This post is by Steve Chambers, sustainable transport campaigner at Transport for New Homes.
In 2018, Transport for New Homes produced an initial report that revealed the deep flaws in the planning system which leave new housing developments with inadequate walking, cycling and public transport connections to surrounding areas. With limited facilities locally, residents are, for the most part, forced into car dependency.
With lockdown starting to ease in England, we wanted to find out how some of the communities we featured in that report had been getting on over the past year. We visited two new developments in the west of England: Castlemead on the edge of Trowbridge and Bath Riverside in the centre of Bath. How had the developments influenced the lifestyles of residents? Were they delightful and sustainable places to live? And, if not, why not?
Castlemead is part of large ongoing development on the edge of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, adjacent to the planned Ashton Park urban extension. The context is a series of large distributor roads and roundabouts. Castlemead has one of these roads going right through it: a developer funded bypass for Trowbridge.
Planning permission for both Castlemead and Ashton Park has been plagued by difficulties, including the need to ‘mitigate’ the impact on several bat species, such as the very rare Bechstein bat which has a maternity roost in woodland right next to the developments. In fact, some roads in Castlemead are named in memory of the bats affected, such as Bechstein Meadow and Pipistrelle Crescent.
Castelmead is too far from the centre of town to be walkable for some people. It is one and half miles to the main shopping district and two miles to the railway station. There is one pedestrian route into Trowbridge but this is not safe in the dark, without pavements for some stretches. Furthermore, once they reach the town, pedestrians need to negotiate a large dual carriageway inner ring road. Walking and cycling are not supported by ‘end-to-end’ infrastructure.
This development is designed around car use with no front gardens because space has been given over to parking. Some homes also have very small back gardens for the same reason. Car based living is necessary because, other than the primary school and a single convenience store, there is nowhere you can easily go without a car. Indeed, even the convenience store is just off a roundabout with a parking area encouraging even local shoppers to visit using their cars. Bus services are also infrequent and inconveniently timed which rules out using public transport for evenings and weekends out.
Our research found that residents’ cars are outgrowing the spots provided for them, which means they are encroaching on the pavements and further reducing space for walkers. Tellingly, we didn’t see anyone on foot on the residential roads which must have made it a very isolated place during the pandemic.
How might planning have improved this place? With more homes intended for the area, it is getting closer to the scale that might support a shop or other amenities. But upcoming planning reforms look like they will make it much harder for councils to designate land for general use class E, which covers most local services. Changes to permitted development rights could end up with estates of housing with nowhere at all to shop, work or play, also adding to the pressures on established schools, doctors’ surgeries and other facilities in the nearby town and necessitating car journeys to reach them.
Over the border in Somerset is Bath Riverside. This is another development that was in its early stages when we reported in 2018 and is now substantially complete. About half a mile from the shopping district at the centre of town and 0.8 miles from the railway station, it is immediately apparent that location is everything. It is well within walking distance of the centre.
But what is noticeably different about Bath Riverside is the provision of amenities within the development. What was once a restaurant will reopen post-lockdown as a shared workspace, charging by the day. We found cafes, outdoor gyms, good quality public space, public art and places to sit in the shade. Good sized trees and flower beds have been planted. Many amenities had been added since our last visit, transforming the place.
There were many people travelling on foot, with lots of places to go, even despite lockdown restrictions, both within the development and just beyond.
The development does have some shortcomings. An unnecessary amount of space has been given over to car parking, possibly due to parking standards. This means entrances to homes are being obstructed by cars. That said, thought has been given to minimising the impact of parking with several attempts to hide it away, including underground.
Bath Riverside is a world away from Castlemead. And many of its best public realm improvements, including integration with the existing city, have come about because of planning conditions and mitigations. Without those tools this development could have been very different.
Upcoming reforms threaten to jeopardise such important planning provisions. For instance, the recently released model design code will do little to prevent the car dominance we found at both these estates. The reforms don’t deal with anything as substantive.
Changes to permitted development rights of use class E could also risk the ability to include the cafes and coworking spaces we saw at Bath Riverside. We hope not. The density of Bath Riverside means there are enough people to support these types of businesses which benefit from it being a walkable place.
So, where, out of these two developments, would a family choose to live? The car dependent sprawl of Castlemead or the walkable liveability of Bath Riverside? Sadly, for reasons of affordability and the lack of suitable family sized units in Bath, car dependent Castlemead is a far more likely option.
Instead, we should be building housing in the most sustainable locations in existing towns, where walking and cycling are the natural choice to get around. It would be a grave mistake, both for liveability and our need to become a low carbon society, for planning reforms to make it easier to build car dependent sprawl, far from places of work and other facilities, than to aid sustainable living. From what we’ve seen of the government’s proposals so far, we are at risk of taking the wrong path.
Transport for New Homes is crowdfunding for its Homes Without Jams campaign that works to influence the government’s planning reforms, making the case for a green transport future for new homes. It also supported the development of Green Alliance’s briefing ‘Ensuring investment in transport through the Infrastructure Levy’.