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Planning a mixed-use future

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The latest government reshuffle has affected transport and planning once more. So is it time to take a longer-term view?

It took years of lobbying and countless numbers of doctoral theses to persuade government of the logic of integrating transport policy with land-use planning.

The culmination was the invention of DETR - the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. That was only five years ago.

It was reshuffled into the DTLR - the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions - only a year ago, when the environment secretary became responsible for agriculture instead of planning.

Another year and another reshuffle later and there is no department of planning; its remnant is subsumed into a new 'Office of the Deputy Prime Minister', which is now separated from the Department of Transport. What happened to 'joined-up thinking', let alone modernising planning?

Hopes are fading for the promised radical reform of planning anticipated in the form of a policy statement before the summer and a bill in the autumn. Sponsored behind the scenes by HM Treasury, its fate is in the hands of new planning minister Lord Rooker, who needs reminding that his predecessor, Lord Falconer, told local planning authorities to act as though the Green Paper reforms were already in place.

What price development plans now? These are slated for abolition in the Green Paper. Recent events make it clear that transport planning presents tough, long-term challenges that will be hard to resolve.

The recent rubbishing of the Deputy Prime Minister's 10-year Transport Plan by the Commons Select Committee, even though it is well into the 10-year period, underlines the point. Whether one considers the future of rail investment or the prospects for new roads (there are only 240km of new roads proposed in the government's plans up to 2010 and roughly 110km of new railway routes), or the introduction of congestion charging, there is no obvious happy ending.

Given the absence of short-term answers, trust has to be in longerterm strategic thinking. This brings us back to transport and land-use planning. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (www. rics. org) has been promoting an approach it calls Transport Development Areas (TDAs) - which simply means building at high density near and over stations.

It has just launched its final guidance on TDAs, which includes 20 case studies from around the UK.

Under the headline 'City Life Solution - high density, well planned urban villages hold answer to many inner city problems', it claims: 'The urban renaissance is not some futuristic fantasy but achievable under existing legislation and business practices. It is simply a matter of coordinating the interested parties: planners, developers, the local community, transport planners, operators and providers.'

Following RICS' advice, local authorities would offer planning incentives for developers to build intensively in certain areas and in certain ways. 'The result will be the development of excellent, high-density, mixed-use areas around good public transport access, reducing reliance on the car and easing pollution. Essentially the kind of places people want to live and work.'

Dystopian images

London mayor Ken Livingstone's draft London Plan strongly endorses this approach and combines it with a policy for the inclusion of affordable housing with commercial development, both as a means of finding more housing land and subsidy and to reduce the average journey to work time.

As RICS chief executive Louis Armstrong says: 'High density may conjure up dystopian, Blade Runnerlike images for some, but high density does not automatically mean high rise. Paris has, on average, four times the living density of London, but is rarely built over seven storeys.

Its urban environment is, by and large, better. Integrated planning has also produced enviable results in cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm and Lyon.'

Wither the architect

All this is consistent with the Urban Task Force and Urban White Paper and suggests integrated transport and land-use planning has taken on a momentum of its own, regardless of the apparent early demise of the joined-up government department.

Perhaps this leaves an opportunity for a clearer purpose for regional government, the baby of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in whose new department planning now languishes.

That it is the RICS, rather than the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) or the RIBA that is behind the push for TDAs, suggests an even more powerful change. For decades it has been development surveyors who have resisted the integration of different uses (being opposed, in particular, to residential units mixed with commercial, but even of proposals for shops under offices), because this complicates the investment profile of a development.

Even Railtrack has now dropped its objection to including flats in developments over operational railway land thanks to a provision in the Commonhold Act which obtained Royal Assent in May this year.

Architects will have to avoid being typecast into specialisms such as housing or retail so as to become skilled at integrating several uses into high density mixed developments;

planning authorities will have to drop their suburban design criteria, such as large overlooking distances;

and Building Regulations will have to relax their criteria for shared means of escape between different uses, for all this to come together in an effective way.

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, e-mail: brian@bwcp. co. uk, www. bwcp. co. uk

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