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Planning and collaboration - the future for sustainable cities

We were delighted that the Infrastructure and Project Authority's Development Director Karl Fitzgerald joined architects RSHP, Greater Cambridge Planning, the London boroughs of Camden and Lewisham, and energy investor and asset manager Amber Infrastructure in our continuing series of debates around energy and sustainability in the run up to COP 26.

This debate focused on the announcement of the new 'Great British Railways' authority and the potential benefit for the development of rail infrastructure in the UK; how France is developing urban infrastructure sustainability as a comparison to the UK; how the model of communication between central and local government will need to evolve around future infrastructure and Net Zero and whether the growth of combined authorities will help roll out regional and rural green infrastructure effectively.

Karl Fitzgerald of I&PA spoke on the value of the new Great British Railways:

'There are opportunities in there and we do need to be focused on the whole of the rail system and how that gets us to Net Zero. Culturally, the first movements out of lockdown have meant that people have shied away from public transport, staying in their cars. Studies on long term effects show that it will be a long time before people go back to taking the bus or train depending on their living and working patterns. We are in a foggy environment in this but over the last year energy levels have been down to 1998 levels which is good.

''The relationship between East West Rail and the new rail body will be an interesting one. Procurement services will be unique with the new body. Driving investment will be crucial. Insistence on 'building back better' is a confident message and is exactly what is needed.'

The debate turned to the differing approaches on infrastructure planning between the UK and other European countries.

Montparnasse master plan - the public realm at night (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners)

Partner Stephen Barrett at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners who works both in the UK and France spoke about the firm's 2008 Grand Paris study. At the time the French were behind the UK with respect to the significance of sustainability in urbanism and architecture but that has now changed.

'Public projects in France reflect the increasing influence of the 'ecologists' at city and regional level and environment is now central to all projects. The French are not afraid of. how they achieve the financing of large projects, and they are keen to demonstrate the offset benefits to show value. It is clear during Covid-19 that when you need to find money for certain purposes it is there, and not having ambition is in many ways a false economy. The UK often lacks a grand urban vision.

'London is a much greener and a less dense city than Paris. The planting of 2,000 trees around Montparnasse station is trying to counter this. However, it is not just about carbon offset and climate change but also about the 15 minute city and generating proximity. Good planning of infrastructure is trying to do more with less, and that's what our study of the future of roads in Paris tried to show.'

At a regional level in the UK, local authorities are grappling with the national initiatives for carbon reduction while trying to adapt the policies for their individual circumstances.

Greater Cambridge Planning, Consultant, Emma Davies, described how the difficult questions for the county centre around transport:

'We are updating our local plan with Net Zero in mind and looking at the infrastructure that is required to support that. People are pinning their hopes on electric cars but we need to reduce trips in the first place. So where we locate developments is important and our rail projects must be adapted now to support climate change. One big issue in Cambridge is that we have a lot of terraced housing with no driveways to park cars and to install charging points, so we must go wider than this with a national and more joined-up approach.'

Would the greater growth of combined authorities still be needed even with the introduction of the new national Great British Railways? On devolution, Peter Radford, Principal at Amber Infrastructure explained that he was a big fan as combined authorities could create greater space for supporting the larger infrastructure projects for the government. But could the energy projects that Amber has been working on with the Mayor of London's office work regionally? Peter commented:

'London has a head start, as we have a framework for on-street charging which of course must not impact on the ability to walk down the street. Regionally there are more homes with drives but this roll out of charge points must be done in a fair way. In London those who don't have off street parking should not find themselves paying a lot more than those who do. There could be much sharing between the combined authorities and the LEPs on this to make it work - we don't need to re-invent the wheel.'

Lewisham and Camden Councils described the learning programme that would be helpful to create more engagement on carbon re-education among local residents.

Lewisham Council's Head of Planning, Emma Talbot stated that there is still the need to listen to local residents and engage with them:

'Net Zero has risen up the agenda in a brilliant way but we tend to connect with the same people all the time. The biggest issue in the borough is in the housing stock and then transport, We actually have one of the lowest levels of car ownership in London and that is linked to deprivation. To reach our carbon reduction targets we would have to start today 'greening' 28 homes every day up to 2030 to get people up to the right level. We need to be talking not just to adults but to kids who are the home owners of tomorrow.

'We need to do better with public realm too. Lewisham's clock tower was an engineered solution for its time. We need to use resources we already have there and we are looking to change things in a much more holistic and meaningful way. On rivers for example, we need to get people to value these assets and look on them as infrastructure benefits in themselves.'

Cllr Adam Harrison at Camden Council described how retrofit is just one of the elements in the borough's programme to tackle climate change:

'The conservation area challenge is one of the biggest where solar panels could be hidden away or space created for air source heating pumps. This will be a highly intrusive programme and will scare people so there have to be opportunities created to engage with residents. Money is always an issue for retrofit, so we are looking for announcements from central government on this.

'There is also an education campaign to be done with blocking off roads to discourage car use and reduce emissions. We have had no through routes for many decades and housing estates have always been designed that way. But we have to look at emergency measures to discourage ways of using cars.'

How did Karl Fitzgerald regard the idea of a pattern book and a 'learning as we go' approach to help the future of infrastructure? He explained:

'When we are delivering at this kind of scale the only way to do it is to go boldly and make the odd mistake. I am a proud advocate of the pioneers who built Milton Keynes - and the scale of ambition that was put in to practice. It is the same with the Oxford - Cambridge Arc, we have to make sure that there is sustainability, biodiversity and resilient places for people to live in. It is an enormous challenge with a background that is rapidly changing. Our infrastructure challenges will require all stakeholders from central government to local authorities and local people to collaborate to make it work. A pattern book really helps when the scale is so enormous and it is a real challenge to get your head around. We no longer have a policy challenge but now people are making steps in a design and planning delivery exercise. Take the street challenge for example, we do not want cluttered streets but we need to put in the charging points, so how do we solve this problem? Electric mobility needs wider infrastructure and it usually takes 9/10 years to get a grid network in place. We have designed our infrastructure to keep energy cheap but then not spending on infrastructure creates need. So I think generating sets of rules to design within is a good idea.

'When we talk about levelling up the North, perhaps we can be using lessons that we are learning in the Ox-Cam Arc - these could be transferable to the North of England. When there are multiple aspects of government working in a spatial way, you need flexibility. The benefits from one department could be transferred to another department. There are no benefits from cycling schemes except in terms of people's health and saving on the NHS, but those cycle benefits do not transfer into the transport area. Tools will be ready to use in the levelling up process. Investment in the Ox-Cam Arc is not attracting investment away from other parts of country. It is international investment that is being drawn into the Arc.'

Stephen Barrett of RSHP added:

'TfL's type of 'joined up financing' is lacking in Paris, but public spaces as infrastructure in common ownership is a lever for change. Moving towards electrification and autonomy offer the possibility of a real revolution. The road network as public transport system - how adaptable is it? What will be the requirements by 2050? Of course, distance has a fundamental relationship with energy and carbon which is why we promote the idea of the Compact City. We should be looking at the benefits of shared infrastructure.'

Peter Radford:

' We have got to get on with it now. Some of the innovation in EV charging is super exciting, especially around the use of street lights. Can we make more use of physical infrastructure, rather than starting form scratch? Can we look at charging and wider space using block chain payments? What can we do about electric taxis all wanting to use rapid chargers at same time? We shouldn't be building more charging points but looking at flexing the times of charging using incentives to charge at off-peak times.

'Emma Talbot was asked about the Green Homes Grant and whether this had been a success:

'A big barrier to this is money plus a lack of awareness and the complexity of getting it. Do I need permission etc? It is so complex and we speak a special language even if you are an expert it is hard to understand and then changes come in and then another project launched. There are lots of pots of money and so many initiatives, so people find it really hard to engage. We should be trying to simplify it all to real life people.'

Cllr Adam Harrison commented:

'Local authorities are ideal delivery partners, but government should have a national conversation about what they are asking people to do. We know we need to change how we travel from government but need now advice on buildings with emphasis on what would help the most. We need direction. People still don't understand about de-carbonising heat.'

Karl Fitzgerald summed up the debate with an accent on the level of leadership that is now required:

'We need to look at collaboration and the role of leadership and governance in this space, the role of local authorities and how they look at projects in a granular way and in context. Sometimes we see Net Zero as someone else's problem but it is owned by everyone. We don't have a Ministry of Net Zero but we need to embed the concept of it in every department and create accountability. We need to ask how is this project contributing to that project? This might force collaboration. Tools are becoming available to help which gives me some confidence but the scale of what we are doing is still massive.'

Watch out for more sustainability debates with Future Cities Forum in the run up to COP 26 and beyond.

Image below - Autoroute A1 2050 (The Roads of the Future Grand Paris - Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners / AREF)


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