Planning Pickle

The UK has a fragmented approach to spatial planning which can mean that there is a disconnect between the planning process and impacts on the management of highway networks.

As you’ll know, I have gone through something of a journey over the last few years as my training and knowledge has been challenged, moving from car centricism to understanding that this is unsustainable. The risk for me these days is akin to the ex-smoker evangelising about the dangers of smoking and so I need to be careful not to reject all road schemes out of hand (although few have any worth from what I can see).
One of the toughest problems in my view is the disconnect between spatial planning and how to make best use of the highway network. It is problem on different levels, but one of the biggest issues is the multi-tier nature of local government (with some exceptions). With functions often split between highway and planning authorities, the best coordination model in the world isn’t going to deal with competing priorities.

For example, London has 32 unitary boroughs and the City of London which look after 95% of the roads as well as being the local planning authorities and so you’d expect it to be fairly joined up locally in terms of planning and highway impacts/ management. However, most of the boroughs also have Transport for London roads passing through them and in some cases, motorways controlled by Highways England. London also has the Mayor who has planning powers on larger developments.

You’ve English counties which are responsible (pretty much) for all roads in their areas, yet each district or borough (non-unitary) are responsible for planning. It’s a similar fragmented picture across the UK. Throw in Highways England, Transport Scotland, the Welsh Government, Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, national park authorities, combined authorities and town and parish councils to be even more confusing. A good commentary on the intricacies can be found here. This is all with a variety of councillors at different levels! There is also a very good guide to the planning processes in each of the 4 UK countries available here.

The unitaries are where things are a bit more joined up (at least in terms of responsibility). In England, there are a few unitary counties such as Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire which means they are responsible for planning and highways, other than any Highways England roads (although they are still planning authority for those).

There are national planning frameworks which translate into local plans (for the spatial planning side) and with trunk roads and motorways, the respective countries administer those at the national level. As I have experienced recently (with my own consultancy work) it is a minefield for people wanting to influence change in their own street or area. Whether it’s the community group wanting to get highway changes made for walking and cycling or a rainbow of campaigners fighting to keep a direct road crossing, the odds are stacked against them.

There are also separate processes for nationally important projects where the immediate planning authorities don’t make the decisions. For example, in England & Wales, there is the Development Consent Order (DCO) process which seeks to provide reasonably certain timeframes for people making DCO applications – more on that here.

So, it’s all rather complex and in many cases rooted in the history of the UK countries, regions and localities. It’s telling that for nationally important projects, the decision making is taken away from local planning authorities because otherwise, there would be chaos (whether or not one agrees with a particular scheme or not).

What has this to do with highways? Well, from a planning perspective, the highway authority is a consultee in the process. However, even if it objects to a planning application, it does not automatically follow that the planning authority will refuse planning consent. There is also established case law that a highway authority cannot use its powers to frustrate development. In other words, no second bite of the cherry – this was established with the Powergen case.

So, what is my beef with it all? Well, as is usually the case, we are dealing with the highway network as a finite resource. A development comes along and it will (to a greater or lesser extent) utilise some of that resource. Eventually a development will come along that demands more than is available and so there will be the arguments over whether or not the impact on the highway network is significant (which is a test of acceptability under the National Planning Policy Framework, at least in England).

A good example is one where we have a signalised junction in a town centre and a supermarket with a car park wishes to open close by. The supermarket will attract car-based trips and some will be made through the junction. In a situation where there is spare capacity, then the supermarket’s consultant will argue that there is no adverse impact on capacity because there is some spare.

Alternatively, if the junction is running at capacity, then the supermarket’s consultant will argue that people will adjust their journey timing to avoid the congested times and that some will switch from competitors so there is no net increase in traffic – I have had that argument advanced with me several times.

In both cases, a highway authority will need to demonstrate that the development creates significant harm, but being one voice in the wider need for regeneration, homes and facilities means that there might not be significant weight afforded the issue by the planning authority.

Where the planning and highway functions are not unitary, this sets things up (potentially) for more conflict, probably because of the competing objectives of planning and highway authorities. The former is there to ensure so-called sustainable development is permitted, subject to ensuring there are no significant impacts and the latter is there (essentially) to maintain the network and ensure people move along it.

With a highway network being a finite resource, it occurs to me that development generally gets access to it all too cheaply which means that the pressure is on the highway authority to accommodate development. This is notwithstanding that mitigation work can be required through a planning consent (either physically or financially), but a developer is not going to deal with decades of neglect (and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect them to).

OK, this is a rambling post and I am not sure I have actually made a point here, but it’s good to have some thinking time. So, my questions I think go back to how we are set up for planning and highways in the UK. Should we radically shake up the responsibilities for all of this anyway and move to a model of unitary regions?

London for example, having 32 (and The City) unitary authorities seems crazy to me. So, do we move to a single tier authority where planning and highways (and I guess transport for generally) is dealt with by a single body? Does this remove local democracy in favour of strategic thinking for the wider benefits of London. It would be a similar model as the unitary counties after all? Do you live in a unitary county or have experience of how it works or doesn’t work?

Should we move to a more federalist model of perhaps city regions or does that either disadvantage the smaller towns and villages which would be satellite to the regional capital? Conversely, would politics outside of the city make managing the regional capital more difficult?

In terms of managing the highway as a resource, should we overhaul the way in which development fits in? Should we invest and support development which helps build capacity rather than taking it. With my supermarket example, would this enable the very thought of a town centre needing a car park being seen as crazy, so we push for a denser mixed use scheme which would enable the developer to contribute to repurposing the highway network for walking, cycling and public transport?


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