What does the Planning White Paper say about public access?


20 August 2020

It’s not a mainstream topic in the many commentaries now published on the Government’s Planning White Paper, but it’s worth taking a look at the place of public access in the proposals.

By ‘public access’ we mean not only considering the existing public rights of way network of footpaths, bridleways and byways, and land which is existing public space by means of its designation as a common or town or village green, but what extra provision for the public to walk and cycle may be required if the proposals come to fruition.

Before the White Paper, the Government’s interest in walking - and especially in cycling - was brought to the fore by the 2020 publication of Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking. In addition, the 2019 National Design Guide identified “movement – accessible and easy to move around” as one of the ten characteristics of well-designed places. Add to that the impact of COVID-19 leaving many with a daily walk or cycle ride as their only form of exercise for many months, and now, it seems, the desire to avoid public transport, and it is not surprising the reform of the planning process puts walking and cycling high on the agenda.

The first paragraph of the Secretary of State’s foreword identifies “those unable to walk to distant shops or parks” as one group adversely impacted by COVID-19. Does this identify an inability to walk some distance? An insufficiency of corner shops? Or a shortage of pedestrian routes between homes and supermarkets? It is unclear, but giving such prominence to the issue reinforces that the government sees a problem which needs fixing.

In expanding the theme, the White Paper recognises that planning decisions affect how much we walk and how we feel on daily work and school journeys. There is an impact on our sense of purpose and wellbeing. Reducing our reliance on carbon-intensive forms of transport is another objective of the proposed reforms, compatible with more walking and cycling. With the proposal that Local Plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, again comes the implication that foot or cycle access to the shops and recreational open space will be important design considerations.

The White Paper takes this forward by proposing a National Model Design Code, which will include “high-quality cycling and walking provision” – echoing the published Gear Change document. Identifying the proposed growth areas will involve a consideration of the ability to maximise walking, cycling and public transport opportunities too.

The Paper suggests amendment of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and that local policies can continue to play a part in respect of environmental benefits, including taking opportunities to improve public access. The proposed Infrastructure Levy is mentioned as a source of funding for parks and open spaces. If local policy priorities so dictate perhaps it could be used to fund extra access routes too? It is an option communities may wish to press for.

Overall, the White Paper sets the tone that walking and cycling are to be a priority for future development – to help deliver sustainable travel and wellbeing.

What does this mean for landowners and developers?

It’s very early days for any reform that may result from the White Paper but it would be wise to assume that public access may well receive more attention from local planning authorities than it has in the past. The impact of development upon a public right of way is already a material consideration in the determination of a planning application, but it has rarely been a major driver of decision making. Perhaps in the future, it will be.

What should you do now?

  • Consider responding to the consultation, so that as many informed views as possible are available for consideration. Responses are due by 29 October 2020.

  • Be aware that future site layouts may need to include more open space and more pedestrian and cycling links. This may not only be within a site but also contributing to wider connectivity between existing recreational, work, school and shopping facilities for the local community as a whole.

  • Knowing your land is key to managing public access: where are any public rights of way? What access is actually taking place? Is the land protected by locked gates, notices and/or a statutory deposit limiting the establishment of future public rights?

  • Remember it often takes longer to move a public right of way than it does for planning permission to be granted. Having the permission has no impact on existing access and does not divert routes. The separate legal process can be long-winded and expensive. We frequently advise that ‘design it in’ is the expedient solution and we contribute to Design and Access Statements to support this approach. However, if that is not possible we are very experienced at achieving changes to the network and would be pleased to help.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at August 2020.

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