Last month, the Royal Commision on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published a report, ‘The Urban Environment’ , expressing astonishment that “on the eve of the new phase of urban regeneration and expansion, we lack an over-arching urban environment policy to coordinate the provision of housing, transport, energy and other vital services”. It makes a number of important recommendations aimed at developing environmentally sustainable urban environments. This requires a robust planning framework, and it is vital that the current planning system, however flawed and timid, is not dismantled, particularly during a period of major urban development when it is most needed. Since 80% of the UK population lives in towns and cities, there’s something here for most of us.
The report has 232 pages, and we don’t have the space here to cover all of it. One thing that caught my eye was the section on the continuing trend of paving over front gardens to provide off-road parking space. This issue has been getting regular coverage in the media, but for those of you who’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few years, here’s a brief overview of the reasons why it’s a Bad Thing.
Currently, the highest profile problem caused by hard surfaces is that of flooding. Rain water no longer has a quick and easy route back into the ground, but goes straight to the nearest gutter. Ancient drainage systems are overwhelmed, leading to headlines about sewage in the Thames. Pollutants such as oils, chemicals and heavy metals that would normally be filtered by the soil go straight into water courses. Runoff disrupts water catchments, leading to empty aquifers and reservoirs, and hosepipe bans.
Removal of vegetation means a loss of wildlife habitats, greater urban heat effects and reduced resilience against climate change and extreme weather events. Dry subsoils increase the risk of subsidence. There are many social and sustainability implications: loss of privacy and amenity, reduced property values, increased traffic volume and speed in residential streets, increased danger for cyclists and pedestrians, the devaluation of the streetscape as a social space.
The RCEP report points out that such small-scale changes have an important cumulative effect:
- An area 22 times the size of London’s Hyde Park has been lost as a result of converting many of London’s front gardens to hard-standing.
- Even greater proportions have been lost elsewhere in the country, with an estimated 47% of front gardens in North-East England being more than three-quarters paved.
The RCEP recommends that “local planning authorities use supplementary planning guidance to minimise the use of hard-standing, and require the use of permeable surfaces for paving and car parking.” Which is pretty wishy-washy really, and is a joke to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the UK planning system. In 2003 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) published a “Review of Permitted Development Rights“ which recommended that planning permission should be required for any hard surfacing where the total area of any existing and new hard surface would exceed the lesser of 15 square metres or 50% of the garden area. This report was quietly shelved. Magnificently detailed research conducted by Local Agenda 21 in the London Borough of Ealing was ignored by everyone except a few journalists. A subsequent document by the London Assembly (‘Crazy Paving‘, 2005) is an excellent source of information on this problem, but contents itself with calling for “consultation” and “seminars”, and recommending that planning law be amended to enable local authorities to require planning applications for pavement crossovers. It ducked the entire issue with the words “There is nothing in planning or any other law to prevent a homeowner from covering their front garden with concrete or any other surface. Nor should there be – it is for individuals to decide what to do with their own gardens”.
It seems that, while everybody accepts this is a major environmental and social problem, nobody has the courage to do anything about it. Meanwhile, the hand-wringing and the destruction continue.