When transport met housing…

housing roundtableYesterday we held a roundtable in parliament chaired (at different stages) by both the Chair of the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee , Clive Betts MP, and his counterpart at the Transport Select Committee, Lilian Greenwood MP. Round the table we had housing associations, developers, planning bodies, transport authorities, local government, Number Ten, DfT and MHCLG, politicians and reps from the public transport sector. All to talk about what good quality, transit orientated housing developments look like – and what’s stopping us from having more of them. More of the ‘good ordinary’ which is as common in the Netherlands as the dispiriting ordinary is common in the UK. It followed on from a report we produced earlier in the year on ‘The Place to Be – how transit orientated development can support good growth in the city regions’.

This is by no means an agreed record of the meeting but here were eight themes that came out strongly for me…and some potential practical next steps.

  1. One theme that came out again and again was think big. Think big on spatial plans, so there is greater certainty on where housing and transport provision can go together. Think bigger than housing and transport as there are plenty of examples of housing developments that have good public transport access but are still poor in many other respects (lack of facilities, poor provision for active travel, poor on carbon emissions and climate resiliance, lack of life, don’t meet social housing need). So it’s not just about making the connections between housing and transport it’s about thinking bigger on other other goals too. Think big too on accumlating the land necessary to do quality mixed developments at scale and in one go.
  2. If we want better places for people to live then we need to put more resources into local authorities’ capacity to shape places. Planning needs to be more than ticking boxes on a skeleton staffing basis it needs to regain the heroic status it has in other countries in making places that really work. And you can’t do that without resourcing.
  3. I don’t understand. The housing sector speaks a different language to the transport sector which speaks a different language to the planning sector. We need to find ways of helping each sector to understand the others…and what can be achieved through effective collaboration. Which brings us to…
  4. Sharing knowledge about the good stuff that’s happening out there because if people don’t know about it they can’t copy it. And there is a lot of inspiring things happening out there. RATP in Paris is a major social landlord with some innovative ways of not just coordinating the planning of housing and transport together. They are doing it together. Such as RATP’s redevelopment of Montrouge bus station in the south of Paris where an underground vehicle maintenance facility for 195 buses will have above it retail units, office space, 650 new flats, a primary school, creche, a social club for elderly people. The development will have also have a green roof creating a 1.2 hectare roof garden. TfL too are motoring on their housing programme of 10,000 homes and aim to be the biggest build to rent landlord in London.  And TfGM are undertaking some exciting work on getting more houses built around stations in Greater Manchester. One outcome for me from the event was the need to find better ways of sharing inspiring schemes like these – and critically how they are being achieved.
  5. There is lots of research into land value capture mechanisms (or land value sharing as it was suggested we call it) and applications of these mechanisms at scale in other countries. But has the time come for more piloting of different and ambitious applications in the UK? This could also be helpful in identifying any necessary legislative change.
  6. In all of this we need to recognise that as far as land value and property is concerned we live in a divided nation. In particular the London property market is a world away from much of that in the other city regions. One size does not fit all.
  7. There is shedloads of potential to achieve more from better coordination of rail and housing (including through more devolution of responsibilities for local networks and stations). If we want denser city centres but ones which have more space for people and less space for vehicles (a near universal urban trend nowadays and exemplifed by the City of London’s new transport strategy). Urban centres which also are decarbonising and enjoying better air quality – then expanded rail networks are needed. Rail too can open up brownfield sites (ex-rail sites and ex- industrial sitesthat were rail served) for housing. Stations can be built around and above, and rail can extend commuter range. To realise this opportunity we need Network Rail to have more leeway – not just to maximise returns to HMT but also to play its full part in making great places around some of the key national railhubs. We also need devolved authorities to have far more say over the station estate as it’s only devolved authorities that have the interest and the local knowledge to pursue the opportunities that exist not just at central sites in core cities but also across wider conurbations. Such as at Maghull North – a new station on the Merseyrail Electric network initiated by Merseytravel (who are the franchising authority for that network) specifically to serve new housing.
  8. The words are good, the reality is often not so good. There is stacks of guidance and planning materials setting out good intentions for what housing should look like (including good transport access) but how come all too often we see estates which are car dependent and some where the roads can’t accommodate a bus even if there was one? And where sometimes there isn’t even a pavement! The blind pursuit of housing targets, and local authorities weak negotiating hand were fingered as being potentially responsible for this. Whatever the reason – we need nonsense like this to stop and to ensure some better coordination across gov and the key NGOs and institutes (and perhaps Housing Associations in particular given their wider social remit) to get the right words ensuring the right outcomes on the ground.