Sunday, 21 November 2010

Path to nowhere?

Two big stories in the news this week centred on housing in the UK. Firstly, the Government signaled it would scrap the remaining phases of the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder scheme (here). This was a policy much trumpeted by John Prescott in the early days of New Labour as a way to regenerate huge swathes of Northern cities. The Pathfinder scheme identified 9 areas where the housing market had seemingly failed and large-scale government intervention was required to kick-start it. The scheme was specifically tied to the North of England and neighbourhoods struggling to cope with the loss of manufacturing employment.

The normal practice was for the Council to produce a map to identify those premises earmarked for demolition, usually red-brick terraces. Owners would then be compensated and plans drawn up for the replacement housing. But the process rarely went smoothly and Council (and national Government) delays often left resi
dents in limbo - unsure whether to invest in their home or not (see here). Some people moved out the area, whilst others (and often the most vulnerable) were left isolated in a community devoid of life and services.

However, this should not be a reason to finish the Pathfinder scheme through to the conclusion. I agree with Owen Hatherley, writing in The Guardian, that the scheme acts as gentrification and fails to serve the original working-class communities. Large-scale demolition and Government incentives have allowed developers to enter these neighbourhoods to produce housing far too expensive to the local community. The impact is that the local community is split up and dispersed across the city as they search for replacement accommodation, as described by Anna Minton in her excellent book Ground Control. The Pathfinder scheme was too quick to condemn neighbourhoods as blighted and the Government must look closer into whether the existing stock could be refurbished first.

The other housing story in the news was the decision by the High Court to quash the move taken by Eric Pickles MP to revoke Regional Spatial Strategies. In layman's terms, Labour imposed housing targets on Councils whilst the Conservatives want to scrap the targets and allow Councils to decide their own housing levels, as part of the drive towards localism. Therefore not long into his job as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Pickles revoked the regional tier of planning. However, he didn't. Because to revoke regional planning requires primary legislation, as stated by the High Court last week.

The end result? Planning, like the Pathfinder residents, is once again in limbo. Should Councils use the old targets or devise their own (lower) targets?

This episode raises two points about the Government's approach to housing. Firstly, Pickles has an arrogance towards the planning profession where he thinks he can make major changes without going through the due process. Secondly, housing targets will be scrapped eventually and many Councils across the country will use this as an excuse to stop any house building in their area. Most local Councillors are elected on the basis of promising less development. So, will the incentivised approach favoured by the Conservatives work instead? The Localism Bill is due out next week so stay tuned for a review. In the meantime, get your planning applications submitted now, who knows when things will change again!!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Battersea Power Station...the end in sight?

As one of the most iconic buildings in London (and not just for the Pink Floyd album cover!) it is a relief to see Wandsworth Council give permission for the latest scheme. This blog (here) provides an excellent summary of the development woes on the site over the years, so I will just provide some pretty pictures.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Smart Thinking. Smart Cities

Believe it or not, but planning still relies on good old multi-coloured plans to allocate future land uses. In the age of GIS and the 'network society', the 2D plan is still king. Whilst technology is slowly filtering into Council planning services, one could be forgiven for thinking that society has differed little from 1947. So a special report on Smart Systems in the latest edition of The Economist has got me excited about the opportunities for technology in planning the city.

Firstly, what is a Smart City? It characterises an approach where improvements are made to the quality of life and economic performance of a city through the application of information technologies. This involves building a system whereby the feedback of performance data allows the component or system to become more efficient. It is usually applied to major infrastructures, such as water, energy and transport, but can also apply to city management.

This article (here) describes how Singapore is at the forefront of urban technologies and encourages private firms to try new approaches in the city before selling them elsewhere. Similarly, new cities such as Masdar have placed great emphasis on joined-up systems that showcase a range of green technologies. For example, the use of sensors allows new kinds of data to be generated to help practitioners understand how the urban environment operates in reality.

This clearly has huge potential, as demonstrated by TheSmarterCity programme being pushed by IBM. With technology infiltrating all elements of society, it is only time before our homes become more responsive as a result of interpreting data. Clearly, the ownership and safety of data must be addressed, but that should not hold this back.

However, whilst smart technologies can easily be incorporated into Masdar and other planned settlements, the role of smart technology in existing cities is more complicated. Getting permission to dig up the road is hard enough, let alone trying to integrate services that often date from Victorian times! But this should not be a barrier and smart technology can operate on a number of scales - from the city-level down to individual homes. The Amsterdam Innovation Motor is one such example that aims to identify and support emerging smart systems that can be built into the urban environment. It is therefore up to planners to promote Smart Systems at all levels, from national policies to site-specific policies.

So how does this relate to day-to-day planning? Well, instead of 2D plans perhaps it is time to move towards, what Paul Finch has termed, the Mastersection. This moves beyond the common Masterplan and seeks to look beneath surface and understand how new (and existing) development should combine with underground services - whether this be utilities or fibre optics. It does seem odd that what goes on underground is such an afterthought. Perhaps if we considered a holistic approach to land development there would be greater opportunities for Smart Systems to be established. It would definitely reduce the amount of road works! This requires a shift of mindset and for planning to move away from (above) land uses and more towards being a city engineer that understands how the city operates as a system of networks and infrastructures.