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Wednesday, 14 October 2020

The Government's White Paper on Planning Reform

There are many issues of concern in the Government's proposed reform of the planning system and many of its proposals will greatly reduce the ability of local residents to participate in decisions about developments in their area. For instance:

The approval of new development in growth zones will shift to the plan-making stage. The traditional process of politicians deciding planning applications with opportunities for the public to make representations is effectively at an end.

The White Paper suggests that people’s right to be heard in person will be changed. The paper states that inspectors will now have discretion as to what form an objector’s representations might take. Under paragraph 2.53 the paper goes even further and suggests any form of ‘right to be heard’ might be removed.  The right to be heard at Section 20 of the 2004 Planning Act is the only clear civil right that exists in the planning process for the individual citizen. The right includes the important phrase ‘in person’ in order to allow an individual to appear in front of an inspector and exercise other opportunities to cross-examine witnesses.  So, the opportunity to appear at a public inquiry has been replaced with the opportunity for an inspector to have a telephone conversation with you, or ask for further written comments if they choose to do so.

The White Paper does not provide a single new right for community participation or a single new opportunity for a democratic moment in the plan-making process but rather reduces both rights and opportunities to participate. The only potential additional opportunity comes from the White Paper’s belief that digitising information will encourage community participation.  Digital information can potentially lead to more openness and will hopefully make planning more accessible, but it does nothing on its own to give communities more control over their future

For Bath, there is an additional concern a little-noticed comment about "exploring whether suitably experience architectural specialists can have earned autonomy from routine listed building consents." This clearly opens the system to abuse as it leaves open such questions as:

What criteria will be used to decide if autonomy has been earned?

Who will judge whether these criteria have been met and continue to be met once autonomy has been "earned"?

What qualifies as "routine"?




TARA Response to the Liveable Neighbourhoods Consultation

As an organisation that has been in existence for 20 years, we approach the current liveable neighbourhoods consultation and debate with a degree of cynicism. In twenty years we have seen many proposals for improving traffic management and the quality of the public realm in Bath many of which have had the benefit of expert input, sometimes expensively bought, have been subject to extensive consultation and offered many benefits if their conclusions were implemented but to date none has. They have fallen foul of a lack of finance and often becoming part of a political football match as soon as trade-off needed to be made or elections loomed. Against this background, it is concerning to note that at a time when the council is facing a financial crisis the proposal for the livable neighbourhood are as far as we can tell largely unfunded.

In principle, we support the thinking behind liveable neighbourhoods. There is potentially much to be gained from fresh ideas about how street space in residential areas, too much of which is currently assigned to vehicles, could be used. The idea that extraneous traffic should be confined to perimeter roads has been in use in city centres for decades. Experience has shown, however, that caution is needed in transferring such ideas to residential neighbourhoods.

One of the key criteria for success is that there should be really effective consultation at all stages with residents who are likely to be impacted. This raises some concerns about the initial consultation process. The consultation is largely online thus making it difficult for the very many residents who suffer from digital exclusion to participate particularly at a time when IT facilities and support are not available at local libraries. COVID restriction means that there is little opportunity for residents to attend the sorts of educational events that were held as part of the CAZ to help people understand the research base of these proposals and decode the jargon. We are also concerned that this consultation is vulnerable to attempts by well-organised lobby groups to drown out the voices of local residents.

The council needs to ensure that where liveable streets are being considered residents are aware that trade-offs are inevitable. For example,

Access. While reducing rat running and parking by commuters is undoubtedly a gain there will always be an irreducible need for access for vehicles, not only to residential areas but even to individual homes, particularly for waste collection, for emergency vehicles, for taxi pickups, for local buses if car usage is to be discouraged, and for increasing numbers of delivery vehicles as on-line retailing takes hold. And there will those for whom the alternative modes available, walking, cycling, e-scooters, electric bikes, etc, are impractical.This implies a continuing need for car parking for residents, and for visitors, carers, etc, which, in the relatively high densities typical of Bath, is likely to be mostly on-street parking.

Displacement. The council will be well aware that reducing the amount of space on residential streets available to vehicles may cause some residents to use other means of travel but many others will simply transfer to alternative routes on the network thus leading to increased congestion on perimeter roads and in neighbouring residential areas where improvements have yet to be made.

Journey times. Residents need to be aware that any welcome improvement in environmental conditions may have to trade off against increased journey times as traffic circulation in their local streets is reorganized.

Maintenance. New planting, lighting, and seating is to be welcomed but who will maintain it? As things stand the council is barely able to keep residential streets free of litter.

The concept of "Liveable Neighbourhoods" needs better definition in relation to places like Bath too much of the current definition refers back to the Waltham Forest example. Waltham Forest and Bath have little in common for instance in London people have access to plentiful subsidised public transport. Experiences in London of trying to deploy schemes based on the Waltham Forest example have reinforced the need for high-quality public engagement programmes that clearly set out the likely trade-offs which are inevitable. We note that several London schemes have had to be abandoned.

One notable omission from the BANES consultation is any real proposals to reduce the overall amount of traffic coming into Bath either through disincentive scheme or diversions such as an A36-46 link or through improved access to public transport. Without this, the issues of access and displacement are likely to be magnified to an unacceptable degree.

Another mechanism for reducing traffic coming into the city which has been further highlighted during Covid is remote working which places an emphasis on the provision of high quality IT and communications infrastructure. This again does not seem to be addressed in the BANES documentation.

The mention of COVID raises another issue; these proposals are being put forward at a time of great potential change in the likely role of neighbourhoods. We are looking at much more home working with its attendant shift to neighbourhood shopping, we are seeing an acceleration in the decline of traditional shopping centres and potentially a comparable decline in the commercial property market and it is far from clear how BANES see these trends being factored into the debate.

In contrast to many of the other issues, the role of cycling seems to gain undue prominence in BANES proposals. As city centre residents we have some issues with this emphasis. Firstly many city-centre residents are elderly and cycling is not a viable option for them, particularly given Bath's topology, electric bikes are an expensive solution which only partially addresses this issue. Also, most city-centre residents live in flats and have limited storage capability, certainly for storing something as bulky as a bike, in addition to that many city-centre buildings are listed and have no lifts.

We are also concerned that too many BANES documents refer to facilities for cycling and walking as if those these two were equivalent activities. Many of our members find the increasing intrusion of high-speed bicycles into what should be pedestrian spaces unacceptable, and for those with mobility issues, frightening.

As we have said many city-centre residents live in flats and few have access to off-street parking all which calls into question strategies which feature plugin vehicles. Flat dwellers would be financially penalised as they would be forced to use expensive public charging provision.

We have considerable concerns about the council's proposed mechanism for identifying and adopting a liveable neighbourhood. Few residents have any training in traffic engineering or urban design nor do they have access to data and modelling software. The council's approach is already generating some rather questionable plans and is already creating conflict between groups of residents with competing ideas. We would have preferred the council to use its expertise to proposes viable schemes which formed part of a wider strategy and focussed residents efforts on evaluating this plan. From the council’s point of view this would also avoid the problem of raising un attainable expectations about what is achievable.

This issue is particularly acute in the city centre where there are numerous legitimate stakeholders whose competing needs need to be carefully balanced. We and many other of these stakeholders have been concerned at the lack of consultation over the emergency schemes which been put in place, the lack of feedback about the many experimental schemes and the prominence given to calls for pedestrianisation schemes in the absence of an overall plan for improving the city centre overall.