Between 2015 and 2019, a total of 2,743 new major residential developments were approved in England. It was a record number, with 170,000 homes built in the year ending in June 2019 alone – the highest number for 11 years. The then Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said it was his mission to “get Britain building.”
How accessible these homes really are is a key question for the housing sector. New developments are easy to access by car, but the average travel times by public transport varies significantly by different regions. In many new developments, travel times to key amenities take so long by public transport or walking that most people inevitably end up relying on cars.
Nowhere is this difference starker than between London and the rest of England. Travel time to large employment centres, secondary schools and hospital trusts in areas outside of London can take up to an hour, opposed to roughly half that time in the capital.
This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone outside of London who has recently travelled to a nearby hospital or town centre. Compared to how long it would take to walk or travel in by public transport, the parking charges suddenly seem worth it.
If the government wants to build greener communities, hit net zero targets and deliver on its levelling up agenda, it will need to rethink the way we travel to and from these new developments.
How we move around the country is responsible for roughly 27 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions. According to the government’s transport decarbonisation strategy, journeys below five miles represented 58 per cent of all private car journeys in 2019.
Encouraging development in areas where walking or using public transport is the easiest option will not only reduce carbon emissions, but also improve local air quality and realise health benefits from active travel. Dependency on cars becomes inevitable when 10.5 per cent of new developments are a 72-minute public transport journey to the nearest town centre and 8.5 per cent of new developments are more than an hour walk to amenities. This just shouldn’t be the case.
The further people travel for employment, the bigger the issue becomes. Anyone working in a nearby city will face a travel barrier when using public transport, which could force them to rely on their own vehicle. A good job shouldn’t mean that each two-person household requires a two-car garage.
Placing a greater focus on developing in the best locations possible stands to benefit the government’s levelling up agenda. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously declared the need for “a catalytic role for government” in addressing economic inequalities across the UK. The economic aspect is undeniably important, but is not the only opportunity for the government. Its green ambitions were only briefly noted by the Prime Minister and framed through the lens of empowered local governments leading the way. Instead, the government can and should play a stronger role in promoting development where it is accessible and encourage the use of modes of transportation other than cars.
The promised investments in public transport or active travel initiatives are a welcome starting point, but focusing on reducing the scale problem in the first place will be the more cost-effective, environmentally friendly solution.
After all, this isn’t a problem that’s going to go away. Far from it, many of these issues are reflective of approved developments that are still yet to be built. If left unaddressed, this reliance on car travel is locked in far into the future. While net-zero 2050 may feel distant in 2021, our ability to achieve these ambitions will be determined by what we do today.