How the Planning System Can Accommodate Regenerative Settlement

The Orthodox Model for Locating New Development

The planning system has, since its inception, directed most new development to cities, towns and larger villages in the expectation that these were the most sustainable places for it. The idea is that by adding to the population utilising existing services and facilities, and accessing local employment, these places are helped to become more sustainable as service and employment centres, and that residents will need to travel less.

It is built into such thinking is that new development is generally not expected to be intrinsically sustainable, and so instead needs to be best fitted into the existing sustainability pattern of development already on the ground. There has, though, been relatively little research into how cities, towns and villages actually work or function, and the impacts on this of allocations of new development – mainly of housing and employment space.

Faults in the Model

The Role of Rural Settlements as Service Centres, research for the Countryside Agency in 2003, which I led, found that this reality was much more complex than the simplistic settlement hierarchies nearly all development plans base their decisions for allocating new development on. Settlement hierarchies assume that characteristics of places - size, and the presence of key services (schools, shops, meeting places etc.) - can identify the more strategically sustainable places to locate new development. We found, though, that strategic location – relationships to major infrastructure (mainly roads) and with other settlements – were much more important than size and key services in determining how functionally strong or independent a place was, and that this therefore varied greatly from one place to another. The second major factor was that people tend to travel, or specifically to use private cars, far more than planning policy assumed they would.

The result of all of this was that planning decisions, based on settlement hierarchies, risked getting things wrong in directing development to places where its sustainability impacts would be less than assumed, and also missed opportunities for development to bring greater benefits to other places – most importantly smaller places forming functional networks, which are often overlooked.

Regenerative Settlement – a Solution

Regenerative Settlement, being a form of development which is intrinsically sustainable (and beyond that regenerative), obviates this risk, as wherever it happens, it makes a positive contribution, and therefore does not rely on best placement in the existing sustainability pattern.

It is still important, however, to understand its strategic and local context, to get greatest positive impact from it on the environmental, social and economic systems it is being combined with. regenerative additions to existing settlements, as well as meeting their own needs, could offer food, energy, employment and community facilities to their ‘host’ city, town or village. Remoter new settlements would be more freestanding, but could bring larger areas of adjoining farmland or woodland into more productive and beneficial use, and also become new centres for employment or recreation for their hinterland.

Whilst being clear that it must be a positive form of development, regenerative development is also adaptable, to maximise its affects. This contrasts with ‘normal’ housing or employment development where affects are often not properly understood.

Planning Policy Needs to Identify and Embrace Regenerative Settlement

For ‘normal’ housing, employment and other forms of development, the aim of developers is to maximise land value and profits, and therefore also to minimise the take of land for uses not bringing a return. Because Regenerative Settlement brings significant environmental and social benefits which ‘normal’ development does not, and often needs more land to do so, the bottom line is that it cannot realise the same land values. Regenerative Settlement, therefore, cannot compete for sites allocated for all sorts of ‘normal’ development by the planning system. Instead it needs to be allowed in other locations.

This is not a problem, however, as Regenerative Settlement is intrinsically sustainable and so can have a positive impact wherever it occurs. What is much more important than its location is its characteristics and outputs, and that these can be guaranteed from inception and into the future. Suitably put together planning policy and guidance can do this – detailed examples will be something we will work on soon. Local planning policy might also identify suitable sites for Regenerative Settlement, so defined, as part of a wider mix of development types an area needs.

If it is clear that land can only be developed for Regenerative Settlement its value will be set lower, making regenerative development possible.

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