New report: Stepping off the Road to Nowhere

March 10th, 2024

The UK can build hundreds of thousands of new homes, without paving the countryside. The key is a different approach to transport planning, according to a major new study, Stepping Off the Road to Nowhere, from Create Streets and Sustrans.

  • The problem: the UK government will have a target to build 1.5 million new homes – whoever wins power in 2024. But where will these new homes go? Sir Keir Starmer vowed that “Labour is the party that protects our green spaces” whilst the Conservatives are prioritising brownfield land. But despite this consensus on the value of our countryside many new housing developments are still built at low-density, sprawling across fields, while still not making a dent in the UK’s chronic undersupply of housing. Many of these developments lack local services and are designed around heavily subsidised new roads, locking in car-dependency, taking up far more space, despoiling the landscape and increasing the environmental impact of new homes.
  • The solution: the new report from design experts Create Streets and cycling and walking charity Sustrans proposes a way to build more homes on less land with more consent. It calls for a shift from this sprawling, road-dependent model of ‘housebuilding’ to ‘townbuilding’: new extensions to existing towns, built at ‘gentle densities’ that use more terraced and mid-rise buildings to deliver more homes per acre of countryside released. ‘Stepping off the Road to Nowhere’ calls for shops and services to be mixed together with homes in fine-grained streets, supported by better buses, walking and cycling rather than barren bypasses and tarmacked cul-de-sacs. The report shows how adopting a new ‘vision-led’ form of transport planning can unlock this approach.
  • The detailed case study: Stepping off the Road to Nowhere takes a proposed 7,500 home town extension to Chippenham and uses only 40 per cent of the land. This was based around a government funded £75m new road supporting a sprawling low-density housing plan.  Create Streets and Sustrans redesigned this as a new gentle density masterplan using only 40 per cent of the land to accommodate all 7,500 homes in the original plan. That’s saving 230 hectares of land, an area ten times as big as St James’s Park in Westminster.
  • Saving an area the size of the Isle of Wight. Applying this ‘gentle density’ uplift across the 1.5 million new homes we need could save 42,000 hectares. This is an area the size of the Isle of Wight.
  • From roads to places. The report shows how, by removing the need for an expensive new road, the £75m of public investment could  instead fund a range of local benefits  such as improved bus and rail infrastructure for the whole town commercial and community services within the new development, new walking and cycling routes, car clubs,  and financial support for the local high street to encourage more people to shop there rather than drive to out of town services.
  • Cleaner and greener. Expert transport modelling of the impact on travel journeys shows that this would mean 9,300 more people walking and cycling every day, with increased public transport use resulting in less congestion due to 12,000 fewer vehicle trips needing to be made. As a result, carbon emissions from the development would be reduced by 2,000 tonnes per year, helping us on our way to creating not just net-zero homes but a net-zero neighbourhood.
  • Why road modelling really really matters (stay with us here !) Many developers want to adopt this ‘vision-led’ approach. However, they are prevented by flawed prediction-based transport planning still used by many local authorities. Known as ‘predict and provide’, this system uses historic transport data to attempt to predict the future and build the infrastructure for it. The result has been ever more roads that quickly fill up. There is a simple reason many developers want to build places at gentle densities: people want them. Demand is such in many of these schemes that there are value premiums of 15 per cent. Creating more of these vibrant, street-based places would mean they don’t continue to be the preserve of the wealthy.
  • Our recommendations for Department for Transport. The report recommends that the Department for Transport issues guidance to local authorities mandating ‘vision-led’ transport modelling and that local authorities adopt ‘vision-led’ modelling as a policy within local transport plans, in the same way that Oxfordshire and Somerset County Councils have recently done.
  • Our recommendations for Homes England. The report also calls for Homes England, the government’s housing agency, to only offer financial grants to housing schemes adopting this vision-led approach. This shift alone should help change the current situation in which two thirds of one Homes England’s largest infrastructure budgets has been left unspent, largely due to the prevalence of large road projects that were often opposed and have often gone over budget.
  • Our argument in a nutshell. We can build more homes per hectare of land on town extensions by building terraced homes, mansion blocks and providing more shops and services mixed within new developments alongside investment in public transport, walking and cycling routes. Giving a broader and better choice of transport options to new residents will improve congestion and cost the government less in subsidising large new road schemes. To make this a reality a change of approach in transport planning is needed.

Commenting on the paper, Xavier Brice, CEO of Sustrans and Nicholas Boys Smith, Chair of Create Streets said:

It is vital that new developments are designed around people, giving new and existing residents better choices in how they travel rather than more congestion. Simply accepting more of the same, after decades of car-centric, sprawling new developments, will only continue to fail the people and communities too-often forced to depend on a car for everyday journeys. This report shows a way forward: developments which put communities before cars, building fewer roads and making walking and cycling easier, leading to beautiful places, thriving local economies and healthier lifestyles.’

Xavier Brice, CEO, Sustrans

‘Too many new developments over the last 80 years have been ugly and faceless, could-be-anywhere muddles of roundabouts, lumps and sprawl. We need a better way .

We need to stop creating big-road places, sprawling wastefully and carelessly across the countryside. Drive-to  cul-de-sacs are bad for our health, they are bad for the environment and they are bad for our landscape which they so thoughtlessly despoil. This important report shows there is another way. It’s no surprise that it’s been uniquely widely welcomed from the CPRE to prominent members of the YIMBY movement. What other report can say that?

Rather than being the slaves of secret transport models which erroneously assume more driving for ever, we should put humans back in control and create greener and more beautiful places in which it is easier to walk and cycle as well as jump in the car. As the meticulously worked up and costed case study shows this allows you to create the same number of homes in about half of the land whilst creating better and more valuable places. It’s time to get off the road to nowhere for people, place and planet’

Nicholas Boys Smith, Chair, Create Streets

Read the whole report here.


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