Councils should improve walkways between housing developments

3 Nov 17

Council departments need to work together to improve walking connectivity between new housing developments, says Local Government Information Unit policy researcher Andrew Walker.

The drive to build more houses is important.

But it is vital that we focus on quality as well as numbers and it is increasingly important that we have a conversation about what sort of places we build.

We have to build good places for people to live, which are well connected and encourage residents to walk and spend time outside.

Our recent research has shown that local authorities want to build places that encourage walking and active travel, but developers do not always share these priorities. 

In fact, many councils feel the mismatch is a big challenge in achieving their goals.

In a new report, published in partnership with the Ramblers, we found that nine out of ten councils say access to walking infrastructure is a priority for new developments built in their areas, but only half feel that developers share this view.

There are serious challenges that result in trying to achieve connectivity and walkability.

For Building Connected Communities we surveyed 118 officers from local authorities across England and found that eighty nine per cent say walking access is a key consideration for their council, while ninety four per cent have a Local Plan in place that encourages walking and active travel. However, only 49% felt developers share the same priorities.

While housing has shot up the political agenda in the last year with the government’s call for a rebirth of house building, the report finds four out of ten councils say they have experienced difficulty meeting their walking and active travel priorities when delivering large developments.

And, while most developments over the past five years were in line with targets, around one in ten were seen as not in line with health and wellbeing strategies.

“We need places for people to live healthy, happy, active lives. This means they need to be well connected, with good access to walking, cycling and green infrastructure.”

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of LGiU

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of LGiU, said that “with all the emphasis on the government’s plans to deliver a rebirth of house building, it is increasingly important that we have a conversation about the places that we build not just the numbers of homes we deliver. We need to ensure good connectivity, not just a large quantity of buildings.

“We need places for people to live healthy, happy, active lives. This means they need to be well connected, with good access to walking, cycling and green infrastructure.”

Despite this, councils regularly experience challenges in making this happen. Eight out of ten councils surveyed felt viability assessments make it difficult to meet priorities, while seven out of ten felt influencing developers was a challenge. The lack of resources in planning departments was also highlighted as a barrier by half of respondents.

Adrian Harvey, policy and advocacy manager at the Ramblers, said “We know that walkable places are better places, they are healthier, greener and much more pleasant to live and work in.”

While there are encouraging signs that councils are active in this area, there is a lot more to be done to overcome the challenges.

The key is to find ways to make walking the easiest and most appealing option for getting around and there are ways that councils can make a difference.

Councils’ tools include active travel, green space and walking strategies, local plans and public health strategies, as well as access to section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy funding.

Councils should have strong policies in place to require connectivity.

It is important that it is required, more than just suggested or recommended.  They should also seek to improve their strategic engagement with developers and have dialogue as early as possible to establish their expectations.

But the issue goes beyond planning itself. It encompasses a whole range of council activity and departments. Highways, parks, public health, housing and regeneration all have a crucial role to play.

Case studies, in Gateshead, Tamworth and Preston, illustrate some of the ways that councils could seek to make progress in improving walking connectivity through new developments.

There are certainly challenges associated with increasing development on the scale required.

But with right approach and the right tools in place, there are also huge opportunities for improving the public realm.

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