based checking and refinement mechanism should be made compulsory in the forthcoming revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for all major housing schemes.

Speaking up for better places and better homes will help those who are working on the ground, and as Design Governance: The CABE Experiment shows, this can have a great effect.  With little cost and no new legislation we can once again drive design quality up the national agenda.

 

References

Carmona M, De Magalhães C, Natarajan L, (2017) Design Governance: The CABE Experiment. London: Routledge

UDL (2017) The Design Companion Planning & Placemaking. London: RIBA.


The Place Alliance were winners of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement in 2016’s RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. This award was sponsored by the Idox Information Service.

Planning for the digital economy

The digital tech sector is the UK’s fastest growing sector.    Recent statistics show that it is growing as much as 50% faster than the wider economy.  In London alone, a new tech business starts up every hour.  Beyond London, digital tech clusters across the country are driving the economic resurgence of many cities and city regions.

The rapid growth of the sector means that its spatial footprint has become increasingly evident in towns and cities across the UK.  In May, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published guidance on how town planning can respond to and guide the future development of the digital economy.  It makes recommendations for planners in two areas:

  • how to encourage the growth of the tech sector in their local area; and
  • how to make best use of the opportunities provided by the tech sector for the planning system

What is the tech sector?

The digital tech sector is increasingly diverse, and there is no straightforward definition.  The 2016 Tech Nation report identified 16 different sectors, some of which include:

There are currently around 58,000 active digital tech businesses in the UK.  It employs 1.64 million people, and job growth is more than double that of other sectors.  Roles are generally highly skilled and well paid, compared to other sectors.  Indeed, the average salary is 44% higher than the national average!

Location preferences

Digital tech, as a sector, thrives off well-planned spaces with access to good local infrastructure.  Tech firms and their employees tend to prefer easily accessible, walkable, multi-use districts. This results in the creation of ‘clusters’ of similar firms in central urban locations.

Clustering has a number of advantages for digital tech businesses – including easy access to large talent pools and the ability to network and exchange ideas face-to-face with local, likeminded businesses and employees – a key driver of innovation.

London, Manchester and the Greater South East have some of the largest digital tech clusters in the UK; however, the Tech Nation 2017 report mapped 30 significant clusters across the length and breadth of the UK – from Dundee to Exeter.

Facilitating the growth of the sector

The recent growth of the sector has already led to a number of economic policy responses, including the development of enterprise zones, innovation and business centres, and ‘innovation districts’.  The RTPI guidance also highlights a number of smaller-scale responses that can be utilised to attract and foster tech industry growth, including:

  • ‘de-risking sites’ by making sure that planning requirements are “practical, clear and known in advance of specific proposals coming forward
  • using public money for assembling and servicing sites that are more challenging
  • the provision of Wi-Fi in specific locations
  • making districts pedestrian and cycling friendly
  • leveraging Public Private Partnership models to build digital infrastructure

In addition to these responses, the RTPI makes three recommendations for planners on how they can create an environment that is attractive to digital tech firms.

First, it suggests that planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are.  Policies can then be adapted to local economic conditions.  Some local authorities already do this using company registration data.  For example, Camden Borough Council use this data to inform a quarterly ‘Business and Employment Briefing’.  It covers a range of measures, including business size and type, employment in the borough, commercial property, unemployment, worklessness and qualifications.

In order to attract and assist the growth of the digital tech sector, it is important for local planning teams to have a proper understanding of the sectors’ spatial preferences.  This is particularly important when drawing up local plans.  Therefore, the second recommendation made by the RTPI is that local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth. The roles of The Dublin Commissioner for Startups and the Amsterdam Chief Technology Officer are potentially interesting models for this.

Third, the RTPI recommends ensuring that there is sufficient housing, office space and transport infrastructure to meet capacity.  These three elements are the “fundamental ingredients for an economically and socially successful city”.  Without them, no amount of other interventions will attract firms to an area.

The Tech Nation 2017 report found that 30% of digital tech community members cited their local transport infrastructure as a ‘business challenge’.  Tech London Advocates report similar concerns, whilst also highlighting the challenges posed by digital infrastructure: “It has become increasingly clear that a fundamental challenge facing tech companies in London is infrastructure. The tech sector has grown so fast that the provision of office space and digital connectivity is having to play catch up”.

The digitisation of planning

The growth of the digital tech sector not only creates jobs and generates wealth; it creates opportunities for improved efficiency in other sectors too.  In planning, digitisation can free up time and resources, and create new tools for planners to utilise.  From the adoption of  geographic information system (GIS) software for mapping, to experimental trials of 3D modelling software and virtual reality in plan making and community engagement, technology has and continues to present a number of opportunities to improve the planning system.

Beyond planning, innovations in the digital tech sector aid the creation of ‘smart cities’ – where information and communication technology (ICT) and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies are integrated to manage cities’ assets, with the overall aim of improving efficiency.  Examples of potential usage vary considerably, from supporting people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, to the provision of real-time traffic data, controlling streetlights and monitoring environmental data.

As such, a final recommendation made by the RTPI is to make use of local firms’ skills and resources to address cities’ infrastructural challenges.

Addressing inequality

Despite the rapid growth of the digital tech sector and its contribution to job and wealth creation, there is an increasing recognition that the benefits created by the sector can be insular and often do not spill over to the local economy.

Indeed, studies have found that the higher the share of tech employment in a city, the more income inequality there is.  On this basis, the digital tech sector has been criticised for its potential to create a ‘two-tier economy’.  There are also concerns about the gentrifying effects of digital tech clusters on local areas.  In London, for example, tech growth has increased the cost of living in some parts of the city, displacing smaller firms and lower income families.  It also poses a potential threat to innovation as startups are priced out of successful digital tech clusters.

Clearly addressing these issues poses some significant challenges for policymakers.  Last year, the RTPI made a number of recommendations in this regard, including helping local people to develop the skills needed by local tech companies.

Successful planning

The digital tech sector has enormous potential to enhance economic growth.  Through its ability to create the optimal conditions for the digital tech sector to thrive, planning can help to encourage this growth.  Understanding local economic trends, consulting with digital tech businesses about their needs, and ensuring that local infrastructure has the capacity to meet these needs, are vital to successful planning for the digital tech sector.  At the same time, ensuring that this growth is sustainable and benefits wider society are key challenges for planners.

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:

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

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.