What will urban planning look like after coronavirus?

The Covid-19 crisis has provided a stark reminder of the importance of people's homes and local spaces.

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There has been a lot of speculation about the need for a “new normal” or what our “post-Covid” world might look like. In relation to places, some have focused on making more space for walking and cycling, as this has become a new focus for daily exercise or, for some, commuting, during lockdown.

It has been reported, for example, that Milan will introduce an ambitious scheme that reallocates street space from cars to cycling and walking. Transport Scotland, meanwhile, has made funding and guidance available to enable the creation of “pop-up” cycle lanes and the widening of pavements.

Such initiatives are, of course, to be welcomed. The lockdown period has also shone a light on the importance of access to good-quality, affordable homes and access to local green space. But will the current restrictions being placed on how many of us live lead to fundamental changes to how we plan and build places in the future?

While there are many lessons to be learnt from the pandemic, there is a risk that the financial impact of the virus will see ministers focus almost solely on how they can jump-start the economy. And while economic resilience is important, ministers must not return to the situation in 2008/09, when the emphasis was on economic growth with little or no regard to whether that growth was environmentally, socially or economically sustainable.

It has already been reported, for instance, that a group of developers and investors have written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, asking for flexibility that will enable developers to renegotiate section 106 obligations, such as the provision of affordable housing. We surely must seek to learn from this unprecedented period. And the need for more, not less, social housing has to be one of those lessons.

The pandemic has brought home for many the challenges of poor-quality housing and access to private and public green space. At the very least, the government must implement urgent changes to make sure that all new homes meet a minimum standard in relation to size, quality, access to light and access to amenity space.

A planning appeal decision in July 2019 that enabled 15 bedsits in Watford, seven of which would have no windows, to be built clearly illustrates why there is a need for change to our current planning system.

The appeal was necessary because the local planning authority tried to prevent the development arguing the proposed living environment would be oppressive and cramped. Being restricted to our own homes and local areas has been difficult for many.

I know I am lucky, for example, to have access to a garden. I cannot imagine how challenging spending months of lockdown in a tiny bedsit with no windows must be.

We do need more homes, and in particular, homes that are truly affordable. But new homes should not be oppressive, window-less boxes. While improving the quality of new and existing homes should be the bare minimum response from government, post-pandemic we should use the expected Planning White Paper to learn from this experience and implement more fundamental change.

This would be a shift that refocuses planning and place-making on delivering better outcomes for people. So that the places in which people live, work and play support rather than undermine people’s health and wellbeing.

I am sometimes told that the TCPA expects too much of the planning system in terms of the impact place-making can have. But we are not alone in our belief in the power of planning. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, has said in the past “a decent home, a job and friends are more important to good health than the NHS” because how we build places and communities encourages healthier choices.

We also know how to plan and build places that support the need to adapt to and mitigate climate change. While also enabling them to be more economically resilient. This must be the crux of planning, rather than the current, overly simplistic focus on housing numbers.

Many will have seen or heard the phase "we are in the same storm, but not in the same boat" used in relation to how people are experiencing the pandemic. I think this is crucial for us to remember as we look ahead to the “new normal” and economic recovery. In the future we may not feel like we are in the eye of a storm, but inequality will still very much exist.

Both between places and within them. Working with all elements of local communities to inform the future of their local area will be essential if the changes enabled by the planning system are to seek to deliver better outcomes for everyone.

Prior to the pandemic, we faced health, climate and housing crises. These will still exist post-coronavirus and our need to tackle them will be even more pressing. While planning cannot solve all of the challenges society faces, it can and will have a role to play in shaping places and how people live, work and play. To maximise the potential of the planning system post pandemic, we need to refocus it on supporting places and communities to be more economic and climate resilient in order to provide better outcomes for people.

Fiona Howie is the Chief Executive of the TCPA. The TCPA is campaigning for a Healthy Homes Act.

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