Building back better

After Covid-19, we all must rise to the UN challenge to ‘build back better’. The impacts of the pandemic and the lockdown have accelerated changes that had been predicted would take decades to happen. We all have a new appreciation for housing, outdoor spaces, community services and the welfare state. The uncongested streets, cleaner air and slower pace of life have hopefully served as a sign that we could do things differently.

The planning system has a critical role in making the ‘new normal’ a better one. The government’s policy statement in March, perhaps due to its timing (written at the beginning of lockdown), seems to miss the public mood. For its laudable commitments on brownfield regeneration, infrastructure first and better design, government thinking on planning continues to be based on the Conservative obsession with home ownership. For sure, home ownership should be more accessible, and I acknowledge the pledges on affordable housing, social housing and the rental sector. Unfortunately, I think the statement missed the need for the planning system to take a more holistic approach – fulfilling the right to decent housing, making liveable places and delivering sustainable growth with wellbeing and tackling the climate emergency at its heart.

We need more housing, but it must be quality housing. Only quality housing will end the tens of thousands of deaths and the £21 billion cost to the NHS caused each year by inadequate housing. It is right to focus development on urban areas, prioritising brownfield regeneration. Building at higher densities creates more housing, makes it easier to facilitate active travel and supports the economy of our urban centres. We still need to make liveable places, though. As the Housing Secretary said: we need to optimise the use of space, not maximise it. The desire for density needs to be balanced with providing decent green space. We also need to ensure a quality design. All dwellings should have enough space to live in, natural light and privacy. Some greenfield development is no doubt also required, not least to build at the rate needed to meet housing shortages and also to provide the mixture of housing types required.

Sustainability means building communities without car dependency. That means providing decent local schools, health centres, shops and community facilities. Yes, it means a decent local pub too! The government’s commitment to funding the infrastructure needed before development is crucial, but there must be guarantees that all of the social and transport infrastructure needed to make places thrive will be in place.

Communities must also have a proper role in shaping the future of their place. The government seems to see public participation as a problem. Proper involvement in development plans, strong and meaningful neighbourhood planning and a fair opportunity to contribute to planning applications are important. Opportunities for public participation should be widened and enhanced.

Luckily, many involved in the planning community and local government are already saying that we must do better than the government is setting out. We must embrace holistic and sustainable thinking, as demonstrated by the POETS group in Oxfordshire and the Bristol ‘One City’ approach. The lockdown has served as yet another reminder of the importance of place in our lives. Liberal Democrat policy needs to give place and planning the same importance.

* Cllr Ryan Bate is the Environment & Planning Spokesperson for the Warrington Liberal Democrats. He was also the 2019 Parliamentary Candidate for Warrington South. Follow him @councillorbate on Twitter.