This plan – the Draft Core Strategy of the Local Transport Plan for the West Midlands which has recently been put out for consultation – is for the seven Local Authorities; Birmingham Solihull, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. We have until 4th April to comment. The plan is prepared by the West Midlands Combined Authority but implementation of large parts of it will rely on these Local Authorities who remain Local Transport Authorities.
There are many things in this strategy that are encouraging; in this post I will focus on what is probably the most challenging of their motives for change. – that of ‘Tackling the Climate Emergency’.
Firstly the West Midlands wants to go faster than the rest of the UK in decarbonising mobility. They are proposing by 2031
- A reduction of 35% in distance travelled by car as opposed to a 10% cut nationally.
- An 800% increase in cycling and other micromobility measures as opposed to a 200% nationally.
- By 2031 it is hoping for a reduction of 70% in carbon emissions from mobility as opposed to a national target of 20%
It is of course right that we go faster in decarbonising than the UK given that we have all the benefits of an improving public transport system and dense development that will allow for growth in active travel.
Another positive is there appears to be a real stress on inclusive growth with some significant transport investment focussed on corridors where there is higher deprivation and where transport is poor and development opportunities exist. (More detail on these is given in the City Region SustainableTransport Settlement which describes what £1.05bn will be spent on in the next 5 years)
I would however like to look at its flaws which may stop it from reaching its targets. This seems harsh but it is only by looking at these that it can be improved.
So what are its flaws. I picked out three potential ones.
1) It assumes that we are all to blame for the high level of transport emissions.
‘There is a clear need for all of us to think about our travel behaviours – we are all part of the problem and we all need to play a part in the solution’
This is patently not so for those people who do not use/have a car are not the problem. This according to the strategy is one in four of us. It is the rest of us (the 3 out of 4) who are the problem and as recent research from CREDs has shown the better off are even more of the problem than the average us. This chart (for the UK) shows the more affluent we are the more we consume energy particularly when it comes to mobility and there is no reason to assume that this doesn’t apply to the West Midlands.
So let’s be honest and point out where the problem is and celebrate those who cycle/walk and use public transport without shaming the rest of us.
2) It acknowledges that to reduce the use of cars there is a need for supporting planning policy that concentrates development where good public transport exists.
It says ‘This LTP promotes an approach which favours the use of brownfield land and supports higher density land uses with no or limited parking close to transport corridors and hubs. In turn this can help to deliver improved urban environments and crucially protect and reenergise our local centres’.
This strategy however doesn’t control land use and neither does the WMCA or the Mayor. Land use planning is controlled by the 7 constituent local authorities and so delivery on this relies on how supportive each local authority is of this aim. There is no analysis in the Core Strategy of how supportive current LA plans are. This would be useful. In Greater Manchester in contrast they have an overarching statutory planning framework. This was agreed last year and has a suite of GM wide policies that stress the importance of raising densities especially near to accessible transport hubs.
This lack of a regional planning framework may be a flaw for the West Midlands; the WMCA is planning four area based strategies that it develops jointly with the LAs involved and I would presume through this they may seek to influence what happens where but it seem like a second best approach. There are hints in the document that planning policy might not be as supportive as it should be.
This is perhaps evidenced by Coventry giving an example of a green development in the plan; their SUE plans for Eastern Green. This is implied as Good Practice.
Eastern Green in Coventry is a 435 acre (176 ha) site residential led mixed use urban extension, with a range of developers and local companies involved including Coventry City Council and Homes England. It is based on the A45 in the west of Coventry. It is aiming to provide 2250 homes, 15 ha of employment land, a new district centre and primary schools.
The key question is – will people travel by sustainable methods when living there? It talks about a possible car club, a WM Cycle Hire facility and potential Very Light Rail access. In the short term, looking at the planning application it talks about extending a bus route into the estate – so that a bus trip to the City Centre would take approximately 25 minutes. It also will provide cycle routes both on road and off road on the site linking to existing routes. So together with the plentiful green infrastructure maintained it looks like it is sustainable.
But at the same time it looks a lot like some of the estates described in report on Cowpat Developments by the Transport for New Homes CIC. They looked at new greenfield housing developments across the Country and found a number of things.
‘new greenfield housing has become even more car-based than before and that the trend had extended to surrounding areas, with out-of-town retail, leisure, food outlets and employment orientated around new road systems. They found that we are building ‘car-park to car-park’ with the risk of creating a sedentary lifestyle and isolation for new residents, as well as limited choices for people who don’t drive’.
‘Equally, the excellent public transport promised was often not in place and in some cases had been reduced. In practice greenfield estates planned as ‘walkable vibrant communities’ were dominated by parking, driveways and roads with easy access to bypasses and major roads’.
The development is just off the A45 so there is very easy access by car. So will people use sustainable transport options?
Let’s use the www.carbon.place tool that CREDS have developed to look at travel patterns in an area right next to the development – probably on the same bus route. These graphics below show figures for Allesley Green – the adjacent LSOA.
These figures show that circa 75% of people there travel to work by car and that car based emissions are way higher than the England average or the average for Coventry. Those cycling to work are miniscule. The outer ring on the first graphic shows the potential for cycling – about 15%.
So the likelihood is, unless there are significant improvements in public transport off site and measures taken to discourage car use this development will be far from sustainable and will make matters worse rather than better in Coventry and the West Midlands.
Let’s briefly look at how Munich are doing it. The image below shows an urban expansion in Freidham, 15km from the centre of Munich. It is a much denser development providing 6000 homes (25,000 residents) on a much smaller site (140 acres/57 hectares), next to a railway station leading to the centre of the city but at the same time has plenty of green space. This is much more likely to encourage travel by sustainable means and by its density is helping to build the long run financial sustainability of the rail line.
So what is my point? I guess a more rational, thought out approach to planning housing growth is needed and crucially sustainable transport should not be an after thought. It needs programming in at the same time as the development. No transport no development. So it is perhaps unwise in this document to promote Eastern Green as sustainable and this does put into question planning in Coventry. Without an in depth look it is hard to generalise but this is potentially a regionwide issue as for instance Birmingham has a SUE which probably suffers from the very same problems as Eastern Green. What we need to move towards is a region wide planning framework that matches the transport strategy at the WMCA level like Manchester.
3) The strategy goes to town on the need for behaviour change ie people being persuaded to leave their cars at home. We all know through either personal experience or twitter/facebook discussions this is not easily accepted. Many people argue that alternative provision is needed before it is appropriate to switch. Interestingly enough this is backed up by the CREDS reports on Excess Energy Users. Those who travelled the most in the CRED study argued this strongly.
It argues that there are two key limitations to solely trying to get behaviour change by improving alternatives without managing demand. In short it says
- To improve alternatives limitations will be needed to be place of car transport. It notes the need to reallocate road space away from cars to improve the alternatives
- There is a limit to how much mobility, comfort and convenience these alternatives can offer to those currently using cars. Car use will still be more attractive.
They are not wrong. People’s mobility/ travel flexibility will need to decline. As Jon Burke (@jonburkeuk) ex Cabinet member from Hackney says – we are entering into a lower mobility period where we need to do more things locally.
It talks about these measures but indicates that national measures will be needed to manage demand and talks about the potential for road user charging. In this it somewhat ducks regional responsibility. Birmingham already has a Clean Air Zone and is looking at the potential of a Workplace Parking Levy that Nottingham has introduced and Leicester is following. The region could look at spreading WPLs out to Solihull and Coventry and parts of the Black Country but there is no mention of this option. Coventry fought against a Clean Air Zone (and is in fact widening roads, cutting down trees and demolishing buildings instead to ‘lower emissions’.
An interesting quote from the document highlights perhaps that there is not unity on the need to manage demand.
‘We know that many people now agree that there is a need for more restrictive measures to help solve some of the transport challenges. Our local authorities hold the powers around traffic management, parking and planning and we will work with them to identify how and where further measures could be introduced to help deliver behaviour change across the region’.
This crucially doesn’t say that all (or any) LAs back this approach. Again something that is unsaid but very important. This casts in to doubt the ability to give the stick element of carrot and stick and shifts the blame on to Central Government rather than an honest attempt to own it locally. It is often handy to have someone else to blame.
This review is partial but does point to some questions about how much the constituent authorities back the policies in this document. It however must been seen as part of a long process to ramp up cooperation between the constituent local authorities and this is far better than what might have been produced even 5 years ago. We must remember as well the WMCA has some control over the purse strings for transport improvement which might be used to ameliorate the worse practice. If as I believe there is not fully unanimity about the direction of travel or the hard decisions that need to be taken there may come a time when more regional control will be needed or else we may fail in reaching our 2041targets.