What effect do the new Local Plans have on the provision of cycling and walking facilities?

This article was published in 2018, in Magazine 141.

After a prolonged inspection period the new Cambridge Local Plan was finally approved this October. It is a very large document with numerous implications for development issues such as affordable housing, but for our purposes we focus on the effects it can have on the provision of walking and cycling facilities. These effects can roughly be grouped into the following categories:

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The new Local Plan is a significant improvement over its predecessor, which itself was a big step forward from the previous century. The old Local Plan contained minimum cycle parking requirements and a set of basic specifications for the layout of Sheffield stands. The new Local Plan greatly expands the specifications to include many more important matters such as accessways, swept path diagrams for bikes, shed build quality, and doorway widths. In fact, these specifications are found in an older document prepared by the city council, known as the Cycle Parking Guide for New Residential Developments (2010). Technically this Supplementary Planning Document has officially been adopted only as of October, but in practice the planning officers at the council have (thankfully) long been accepting its guidance. The name is somewhat of a misnomer, and the new Local Plan makes it clear: the document is meant to be a guide for all development, not just residential.

Appendix L has important statements such as ‘short-stay cycle parking should be located as closely as possible to the main entrances of buildings’

The main chapters of concern for cycle parking in the new Local Plan are Policy 82 ‘Parking management’, which is the basis for any planning objection regarding cycle parking, and Appendix L, which contains the details not already covered by the Cycle Parking Guide. Appendix L has important statements such as ‘cycle parking should avoid being located in the basement’, ‘any basement cycle parking must also provide alternative parking on the ground floor for less able users’, ‘short-stay cycle parking should be located as closely as possible to the main entrances of buildings’, ‘vertical or semi-vertical cycle racks are not acceptable’ as well as the various minimum requirements for different uses of land. Policy 57 ‘Designing new buildings’ and Policy 58 ‘Altering existing buildings’ are also important because they require cycle parking to be provided in any new construction or renovation.

As part of our review process we also look at how a planning application affects movement of people, both within the site and where it interfaces with public rights-of-way (PROWs). For example, we check whether footways and cycleways are accessible, their design avoids conflict and is safe, priority is given to walking and cycling, existing PROWs are protected and any opportunities are taken to connect to existing and potential PROWs at the edge of the site. Important policies include Policy 80 ‘Sustainable access’ and Policy 56 ‘Creating successful places’. Policy 80 contains statements such as ‘prioritising networks of public transport, pedestrian and cycle movement’, ‘ensuring accessibility for those with impaired mobility’, ‘discourages inappropriate car-based links within the network but encourages non-car based links’, and ‘safeguarding existing and proposed routes for walking, cycling and public transport’, with explicit mention of the Chisholm Trail. Policy 56 supports developments that ‘create streets that respond to their levels of use while not allowing vehicular traffic to dominate’ and ‘ensure that buildings are orientated to provide natural surveillance’ and ‘create and improve public realm, open space and landscaped areas’, among other things.

The South Cambridgeshire Local Plan has also been approved and will now be used to guide development in the district. It is not directly comparable with the city’s Local Plan; however, the related chapters are Policy TI/2 ‘Planning for sustainable travel’, Policy TI/3 ‘Parking provision’ and Policy HQ/1 ‘Design principles’. Interestingly, the new district Local Plan has considerably strengthened its minimum cycle parking requirement for residential development to 1 space per bedroom, which is a massive step up from the previous requirement of 1 space per unit! Unfortunately however, the district council does not have a Cycle Parking Guide Supplementary Planning Document as the city does. District planning officers had intended to create one after the previous Local Plan had been ratified, but a Freedom of Information request from 2012 uncovered the fact that no guide had been produced and there were no plans to change that. The new Local Plan still calls for a cycle parking guide but we do not know when it will be produced, if ever. Therefore we tend to refer to the city’s Cycle Parking Guide in cases where it is needed, though this has yet to be tested in front of the Planning Committee.

Councillors on the Planning Committee must weigh the potential financial costs of refusing an application against the potential political costs of granting permission to an unpopular one

The planning process

The life cycle of a planning application is roughly as follows: (1) pre-application discussions with officers, (2) submission of application and documentation, (3) neighbour and stakeholder consultation (including a possible Forum), (4) revisions and reconsultation if needed, (5) the officer writes a report trying to reconcile the application with consultation responses and local policies, (6) if sufficiently non-controversial the officer will render a decision directly, or (7) it will go to the Planning Committee along with a recommendation from the officer derived from planning policy, (8) decision and possible appeals.

The Planning Committee is formed of elected councillors and follows a rigorous format. For each application, comments from the public are welcome but must obey a particular structure. Typically, public comments get divided into two categories: Supporters and Objectors. Each category gets a total of three minutes to speak, there is no rebuttal nor follow-up. Councillors on the committee are then free to discuss the application at will and they may vote as they see fit.

However, responsible councillors are under the constraint that their decision may be appealed to the central Planning Inspectorate, and if the decision is overturned then the council may be liable for expenses. Therefore the members of the Planning Committee tend to be very cautious about refusing an application unless they have rock-solid reasons that can be justified under planning policy documents such as the Local Plan. Furthermore, officers have already issued a recommendation based on their interpretation of planning policies. If officers recommend approval then the councillors who want to refuse are in the tough position of overruling the judgement of highly trained officers while knowing that they will be closely scrutinised in a likely appeal. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. For example, the proposed office building opposite Cambridge North Station was initially voted down despite the officer’s recommendation of approval, because the plans would have destroyed the existing segregated cycleway. The councillors agreed with our objection and thankfully persuaded the applicant to go back to the drawing board to fix the problem.

The opposite case, when the officers recommend refusal but the councillors vote to grant permission, is also relatively rare but for a different reason. Usually most applicants will quietly withdraw (and resubmit with changes) when informed that the officer will recommend refusal. However, if the application does go to committee and is granted permission, there is no appeals process for the objectors, only the faint possibility of intervention from the Secretary of State. A judicial review may look at whether the process was correct, but no further.

The only effective way for objectors to express dissatisfaction with an application granted approval is through the ballot box when the councillors in question are up for election again.

But, of course, many other issues may come to dominate at election season. Therefore, councillors on the Planning Committee must weigh the potential financial costs of refusing an application and losing an appeal against the potential political costs of granting permission to an unpopular application. This process seems largely tilted towards approvals, since an improper refusal is likely to result in swift and certain penalties, while an improper approval can only come with vague political costs that may not be realised at all except in the biggest cases.

What is the implication of all this for us? Camcycle does not comment on the principle of development for planning applications and we are a non-political organisation. Our goal is more, better and safer cycling and walking for all ages and abilities. We object to (and occasionally support) applications with arguments aimed at improving cycle parking provision, footways and cycleways, accessibility, and various other matters as detailed above. However, provided that the officers acknowledge and show that they have responded to our comments, they are free to write the report any way they please. Then, if it does go to committee, the councillors are free to approve the application even if it has the most horrendous cycle parking or tramples over existing cycleways. This doesn’t usually happen because we are fortunate in Cambridge that the officers or councillors tend to be well-meaning and, in the case of councillors, they know that there is strong support for good walking and cycling facilities. Ultimately, however, the planning process is political because objections have weight only because of the political considerations or stances of committee members. We are non-political but our objections to planning applications are unavoidably dependent upon the fact that Cambridge voters (including our members) strongly prefer councillors who uphold walking and cycling principles for development.

Large-scale development

Unfortunately this type of planning process breaks down when plans become highly complex or when people simply lose interest. It’s much easier to focus public attention on a specific and concrete problem, like building height, or loss of a cycleway. When looking at major development plans for large pieces of land, there are so many issues and competing considerations that walking and cycling principles can get lost. It is also difficult to visualise how a flat two-dimensional plan may translate into problems when it is built. For example, a particular road network seems to have been fixed in place for the Waterbeach New Town before any public consultation took place. It appears in both developers’ planning applications and the draft SPD, and hasn’t yet changed despite objections made by the Waterbeach Cycling Campaign, many residents, and us (see page 32).

The street layout of Houten in the Netherlands, a model New Town with the highest levels of walking and cycling in the country. The street network is designed to prevent rat-running. Car traffic must travel out to the ring road for all but the very shortest journeys, while people walking and cycling can take direct routes throughout the site to all destinations. There is a safe route to school for every child, and everyone enjoys access to pleasant streets and open spaces. Diagram credit: John Parkin (2018) ‘Designing for Cycle Traffic’.
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Road network design is one of those seemingly mundane matters that turns out to have massive everyday implications. Will the streets be dominated by cars? Are walking and cycling better than driving for local trips? Are drivers going to ignore speed limits? Are schools going to be exposed to clouds of pollution as parents make the school run by car? Are children going to be able to walk and cycle safely around the neighbourhood? A lot of this depends upon the design of the road network and the off-road paths. What’s even more critical is that once a road network is set it is almost impossible to change it: in old cities, buildings get replaced but the outline of streets lasts for centuries (exceptions include Rotterdam and Hiroshima, for the worst possible reason).

The stakes could not be higher for the long-term health of the new town but the matter is also highly technical and extremely vague at this stage. There’s nothing physical. Lines on a map are not threatening. Business investors may demand that the new high street be a through-route for cars. The county has an opaque process for picking the location of new schools. An adjacent landowner doesn’t want a road near them. The developers worry about losing money. The transport consultants just want to roll out the design model that they use elsewhere. The planning officers are overloaded with work. Councillors are under pressure to deliver housing commitments. Everyone has a neighbourhood they grew up in; why can’t we just replicate that and hope that this time it doesn’t get overwhelmed by cars?

That’s just one issue. Then we can look at questions like: why are the cycle routes all narrow shared-use pavements with sharp bends, tall fences, no sight-lines and interruptions at every minor road? (Because that’s what developers are used to building.) Why are the primary schools next to the primary road? (So parents can drive to the school on their way to work.) Why does each home have three parking spaces for cars and a tiny shed in the back garden for cycles, if at all? (Because the architect is in Reading.) Why are there so many car lanes on the junctions feeding the site? (Because the highways authority demands more car capacity regardless of the Local Plan.) Why do the pavements wobble up and down at each driveway? (Because there are no verges and the engineers don’t know that there is a better way to build a dropped kerb.) Why aren’t there any verges? (Because that would cut into the profit margin by a tiny percentage, possibly.)

There is a considerable financial incentive to roll out ‘typical’ plans that can be deployed on any sufficiently large open space and generate designs that look like the ‘typical’ car-centric development that could be located anywhere. Instead of getting good sustainable-transport-based development from developers at the start, we usually get car-centric development and must try to fix it via objections. This is like trying to repair a broken sculpture by shooting peas at it. It doesn’t really work and then it makes a mushy mess everywhere. In practice, the system depends upon some good faith from applicants and heroic efforts by overstretched planning officers who try to uphold those Local Plan principles. There must be a better way.

Matthew Danish