The planning and development challenges facing Wales
The Future Generations Act offers a vision of Wales as more prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, culturally vibrant, globally responsible, and with cohesive communities. While we can be proud of this, there is much to do to make it a reality.
Over two decades of devolution, Wales has begun to manage many of its own affairs, but it remains one of the least prosperous and most unhealthy parts of the UK. We have an aging housing stock and much wasteland.
The record of Welsh Government
Judged by policy statements, Welsh Government appears to have adopted a progressive approach to planning. But there is a striking gap between aspiration and implementation.
Planning Policy Wales promises to deliver the Future Generations goals through ways of working that think long-term, integrate objectives, involve people, collaborate with others, and prevent problems. It advocates placemaking as an inclusive process for planning, decision-making and delivering developments that contribute to the creation and enhancement of sustainable places.
Yest corporate developers have backroom access to planning processes which exclude communities. Planning Departments treat residents as adversaries to be defeated. After a decade of cuts, any considerations lacking immediate commercial value are discarded. Planning Committees are intimidated by a threat of legal challenge.
Despite the claims that development in Wales is ‘plan-led’, in practice corporate profit sets the pace. It is now normal for developers in Wales to avoid their planning obligations. If a Council points to a Development Plan, the developer cries “not viable” and threatens to walk away. Knowing Planning Committees surrender, landowners demand a higher price for land, validating developers’ claims.
What others have done in planning and development
The desire for a better world to live in has inspired visions such as garden cities. Socialists in power have built desirable social housing. Wilful neglect has decayed British council housing, but once it too was desired. Now some councils are thinking ambitiously about zero-carbon quality housing in green environments.
In 1947, the post-war Labour Government passed the Town and Country Planning Act, requiring local authorities to define plans and developers to seek permission. That Act recognised a rise in the value of land from planning permission should benefit the community. Today, planning authorities can set obligations on developers, but they often fail to enforce their own policies.
In contrast, US cities prefer a model that allows developers to build at will within broad rules defined for a zone. Boris Johnson wants this for England, claiming it will stimulate housebuilding. But its true intention is to exclude local residents from any say on proposals optimised for corporate profit. As experience has shown, only a major public housing programme can provide decent homes for all.
Planning for people not for profit: an eco-socialist approach to development
Land use is central to achieving a society and an environment fit for future generations, with towns and countryside in which we can live and work in harmony with people and nature.
There is scope for a radical agenda on planning and development despite the inherent constraints of capitalism. Wales must not follow England in tearing up the planning system. Putting people first means challenging both developments driven by profit and planning done by experts for/to residents, rather than with them.
Planning and development policy and implementation for the next Welsh Government
Planning authorities must involve communities in setting goals and assessing applications:
Planning authorities to put well-being of future generations at the heart of development:
Ensure sustainable development and reverse environmental degradation:
Reassert the principle that gain from planning permission is a public good:
Ensure everyone has a home that is affordable, sustainable andaccessible:
The challenges facing the Welsh economy
Wales still suffers the legacy of deindustrialisation. Gross Value Added per head is just 73% of the UK average, with output in West Wales and the Valleys low enough for EU support. Unemployment is no longer above the rest of the UK, but wages are 16% lower. 200,000 jobs have been created since 2001, but a quarter in manufacturing have gone. There are over 50,000 zero-hour contracts. One in three children live in poverty.
Inward foreign direct investment has brought some jobs but often at a cost of public subsidy, while branch factories are easy to close. The foundational economy, providing a third of Welsh jobs, cannot be relocated, but Wales lacks a strong base of small and medium businesses in growth sectors.
The Covid pandemic has disrupted and recovery will be difficult. Brexit has serious implications as over 60% of Welsh exports go to EU countries. Climate change demands conversion to net-zero carbon and urgent flood protection. The Westminster government is increasingly hostile to Welsh aspirations.
The record of Welsh Government on the economy
Devolution has enabled Wales to mitigate some consequences of UK Government policies, but it has not reduced the output gap between Wales and more prosperous English regions. Nor have internal inequalities shrunk. Geographical divergence is sharp; the gender pay gap is large; black and minority ethnic people still struggle to obtain good jobs. Over 20 years, more could have been done on this.
Welsh Government has resisted privatisation, keeping it to the margins in health, if not in social care. It now owns Cardiff Airport and rail will follow next year. But private capital dominates the economy. The Mutual Investment Model risks creating private financing issues despite attempts to avoid these.
Budgetary dependence on the block grant from Westminster, calculated on the outdated Barnett formula, has exposed Welsh Government to Tory austerity, leaving £5bn less for services than if the grant had grown in line with GDP. The taxation powers Wales now has cannot fill this gap.
Welsh Government has adopted many progressive policies, some embedded in legislation. The Future Generations Act is a model. The Social Partnership Bill will give unions a recognised role. Many other schemes are aspirational. But all this has yet to reverse post-industrial decline. Welsh Government has been running to stand still.
What can Wales learn from what others have done on the economy
With just 3.4% of UK GDP, Wales has struggled to define its own path through a decade of Westminster austerity. The commitment of both Labour and Conservative governments to neoliberal economics has accentuated the consequences of globalisation and technology.
Many examples can be drawn on for inspiration. Community wealth building aims at local, collaborative investment; the cooperative movement has a long history; development banks support regional economies in Germany; China shows the state can drive growth.
A socialist approach to the Welsh economy
The Future Generations Act offers a vision of Wales as more prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, culturally vibrant, globally responsible, and with cohesive communities. That demands a radical break from 20 years of trying to manage and humanise capitalism within a framework set by neoliberal ideology and austerity, which has failed.
The constraints of global capitalism and those imposed by a Tory government at Westminster are real, but Welsh Government should push the limits of what is possible, always acting for the Many not the Few. An eco-socialist government in Wales could provide a beacon for those fighting injustices everywhere. There are practical steps to improve well-being and protect our environment.
Policy aims for the next Welsh Government
Welsh Government must provide protection on Covid now and prepare a just recovery:
Welsh Government must put justice and economic democracy at the heart of its policies:
Welsh Government must challenge the damaging constraints imposed from Westminster:
The Welsh Government inherited a public transport system that had been disfigured by the Tories’ sweeping privatisation of bus and rail services in the 1980s and 1990s and had limited powers to introduce reform, despite abundant evidence that the privatised system had put profit-taking before the provision of a public service. Gradual devolution of greater powers, combined with the breakdown of the ‘private enterprise’ model, has created opportunities for change, however, and Welsh Labour ministers have increasingly been able to use their powers to promote a more publicly beneficial and sustainable transport system – most recently by bringing the Wales and the Borders rail franchise into full public ownership with effect from 2021, as well as developing plans to re-regulate local bus transport, which have unfortunately been set back by the Coronavirus pandemic. The greatest challenge facing Welsh public transport in the longer term, however, is the need for radical reconfiguration in the face of the climate emergency.
Transport and the Climate Emergency
The climate emergency compels Welsh policymakers to think afresh about policies for transport, which is Wales’ worst performing sector for climate change. We need rapid transformation of our transport system to reduce vehicle use, as well as achieving a faster transition from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles and significantly cutting aviation emissions. Rapid action to reduce vehicle use will command public consent only if undertaken alongside big changes to our transport system to give people decent, clean and affordable ways of travelling by foot, bike or low-carbon public transport. We must recognise a basic right for everyone to be able to live decently without having to drive a car. A transport system for a zero-carbon future must therefore be:
Universal and comprehensive public transport for Wales
The universal, comprehensive public transport that we must now create needs to be like the public transport networks in the city-regions of Munich, Vienna and Zurich, where public transport functions as a single, centrally-co-ordinated system with “one network, one timetable, one ticket” and where public transport use is strikingly higher than in comparable areas of Wales and England. To have public transport systems as good as these city-regions, we will need better transport governance, with all services regulated and operated under the control of a ‘guiding mind’, as is the norm in Europe. This requires a railway system operating as a single entity under public control, in the public interest, and with an objective to reduce carbon emissions. It is difficult to see how this can be done without bringing Britain’s entire rail network back into national public ownership.
The Welsh Government’s control of the Wales and Borders franchise does not extend to having a significant say over the longer-distance cross-border franchises, nor to Network Rail’s development of Welsh rail infrastructure. There is growing consensus that franchising has failed and the Welsh Government should draw on this to make the case for better vertically integration of railway structures within Wales and to push for more substantive control of all rail services and infrastructure in Wales. Notwithstanding the continuing need for horizontal integration of railways across Britain, the Welsh Government could and should have sufficient powers to properly plan, invest in and develop the railway in Wales so as to integrate it with all other modes of public transport. Local bus and tram services also need to be brought under the full control of Welsh local authorities or groups of authorities, allowing service standards to be set and an integrated national and local public rail and bus timetable to be planned.
Universal and comprehensive active travel for Wales
We need to transform our streets so that everyone feels safe walking and cycling, not just the minority who are young, fit and brave. We should aim to make all main road cycling corridors as good as the best Danish main road cycle provision within five years. ‘E-bikes’, with electrically assisted pedalling, have great potential to reduce car mileage. Around half of e-bike trips replace trips that would otherwise be made by car. They have broader appeal than conventional bikes, including to older people, women and those who are less active. Wales could emulate European governments that have used grants to drive up e-bike sales.
How can we pay for what Wales needs?
The cost of the unprecedented investment in green public transport and healthy streets that will be needed over the next ten years could be offset by reallocating in its entirety the major expenditure on road schemes. Capital spending on roads by public bodies in Wales has outweighed all other transport capital spending over the past five years, and future spending plans indicate that this is set to get worse – despite the recognition of the Climate Emergency by the Senedd and Welsh Government. International experience suggests ways in which more funding for clean, green, affordable transport could be raised by the Welsh Government or by local authorities: local payroll levies on employers (used in France to fund investment in trams); a visitor lodging tax (used in cities like Paris and countries like Switzerland); a charge on cars entering a city (used to fund Stockholm’s metro extension); an Eco Levy applied to cars and vans on main roads and a distance-based HGV charge (used in Germany); and capturing the land value uplift that results from granting planning permission for major developments (used by local authorities in Germany and the Netherlands). The Welsh Government could use the fundraising powers from this list that it already has available and lobby the Westminster government for those it does not.
Another option is to charge private vehicle users for driving in towns and cities – a measure that has significantly reduced traffic volumes in cities around the world, even when set at a modest level, but which had remained unexplored in Wales until Cardiff Council’s recent decision to adopt it. A mileage-based Eco Levy would encourage people to switch to greener, healthier modes of transport; combining it with free local public transport could make it a politically sellable policy. Local public transport is already fare-free in more than 100 towns and cities across the world. Public money already accounts for more than 40% of bus operator revenues in Wales and the planned re-regulation of local bus transport, combined with powers to raise funds from local taxation, could make free local bus services feasible.
A package of transport policy proposals
There are a small number of radical actions that would be transformative, and that could be implemented as a coherent package:
1. Make carbon reduction the Welsh Government’s top priority for transport, with national carbon reduction budgets translated into binding targets and carbon budgets for the transport sector and mechanisms to monitor and enforce progress. Until Wales is on track to achieve emission reduction targets, transport projects to be appraised primarily according to their cost-effectiveness in reducing emissions.
2. Bring spending budgets into line with this climate priority and carbon budgets, transferring money presently spent on climate ‘bads’ into climate ‘goods’, and in particular shifting all current spending on road-building to investment in sustainable local transport, whilst bringing in other national and local sources of funding for sustainable transport, including a public transport payroll levy.
3. Ensure planning policy supports carbon budgets by putting in place strict rules that any significant new development must be in locations served by excellent public transport.
4. Redeploy engineers from road building to climate-positive road redesign that propels modal shift to sustainable transport – including building a strategic cycleway network alongside or paralleling all main roads, to 15km either side of every settlement and redesigning all urban main roads to give safe segregated space to cyclists and priority to buses.
5. Strengthen the governance of rail and buses in Wales, regulating the entire system to enshrine the principle of a Universal Basic Right to excellent public transport, setting consistent service standards and adopting an integrated public transport timetable, with buses and trains fully under public control to ensure they are run in the public interest, and with increased public ownership wherever necessary.
6. Introduce an Eco Levy for driving in urban areas, balanced by making local public transport fare-free, to incentivise the modal shift away from private vehicles.
Twelve immediate transport priorities necessitated by the Covid and Climate Emergencies