Richard Rogers: NPPF to unleash ‘damaging’ urban sprawl
Richard Rogers has again raised concern over the potential for the government’s proposed national planning policy framework (NPPF) to increase UK urban sprawl
In a comment article for The Financial Times, the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners chairman warned the UK’s urban renaissance remained fragile and that unfettered out-of-town development could lead to ‘lost social cohesion, lost natural heritage and lost economic opportunity.’
The full comment article:
The UK government is poised to make its most important decision for over a decade on the future of our cities and our countryside. The national planning policy framework will either lead to economic prosperity through a continuing urban renaissance or let loose the damaging forces of sprawl.
It is nearly 13 years since we last faced such a major choice. In 1999, after an intense public debate over new housing, Greenfield development and urban decay, the government set up an urban task force, which I chaired. Our task was to help end an era of poorly planned out-of town development that sucked the life out of town and city centres and put millions of cars on the road. We aimed to use economic development to revitalise towns and cities and put them on a more sustainable footing. Our recommendations were supported by all the major UK political parties.
Decades of working on major architectural projects across the world has convinced me that planning policy is the most important cause of urban regeneration and therefore economic growth in cities. In North America, there are stark contrasts between places such as Detroit and Phoenix, where the lack of planning control has ripped the heart out of downtown districts, and Portland and Vancouver, where far more care has been taken to concentrate development within city limits.
England has more brownfield land than any other nation. By prioritising its development over the last decade, we saw vibrancy restored to some of the country’s most important towns and city centres. Neglected historic neighbourhoods were redeveloped, then re-colonised amid rising property values. Urban neighbourhoods were strengthened by the coherent development of homes, offices, shops and cultural sites. Community life was fostered, car dependency cut and old buildings and empty land brought back into use. Compact, polycentric cities not only make economic and social sense they are also about five times more energy efficient than those that sprawl.
If the UK is to remain globally competitive, we need more well-designed affordable housing and workspaces. Unfortunately, our urban renaissance remains fragile and the recent economic downturn has slowed and in some cases reversed progress. I share the concerns of the House of Commons select committee, which found the draft national planning policy framework emphasised economic considerations over social and environmental ones. I also support its call for renewed emphasis on brownfield before greenfield land; town centres before out-of-town sites.
Mary Portas’ review of our high streets says ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities the economic capital will follow.’ I agree: the public domain is a civil right. The government is not short of practical advice on the required changes. I believe the minister responsible, Greg Clark, has listened and I hope he will make the changes recommended by the select committee. Clark also needs to use the new planning policy framework to give real meaning to sustainable development. This is not about crafting a new definition but about setting out what it means for the way we use land and buildings - expressing a clear preference for compact, mixed use development in existing urban settlements that retrofits existing infrastructure, respects the natural and historic environment and strengthens the economic and social fabric of urban England.
But the debate is about much more than policy details. It is about whether the government recognises, in Greg Clark’s own words, that we need ‘more planning not less’ to provide the certainty for investment that is the prerequisite for a strong economic recovery. We also need a new commitment to local authorities preparing the necessary local plans. It is scandalous that less than half the councils in England have an up-to-date plan to guide development in their area. The government also has to address the skills deficit within local planning authorities. Left unresolved, there will be parts of the country that have no up-to-date plan for many years to come.
Getting this national framework right is crucially important to the future of our country. Some 90 per cent of people in England live and work in urban environments. Most of our economic activity as a nation occurs in towns and cities. If we use the planning system to nurture and strengthen our urban settlements they will become the engines of economic growth. But if we allow developers too much freedom to develop out-of-town, we will not be thanked by this country’s future generations, who will end up paying a heavy price in lost social cohesion, lost natural heritage and lost economic opportunity.