How Not When

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How Not When

Published 12 November 2020

This article first appeared in Estates Gazette on 5 November 2020.

Christopher Stanwell, Head of Planning at international law firm DAC Beachcroft considers how far-reaching changes can be made to our urban centres with greater reference to inclusion, health and well-being.

We will return to our cities and towns. They are living in a current state of COVID induced suspended animation, but life will return. The pandemic has given us a breathing space to re-imagine how they are occupied. We have an opportunity to put inclusion, health and well-being much higher on the development agenda and use these as some new measures of value. Our sector has a responsibility to ensure the moment is seized.

The list of areas for urban improvements is long; better quality and improved choice of affordable housing for families and later life living, more parks and green spaces, natural ventilation in offices and reduced pollution for example. The impact of COVID on people moving out of our larger cities is not immediately measurable, but escaping to a smaller town doesn’t necessarily mean better air quality. In a 2019 study by the University of Birmingham, Oxford and Worcester were perhaps surprising listings on an index of our most car polluted urban areas.

Inclusion means better access. Challenges with walking, hearing, seeing or remembering limit participation and too many people have a life apart, excluded from the opportunities on offer.
About 6.2 billion people are expected to be living in urban centres by 2050; including 15% with disabilities. At a national level 25 year have passed since the Disability Act was passed, but obstacles remain in the way for those whose lives it was meant to change. Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary General, commenting for The Global Network for Disability, Inclusion and Accessible Urban Development, “A world that recognises the rights of the disabled ensures that people with disabilities can be productive member of their communities and provides an inclusive environment that will benefit all of us.“

Using Compulsory Purchase Powers

The solution, whatever the location, requires bold thinking on decisions that will have a long term impact. Local authorities are playing an increasingly important role in the re-shaping of our city and town centres as they take on the responsibility. The use of powers of compulsory purchase powers (CPO) by local authorities is a transformational means of achieving renewal. The Government is actively encouraging use of these powers. Steps have been taken to speed up the process such as confirmation by the Planning Inspectorate, which is a useful reform.

The legal basis for most CPOs is Section 226 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990. It provides broad, powers for the delivery of development, provided it promotes economic, social and/or environmental well-being. A CPO can only be made where there is a compelling case in the human interest and there are Human Rights Act and Equalities Act considerations. Despite these important factors a CPO is a useful tool for delivering ambitious project within defined costs and timeframes, particularly where land ownership is fragmented.

Other suggestions for efficiency, recognising the specialist nature of CPO’s, are London First’s call for a centralised resource for all the London Boroughs. The Scottish Government remains committed to introducing Compulsory Sales Orders (CSOs) in support of urban regeneration; a situation in which authorities could sell disused/empty buildings to the highest bidder.

The form of a more inclusive, healthy and accessible approach will take many shapes. For some towns too much retail means more space for housing; lack of cohesion is more of a problem for others as roads sever important pedestrian links. What the majority though have in common is the need for a better way of occupation. Shared debate will inspire individual actions.


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