Cash demands by highways authorities are frustrating the drive for better designed homes and neighbourhoods
Abundant street trees are vital for the quality of life in urban neighbourhoods – cleaning pollutants, supporting biodiversity and, as objects of beauty, immeasurably enhancing places and lives. Hence the battle to save Sheffield’s urban forest, which I have supported.
Beauty in the built environment is a preoccupation of the government, which thinks that if new developments could be just that bit more attractive, objectors may be less vociferous – Nimbys would convert to Yimbys. While we have argued elsewhere (Ten Characteristics of Places Where People Want to Live) that it is overly simplistic to imagine objections would evaporate if only new homes were in a given style, one aspect of successful placemaking is undoubtedly the importance of creating a verdant setting.
So, I was disappointed to hear that trees have become the latest battleground in the debate around the viability of new developments. I recently met David Birkbeck of Design for Homes who was exasperated by the technical wrinkles in the planning system that make it harder to create green neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets. Heaven knows, a lifetime designing housing has taught me that this is difficult enough, but recent events have conspired to significantly increase the scale of the challenge.
A court case in late 2014 (Redrow v Bolton council) ruled that a local authority can ask for cash upfront, known as commuted sums, for the maintenance of landscaping obligations. These are section 38 and section 278 agreements where highways authorities have to adopt what may have already achieved full planning approval at local level. Planning authorities are often not the highways authority, allowing county councils to fill holes in their highways budgets by taxing district councils’ planning permissions on the grounds they, as the adopting highway authority, had never signed up to the designs.
Some refuse to accept any variation from utilitarian 6m wide roads with 150mm concrete kerbs. This obviates any of the design refinements that were gaining ground as a result of the excellent Manual for Streets government guidance of 2007, which aimed to increase quality of life through well designed, people-oriented thoroughfares.
If homebuilders have the excuse to dump the cost of detailing the public realm as expected by the LPA, there is little incentive to employ good designers
Depressingly, the combination of financial shortages at a local authority level and a degree of (not wholly unearned) suspicion between councils and developers has led to a situation where planting a tree comes with a sizeable cost – up to £3,000 each as a commuted payment. In one case, a scheme approved by a local planning authority (LPA) on the basis of its tree-lined streets was almost killed off by a £500,000 commuted payment demanded by the highways authority.
It is really encouraging that the government wants better designed homes and neighbourhoods, but we need to help it take aim at the right target. It’s all very well talking about the importance of beauty and for the minister to say he wants architects more involved. But if homebuilders have the excuse to dump the cost of detailing the public realm expected by the LPA, there is little incentive to employ good designers to create quality public realm. For both sides, short-term considerations risk causing long-term harm to the perception and experience of new homes.
The government recently took the overdue of requiring much greater transparency from developers about the viability of a development and their expected returns. I hope that this can begin to rebuild the trust between both sides and create the basis for a way forward that avoids what Birkbeck memorably described as the trend towards ‘the landscape equivalent of a plucked chicken’.