A long-term integrated approach is crucial in securing a better future for everyone

  • Living standards and Levelling up

Dr Wei Yang FAcSS, Chair of Wei Yang & Partners, Co-Chair of Digital Task Force for Planning 

In this piece, Dr Wei Yang outlines the connections between living standards, inequalities, and the environmental and economic challenges that we face as a society.  Wei suggests that there is an urgent need for a spirit of common purpose and for coordinated policy which recognises that all these issues are inter-connected.

This summer, the extreme heatwaves, drought, high inflation, and daily increasing living costs paint a gloomy picture of our future. We are in a war without flames but with many enemies – only through a long-term integrated approach to enable systemic changes can we potentially tackle them. If the levelling up agenda is being seen as a moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government, then it needs to be jointly implemented with net zero, natural capital and environmental net gain, and the wider environmental missions, therefore a common purpose can be shared by all layers of government and everyone in the society.

Climate actions and the national planning policy framework

The Levelling up white paper articulated that a ‘strong planning system is vital to level up communities’. The same is true to deliver climate resilient developments. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that ‘longer term urban planning and design, including Nature Based Solutions (NBS) to reduce urban heat effects’ is a global level transformational adaption mechanism. The UK Climate Change Committee also recognised spatial planning as one of the biggest opportunities that local authorities have to deliver net zero. Spatial planning can achieve these objectives by defining the use of land, protecting the environment, engaging in design, and stimulating social and economic activities. However, for too long, planning has been narrowly focused on planning permissions for housing in the planning system. There is an urgent need to reconcile and integrate levelling-up, climate action, and sustainable development activities through a better-connected policy and practice framework.

The number one priority is to align the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) with Climate Change Act 2008 and other commitments made by the Government to make sure climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation measures can be fully considered from planning to implementation stage. Thus local authorities, as suggested by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), can be empowered to tackle the climate crisis and at the same time to create healthy, ecologically rich, prosperous and beautiful communities through an integrated place-based approach.

Healthy neighbourhoods and homes for all

A healthy population is one of any nation’s most important assets. ‘Neighbourhood and physical environments’ factor as one of the key social determinants of health. The impact of Covid-19, the extreme heatwaves and the current cost of living crisis put the health and social care system under huge pressure. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that spatial inequality is a direct reflection of social and economic inequality, and vice versa.  Long-term strategic planning to improve the quality of built environment is an absolutely essential mechanism to improve the health of populations and thus to reduce the per capita cost of health care as pursued in the “Triple Aim” Framework developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in the US.

In August, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) published 2020-2021 English Housing Survey which highlighted a strong corelation between energy efficiency and housing quality. For example, in 2020-2021, 3.5 million occupied homes in England did not meet the Decent Homes Standard, notably 96% of them were in Energy Efficiency Rating (EER) Band E-F (The energy efficiency rating of a dwelling is presented in an A-G banding system for an Energy Performance Certificate, where Band A rating represents low energy costs (i.e., the most efficient) and Band G rating represents high energy costs (the least efficient band)). This spring, VAT was cut to 0% on energy saving materials and grant-funded heating equipment. It would make sense to develop a comprehensive financial incentive strategy for building retrofit which enhances energy efficiency, as well as delivers the bigger agenda of healthy and decent homes for all.

In addition, with heatwaves happening more commonly in summer each year, building overheat has become another deadly serious health issue. Last year, the climate change committee warned in the UK climate risk assessment report that more than 570,000 residences had been constructed since 2016 that were not resilient to high temperatures, and neither are a further 1.5 million that are due to be built in the following five years. Currently a Healthy Homes Bill which aims to place in primary legislation a series of healthy homes principles for all new homes in England is proposed by Lord Nigel Crisp and the TCPA. Healthy neighbourhoods and homes need to be a long-term national priority to enable a healthy population.

Innovation in spatial planning

Spatial planning, as emphasised by countless experts, reports and organisation, is a key mechanism to deliver net zero, environmental net gain, to spur on the development of a circular economy, and to achieve a green industrial revolution for a fairer society. The Research and Development of spatial planning needs to be invested in as an applied social, environmental, and behavioural science discipline of both national and international significance.

The greatest innovation needed in spatial planning is a whole approach change enabled by digital technologies and big data. In the last two decades, advances in data and digital technology have become deeply embedded within our daily lives. E-commerce giants have transformed the commercial regime. Their success comes from creating revolutionary data-driven supply-chain systems with the ability to provide customer-adaptive products. However, the digital revolution seems to have by-passed spatial planning. Our work at Digital Task Force for Planning found out that digital integration in planning is uneven and highly fragmented and in and of itself needs to be treated as a key aspect for ‘levelling up’ to deliver the system change needed.

After a year-long comprehensive cross-sector consultation, the Task Force report gave eight key recommendations aiming to deliver a transformative digitalisation of spatial planning – a people-centric process which is enabled by digital technologies and big data; a reinvigorated planning profession that can coordinate the best knowledge and advance the most appropriate digital tools and technologies from related disciplines so that we can achieve a shared vision and to create a better future for everyone; a cyclic planning system which will generate better engagement in the plan-making and place-making process, enhance efficiency and optimise the value of data, and allow communities, stakeholders, planners, designers, and policymakers to think intelligently through an evidence-based decision-making process.

The best time to innovate is during times of crisis – when we need to seriously consider our survival and what kind of future we want to have.  We need a long-term integrated approach to coordinate the best efforts from all good forces to secure a better future for everyone. The time to act is now!

Photo Credit: Chuttersnap on Unsplash

About the author

Wei Yang FAcSS FRTPI is Chair of Wei Yang & Partners and Co-Chair of Digital Task Force for Planning. She was President for 2021 of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). She is a lead figure in researching, promoting and implementing 21st Century Garden City concept. She champions a digitally enabled place-based whole systems approach to tackle the grand challenges of our times, and thus to achieve collective wellbeing and fulfilment for all. Wei is an Honorary Professor at University College London, Deputy Chair of the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and a Board Member of the British Library. She represents the Global Planners Network at the UN Habitat Professional Forum and is a member of the UN Habitat World Urban Campaign Steering Committee.