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The Biggest Challenges For Urban Planning In The UK

Posting date: 26 February 2019
Jeremy Wright our consultant managing the role

The Best Urban Planners Take a Global & Local View 

There are many challenges facing urban planning professionals in the UK. From global aspects to sustainability issues in the city environment, and then on to specific issues affecting urban planning in the UK, it is a very challenging time for urban planners. Planning Professionals who embrace these challenges are those most likely to develop a career that flies. 

Urban Planning To Meet Global Challenges 

A significant ambition of urban planning is to create environments in which buildings and infrastructure allow people to live happily. As urban populations grow, space becomes even more scarce, and basic needs of living more difficult to satisfy. Vertical living and sustainability are key themes in modern city planning, with urban planners needing one eye on the future to achieve successful cityscapes. Here are the most pressing global issues affecting urban planning today. 

Urban Climate Change 

There can be little doubt that the weather is changing and that the occurrence of natural disasters has increased in the last two decades. Considering this, urban planners may need to consider how to make cities ‘nature-proof’, protecting working and living spaces from natural phenomena that includes extremes of heat, high winds, heavy rains and flooding. 

Ideas that could help to combat the effects of climate change include the creation of ‘sponge cities’, with rooftop gardens that absorb rainwater, permeable pavements, and central reservations that act as rain gardens, all designed to allow water to flow and prevent flooding. 

Big Data And Connected Cities 

Urban landscapes are benefitting from big data, with sensors and cameras monitoring what is happening on roads, rail and pavements, and being used to identify planning needs. Not only do these technologies help urban planners design more efficient and effective uses of space, but they are also used in real time to affect daily life – such as easing congestion by rerouting, or more efficient and responsive traffic light regulation. 

Feeding An Expanding Population 

Conventional farming uses a lot of land and, although modern farming techniques are improving production, this land is at a premium. Conventional farming also uses a lot of water. 

In cities, the idea of rooftop farms is being explored and trialled. However, vertical farming technologies may be the breakthrough that leads to greater sustainability and self-sufficiency within the urban arena. 

Vertical farming uses water more efficiently, and production is optimised by monitoring crops during growing periods. This should enable easier access to cheaper fruit and vegetables where they are needed – in inner city communities. 

Urban Planning – The City Challenge 

The UN has forecast that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, an increase from 55% today. With the world’s population also growing, it could be that 2.5 billion more people are classed as city dwellers with little more than 30 years. 

Such rapid urbanisation, when also combined with the effects of climate change, will heighten the threat from environmental disasters – in crowded cities the outcomes could be devastating in both deaths and financial losses. Other challenges that face urban planners include the following. 

Scarcity Of Resources

As discussed above, vertical farming technologies should help to produce the food needed by a rapidly growing urban population. However, other resources may also become difficult to supply. Local authorities may struggle to supply the amount of water and energy needed by an exploding population. If this growth is accompanied by haphazard planning, the reduction in green spaces will affect liveability. 

Bridging the Gap "Haves" vs. "Have-Nots"

It is forecast the number of super-rich inhabitants in cities will grow. Along with this, we may see a proliferation of urban poverty. This gap could be exacerbated by scarcity of resource, which may lead to higher food, water and energy prices. If this possibility is not tackled early within urban planning thinking, urban society could be destabilised. 

Smart Technology 

As cities are built vertically, smart technologies are likely to be used at individual building levels to help them run more efficiently. It is likely that shared heating and cooling will regulate internal environments, while blockchain technologies could be harnessed to allow better use of space with shared facilities such as laundry and other amenities, such as car sharing. 

However, in poorer areas of the city, such technologies may not be available – thus creating a divide not just by wealth, but by lack of access to amenities that would be considered as standard elsewhere. 

City Governance 

The role of the local authority may become even more important. Without good governance, the challenges of urban planning cannot be tackled effectively. Therefore, it is likely that urban planners will need to take a more proactive role in the challenges of complexity of modern populations and the inhibitions that are likely because of the challenges facing modern urban environments. 

How Are We In The UK Planning For Planning? 

In the UK, progression of the built environment is largely determined by central policies cascading down to local authorities. This, of course, puts a reliance on the annual budget to provide short-, medium- and long-term direction. So, where are we currently in the arena of planning? 

Here are the major points from the last budget. 

Permitted Development Rights 

By the time last year’s budget was announced, the government had already implemented dozens of proposals from the Housing White Paper and 2017 Autumn Budget. Effectively, the government had therefore already revised the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). 

One of the major announcements the chancellor made on October 29th 2018 was a consultation on permitted development rights. This was to explore upward development on existing residential and commercial properties. As well as enabling existing blocks of flats to be extended upwards, the chancellor envisages that exiting commercial buildings could be demolished and replaced. 

On the face of it, this appears a good policy. However, the RICS has pointed out that where permitted development rights have been allowed, many such extensions have been delivered poorly, especially with the quality of commercial-to-residential conversions. 

It is likely that urban planners will have a bigger part to play in this area, taking a lead in the conversations that take place when considering such schemes. 

Simplifying Collaboration With Developers 

The chancellor also announced a simplified system to enable developers to contribute more easily. This should improve certainty for developers and local authorities, while also enabling local authorities to capture the increase in land values to provide funding for affordable housing and infrastructure improvements. The reforms announced include: 

Simplifying the process for setting a higher zonal Community Infrastructure Levy in areas of high land value uplift  

Removing Restrictions On Section 106 Pooling 

A strategic infrastructure tariff (SIT) for combined authorities and joint planning committees was also announced.Change of use has been modernised. As the high street evolves, largely because of factors such as the competition from online retailers, local authorities have found it difficult to extend change of use for repurposing or redevelopment. This slows down the whole process, leaving vacant stores empty and discouraging further investment in town centres.

The idea is to introduce a more flexible and responsive regime, combining with new permitted development rights to make it easier to create a mixed-use environment on the high street. 

It is envisaged that there will be a register of empty shops among local authorities (trials are being conducted), with a brokerage to connect community groups to empty shops. This may lead to more conversions of empty shops to residential use, without planning permission needed. However, once again, many of these conversions to date have been made poorly, and this is simply storing up problems for the future. These plans would remove power from local authority planners to plan and control the urban environment.  

Local Planners For Local Places 

The government is handing down power for planning decisions to be made more locally. The Localism Act 2011 enables people who know the local area to come together and produce plans for their neighbourhoods. The aim is that parishes will provide more affordable homes for locals to purchase. 

Local parish councils will produce development orders to ensure that developers build the type of homes needed where they are needed. To this end, the government released funding of more than £8 million for up to 500 neighbourhoods to allocate land for homes sold at a discount. 

However, while the plan sounds a good one, it currently amounts to little. There are more than 10,000 parish councils in England. The £8.5 million of funding will therefore affect less than 5% of parish councils, and it will only release an average of £17,000 per parish. 

Help For High Street Planning

Showing signs of understanding the strain facing high streets, the chancellor launched the Future High Streets Fund with £675 million of investment to improve and develop high streets. These funds will help deliver improvements to infrastructure in town centres, including better access to support development of higher-density residential builds. 

The Future For Urban Planners 

There are many challenges for urban planners to meet in the future. Some are already coming to the forefront of thinking. It is likely that global issues will need to be channelled into the mindset of urban planners, and that challenges such as climate change and exploding urban populations will increasingly determine town and city planning. 

Those urban planners who demonstrate a keen interest in what is happening in the world, relating it to the big data captured by advanced monitoring systems, and then analysing it to produce local-level plans that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population, are likely to be those who stand out from the crowd. 

Are you an urban planner looking for your next challenge? Contact Macdonald & Company today and discover why the very best companies and go-ahead local authorities look to us when they wish to hire the very best talent. 
The Biggest Challenges For Urban Planning In The UK

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