“The challenge is huge, but the ambition is clear. We have a unique opportunity to transform the role cycling and walking can play in our transport system, and get England moving differently.” DfT Gear Change
Momentum’s Will Salt takes a detailed look at how the future for developers and local authorities looks set to change with the Government’s Gear Change vision for cycling and walking.
Last July the government announced sweeping changes which will impact developers and local authorities (read our briefing note prepared at the time here). Its Gear Change announcement and publication aimed to “kick off the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring”.
The vision presented in Gear Change certainly does signal radical change and those prepared will be those that prosper. The significance of what might be in store for developers and local authorities in 2021 should not be ignored.
Significance to our clients
Statements made in Gear Change suggest that the government is serious about transforming England into an active travel country (ie one which is designed to encourage walking and cycling). Central to this ambitious vision is the prospective introduction of a new statutory consultee into the planning process: ‘Active Travel England’. It is the intention that the introduction of Active Travel England will place cycling and walking at the heart of both local plan making and decision-taking for new developments.
To achieve this, Active Travel England will begin to publish annual reports on highway authorities and grade them on their performance on active travel. Funding for schemes will be refused (or rescinded) if standards set are not met. Funding will be also be required to be returned for schemes that miss completion deadlines.
Active Travel England, as a new statutory consultee, will also have a say on planning applications for developments over a certain size; it is presumed that these applications will be recommended for refusal if the walking and cycling provisions are not satisfactory.
Despite the grandeur and significance of the original announcement, there have been no further announcements made since.
With 2021 now well under way, the lack of news is concerning on two fronts.
First, and perhaps more importantly to our clients, the lack of updates since will mean that the initial announcement may have been missed by many of those who will be affected most.
The absence of any update may leave developers and local authorities worryingly unaware of the significant changes that lay ahead; changes which could result in significant impacts through project delays and unforeseen projects costs.
Second, the impact of the announcement will now be watered down, and vital momentum will have been lost on a critical and contentious national issue. We are all too aware that mental health, wellbeing and climate change continue to affect our communities, societies, workforces, and the very essence of living. These issues are what Gear Change aims to deliver against and are why it is absolutely critical that this vision is delivered swiftly and effectively.
The connections between air quality, health, obesity, wellbeing, social isolation, noise pollution and many of society’s other ills can be clearly and inextricably linked back to a lack of active travel (and its infrastructure and facilities). Whilst other technologies undoubtedly have a role to play, including electric vehicles and e-mobility devices, walking and cycling is a key component of the multifaceted approach required to start to tackle these issues.
At a recent internal discussion forum, we discussed the issues relating to ‘car dependency’ and how, in its current form, the planning system can embed a motorised dependency into our modern society. A heavily-congested and polluting road network remains the only viable means of travel for many. This same planning system could also be said to be causing air pollution, severance and preventing opportunities for improving mental wellbeing. Gear Change and the introduction of Active Travel England is intended to rectify this.
The scale of the challenge that all of us in the development industry face is huge and we all have a part to play. Whether you are a private developer or a local authority, Gear Change will provide a real impetus to make a meaningful difference.
An update on the proposals is urgently required and we suspect is to follow in the coming months. Active travel is key to achieving net zero by 2050 – which, to remind, is now a legal obligation. This commitment was the first of its kind in the world and so we should expect to also be world leaders in the delivery of change. We must start soon, and we must adapt quickly.
The impending change should not be feared by our clients. Gear Change represents a societal vision which should excite everyone involved – whether in delivering the vision itself or being the end user who will benefit from the changes envisioned.
There will be teething problems at first as we adjust. The changes proposed will be quite a shock to many, given the inherently stubborn nature of travel patterns and (perhaps reluctant) behavioural change required. Our cities have been shaped by the private vehicle for the last 70 years (both in terms of planning and the corollary travel behaviours observed and embedded) – there’s no doubt that the changes will be tough for some, but the benefits to be gleaned at the end of the journey are abound.
Opportunities for our Clients
The changes that will result from Gear Change do not have to come at a cost. Opportunities are out there: not least financial, but also social and environmental.
Developers and local authorities should be excited by the positive change that this policy vision aims to enable. But they should be equally mindful of the more immediate challenges that lay ahead once the changes are eventually implemented. (The size of the challenge at hand may in some part explain the delay in further updates from the government.)
We should all be aware that there will be opposition to changes of this scale. But we also know – as has been demonstrated in numerous studies – that there is an appetite for change, and there are economic benefits to doing so. The early movers who are already implementing these changes are now benefitting from the financial, social, and environmental benefits that these types of schemes deliver.
Some of these opportunities are highlighted in the Gear Change report:
Up to 40% increase in shopping footfall by well-planned improvements in the walking environment
20 minutes of exercise per day cuts risk of developing depression by 31% and increases productivity of workers
Meeting the targets to double cycling and increase walking would lead to savings of £567 million annually from air quality alone and prevent 8,300 premature deaths
School Streets” schemes can reduce the number of people driving their children to school by up to a third and reduce casualties
As 2021 is underway and the vaccine rollout continues to gather pace, the vision of a post-Covid world seems but a few summery months away. It is important to remind our clients what Gear Change will mean for you. Opportunities exist and challenges will be abounding. We are here to help you navigate this transition.
Click here to read Momentum’s initial briefing note on the July 2020 Gear Change announcement.
Click here to find out more about Momentum’s Gear Change services.