Mind the gap: Aligning the short term housing needs with long term infrastructure planning

Jonathan Foster-Clark | 21 Mar 2017 | Comments

The need for housing continues to be one of the most pressing priorities for local authorities. But the scale of the developments required means that it’s not simply a case of identifying a plot of suitable land, engaging a development partner and then getting on and building them. People want homes, not houses; places and communities, not just spaces. And this means providing the supporting infrastructure that underpins a better quality of life and local commerce and enterprise, such as schools, shops, roads and public transport.

Part of the challenge here is that infrastructure isn’t developed overnight. For instance, major transport tends to be decades in the making and works to five-year funding cycles. This can be at odds with the priorities and shorter timescales that are driving the creation of homes at a local or regional level. So closer alignment between homes and infrastructure will reap significant benefits for everyone. 

Members of the public do not consider local authority boundaries when it comes to choosing where they live, where they work and how they travel. But they do assume that someone will be considering their needs. Problems start to arise though if this is being done by individual organisations in their traditional silos.

Our experience has shown that a clear understanding of the roles of the local, sub-regional and regional / national networks is needed in planning for the needs of housing and growth. Take transport as an example. The rail network largely supports a wide range of travel needs, including leisure, commuting into the bigger cities and business journeys, whereas Highways England is focused primarily on business trips and movement of goods and often expresses concern about its roads being used for local commuting and junction hopping. Add to this the local authority’s perspective about the use of their local network and it is clear to see how failing to address the supporting infrastructure at a very early stage could lead to delays or cancellation of much needed housing projects.

The right starting point is that wherever possible local authorities and city regions should be locating homes in places that are close to jobs and services, to minimise the distances that people need to travel, or in places currently well connected by public transport. This is nothing revolutionary – it has been accepted good practice for years, but is often not given proper credence.

Where this is not possible, or when new or upgraded infrastructure is going to be needed it requires detailed planning to be carried out at a sub-regional level. The city regions are the right places to drive this, and it plays well into the devolution agenda with the new Combined Authorities. It’s vital that they ensure the likes of Highways England and Network Rail, as well as pan-regional bodies like Transport for the North, are part of the conversation as early as possible so they can contribute and start forward planning within their own structures and cycles. So, through this collaborative process, a coherent strategy can be developed with strong synergies between the transport strategy and the spatial strategy, so that the two become self-reinforcing, benefitting everyone.