Friday, 23 March 2012

Budget and NPPF - a nation holds its breath

Plenty of pro-growth measures in the Budget, in infrastructure and housing, which are welcome. But the projects that are being supported will still need planning permission – so it's a shame we didn't get the National Planning Policy Framework issued on the same day, in a form that reinforced the message. It is promised for next week.  

Speaking to the Parliamentary Architecture and Planning Group on the day after the Budget, planning Minister Bob Neill told us that the NPPF would be strong on design quality. Neill mentioned certain poor development being thrown up in booming China as an example of the dangers of ignoring design quality.

But he made it clear that the NPPF was also intended to deliver faster planning consents, needed by business in order for us to compete globally - and seemed blithely unaware that the twin goals of speedier outcomes and quality outcomes might turn out (in practice – no problem in theory) to be in conflict.

He said that existing PPS’s and PPG’s would be abolished - except where there was important technical content that needed to be retained (that sounds like a muddle in the making).

So if PPS5 turns out to be no longer needed, perhaps we could flog it to the Chinese – a win-win for a more competitive UK.  

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The politics of shared space

A thoughtful piece in the New York Times (reprinted in today's Observer's roundup) admires the achievement of the recently completed shared surface makeover of Exhibition Road.  The ideas that underlie the project, inspired by the late Hans Monderman and already widely put into effect in continental Europe, have been well covered in Britain, but it is interesting to know how they go down in the land of the free.

In the UK, such measures might be favoured more by the liberal (cycle-using, Guardian reading) urban intelligentsia, and less by Daily Mail buying types whose human right to drive unimpeded at 30mph could be seen to be under threat.   But the NYT piece suggests that shared surface projects can be seen as deregulatory, anti-nanny-state initiatives - that is, the kind of approach that in other fields might be favoured by the right-leaning - with pedestrians and drivers working things out between themselves rather than being bossed around by big Government.

The legal presumption, as a starting point, that the less vulnerable (e.g. driver), rather than the more vulnerable (e.g. cyclist) (but also cyclist relative to pedestrian) is to blame in an 'accident' has been established elsewhere in northern Europe, and it seems obvious that it should influence behaviour for the better, but it is not yet gaining headway in the UK.   In a decade or two, though, the idea that pedestrians are expected to jump out of the way of vehicles may have gone the way of drink-driving in its social acceptability.   Even Tories have to go on foot sometimes.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Two way streets

What a pleasure to cycle through Russell Square in Bloomsbury, for the first time in a while, and find that streetscape improvements have undone the unpleasant one way system, and returned the roads on all four sides to the normal two way arrangement.

All one way systems in city centres have a dehumanising effect, the worst of all being the 'gyratories' such as Russell Square was until recently - a Georgian square transformed into a roundabout.  They encourage vehicles to drive faster, which is unpleasant and dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists; they make traffic go further than necessary; and they result in the various expensive and ugly paraphernalia of signs, white lines, barriers etc. - all of which make cities nastier to live in.

The traffic calming project in Exhibition Road, which has received much more media coverage, is a 'designer' project - done very well.  Russell Square, by contrast, is a project where there is not much to see on completion - the square now just looks neat and tidy and normal.  The previous arrangement had had measures added in recent years to provide cycle contraflows and so on, all making the square a progressively uglier and more complicated boondoggle of blinkered, incremental interventions.

Just as it's hard to imagine how people would countenance the idea of the Hammersmith flyover if it were proposed as a new project now, so it's hard to imagine anyone proposing today to turn what is a nice square into a roundabout. But that is what Russell Square was until a few weeks ago.  Those who put it right again deserve our thanks and congratulations. I hope they get a prize.  But they probably won't, since  photographs of the square will lead a jury to ask 'er, what have they done here exactly?' The trick of the recent project is progress by subtraction rather than addition.  A new competition category is needed.