To note: This is really a brain dump article (so happy to take challenges) that will be subject to ongoing refinement as I learn more and better arrange my thoughts…
It also follows up my presentation on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) for Wales Week in London at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2019.
There is lot of discussion across the Cardiff Capital Region (CCR) about homes and houses at the moment – there are not enough and for many people they are too expensive and/or in the wrong place…and what house are being built are in some cases subject to criticism re: build quality and lack of transport provision. I also think there are broader issues and question we need to better articulate and address; what sort of homes do we really need (vs what we think we need)? Where? Who will build them? and how will they be funded?
More generally in the UK the housing ecosystem has been shaped by volume house builders who have been selling low-density green field products – i.e. 3 and 4 bedroom homes with a garage – for decades. It’s no wonder we know no better. The lack of affordable homes and a too often cowboy rental sector has exacerbated a bad situation. We also still have major housing schemes coming forward that are wholly dependent on car access. This has to stop. Worst of all, since the 1970s we have inadvertently turned our homes into tradeable assets which has, in my view, had a negative and volatile impact on the UK economy.
Perhaps the most important issue underpinning this question, and which must frame any answers we propose, is the threat of climate change and how we build places that reduce our need to emit carbon – and primarily how do we reduce our need to drive in our own personal vehicles. And yes it matters even if they are electric or autonomously controlled; we have a planet with millions of cars that take up huge amount of energy and natural resources to build (let alone operate) that for most of the time sit motionless at the side of the road (see my car article form 2017)[i]. Having to design our cities to accommodate cars when they are not moving is as a bad as having to do so when they are. It is not sustainable.
This is a real challenge but also an opportunity for the Cardiff Capital Region, especially with the development of the South Wales Metro, to embrace Transit Oriented Development and help build a more sustainable city region. The expectations of Wales’ “Well Being of Future Generations” Act demand that we must.
I have also engaged in discussions recently, with a range of people and organisations with either a direct or related professional interest in housing, economic development, planning, transport and regeneration. I’d like to thank them for their input to my emerging thoughts…
In articulating a response I’d also like to draw upon my personal experience of visiting places like Italy, Spain and my observations of other “city regions” who may have lessons for us in Wales.
What developments do we have in CCR – and what are the problems/opportunities?
To help the discussion can I start by looking at four developments of different scales and types currently planned and at least in part in progress in SE Wales. Two of them are predominantly based on the prevailing wisdom that we want to live in 3 or 4 bedroom houses with a drive. This is model that the volume house builders and the industry have been “selling us” for decades. To note (and see later) no one in Malaga old town or Barcelona wants to move to a 4 bedroom house with a drive miles from anywhere! The third scheme is a little more balanced in the housing products on offer and the fourth is more akin to what you may find in an older European city and is perhaps a pointer for where we need to end up?
First, Llanilid is the planned development of housing and mixed uses with its core on the site of an old open cast mine between Llanharan and Pencoed in RCT adjacent to the M4. It was famously the location of the ill-fated Valleywood studio. Detailed planning for up to 1850 homes has already been approved and the full scale of the proposals could see as many as 5000 homes[ii]. The problem is that nearly all the access to the site is predicated on the car. There are even calls for a new junction on the M4 to serve it. Whilst the developers have identified a potential additional station on the main line near the site, it is extremely unlikely that it can be delivered on an already congested mainline railway between Cardiff and Bridgend. The limits on capacity and pathways on that section and the competing demands of other more advanced schemes (e.g. a station at Brackla, Miskin or faster and more trains to Swansea and West Wales) makes an additional station near this development extremely unlikely. More important though, the whole location is far away from existing urban areas (so jobs, schools, hospitals, retail, etc) as it can be. It is effectively a new town development linked very much to the already congested M4. Put simply this is a 1970s development and in my view is wrong (but open to being persuaded otherwise).
Second, Plas Dwr[iii] in NW Cardiff has outline permission for about 6,000 homes on a green field site and faces similar challenges as Llanilid. There is a key difference in that Plas Dwr is an extension of the existing urban fabric of the city of Cardiff and is so closer to existing schools, jobs & public services. More important, the development – which still needs to be denser in my view– has provision for an extension of the Metro from Fairwater through to M4J33, Creigiau and all the way via Talbot Green to Pontyclun – a corridor through Plas Dwr and variants thereof ( See green and pink in Figure 1 below), was protected in the Masterplan. Today there are clearly traffic and congestions issues associated with the initial works, but this development can be retrofitted with very good public transport. Llanilid does not really have this feature.
In all cases we can’t blame the developers, they have been encouraged to bring forward all these developments (by land owners and/or local authorities) in a planning and development ecosystem that does little to embrace the challenges we face and certainly does not engage seriously with Transit Oriented Development. Such developments are political easy wins especially when they appear benign, like Llanilid which is based at its core on a brown field site…but they all come with an environmental cost.
I don’t want to single out these two scheme – there are others that are predominantly designed around car access all around SE Wales; in fact I suspect the majority of the 30,000 homes already consented across the region are based on car access with in most cases only lip service paid to public transport access – this is a huge problem.
To conclude let’s first look at Ely Mill[iv], an old brown field site near the centre of Cardiff (Figure 2) which is being developed by Tirion Homes (and Lovell) with 800 homes and apartments at a higher density than both Llanilid and Plas Dwr; it is also next to the City Rail line and so plans for a station are being revisited (along with a need to secure 4tph on this line). Whilst smaller and with probably greater site constraints – it is more sustainable and is perhaps a pointer for how we bring forward new homes in future. The relationship between the non-for-profit residential developer and the private sector has perhaps brought forward a better balanced scheme.
Finally, I am also pleased to see more dense “build to rent” schemes coming forward. In Cardiff for example, that recently approved on Dumballs Rd[v] designed by Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt (Figure 3). This project envisions 8-10 stories predominantly for the rental market with sufficient residential density to support mixed uses on the ground floor and the application of share spaces. This is a city centre location, near Central station and so is far less dependent on personal car use than all the others – from a climate change perspective it is the clear winner. Too often proposals such as these meet with criticism of size, scale and impact on delivery of local public services, etc; but the alternative to such developments (which as I show below is the norm in many other places) is green field sprawl in places where there is either very little or no existing public service provision (schools, doctors, hospital, retail, etc). There are always tough choices and consequences thereof.
What is Transit Oriented Development (TOD)
Let’s look at Transit Oriented Development – it may be part of the answer. It sounds a clear description but there are many definitions.
For me there are some key features we need to embrace, these are:
- Mixed use and higher density development around transport corridors and stations
- Aligning new housing, public services and employment sites with public transport – some real transport/land use planning
- Improving safety and quality of urban realm -especially streets
- Integration with active travel
- Integration with open/green spaces
- Community engagement and involvement
It’s about people, public spaces and public transport …and reduced car dependency. And this approach delivers benefits:
- With higher density it becomes easier and less costly to provide public services more efficiently
- Local shops and retail have a higher local demand that can be accessed via active travel
- In many cases schemes for new housing can be linked to local and town centre regeneration projects and greening urban realm improvements.
- TOD also means public transport investment becomes easier to justify because higher numbers of people can more easily access transit services (helping build the fare box and reduce the operational subsidies of new transit – bus or rail).
Collectively, and more importantly TOD reduces our need to use and own cars – given the present danger of climate change (and even electric cars are a huge problem) this perhaps is the primary reason for us in Wales to embrace TOD.
In the UK thought we don’t and the examples of Llanilid and to a lesser extent Plas Dwr demonstrates how far we have to go.
What happens in places like Malaga, Vancouver, Denver?
On urban design and especially in somewhere like Malaga the most striking feature are the types of homes and development density. Malaga city municipality itself is nearly 570k people in an area smaller than that of the urban extent of Cardiff (370k). Malaga like many older European cities, I would guess has a population density at least 3 to 4 times that of Cardiff and possible more. It’s easy to see why, in Malaga town most people live in apartments that are typically 6 to 10 stories high (see Figure 5 and Figure 6). On the ground floor shops and other uses provide vibrancy and nearby services. Compare that to a typical low-density UK city; your front gate may be a walk from your front door and then tens if not hundreds or thousands of meters from other stuff…. shops, pubs, restaurants, jobs, etc. This encourages us to use our cars.
Whilst not perfect, Malaga certainly is well endowed with public transport with a good local rail, LRT and bus services. The big benefits though is that active travel can really work well given the density of the city. For the compact and denser urban core nothing is really too far away. This results in mixed uses on ground floors and the ability of people to access services, shops, employment, open spaces, etc more easily and more often using active travel and public transport.
Looking further field there are other examples. Places like Barcelona do it by default given its layout and density (see Figure 7), cities like Vancouver are embracing it[vi] and integrating it into their planning (see Figure 8 ). Even sprawling US cities like Denver[vii] are now trying to better link land use planning to their developing transit network (see Figures 9 and 10). More recently Barcelona has embarked on a radical plan to remove cars from huge areas of their city within “super block plans[viii]”. All provide lessons for us in SE Wales.
What are the wider challenges and opportunities for the Cardiff Capital Region?
With a nearly £750M investment in Metro Phase 2 in progress, it would be irresponsible not to be thinking about housing and regional planning with regard to the Metro and developing a strategy that puts Transit Oriented Development at its core. But there are major challenges; here are a few; I have no doubt there are more:
- We have 30,000 homes already approved (as per some of the examples set out earlier) in SE Wales, most of which pay little heed of the need to reduce our dependency on cars. The current planning system has failed to bring forward enough sustainable and public transport friendly developments. More broadly we also have an issue with “land banking” across the UK; some estimates suggest land able to support 800,000 homes is being held with development drip fed to maintain higher prices.
- The conclusion of that situation is the stark fact that we don’t really know what good TOD is in the UK. We have become used to low density and often “over-priced” traditional three or four bedroom house based developments being drip fed into the market.
- We therefore have a major cultural challenge to change the demand side as well as the supply side in the housing market.
- Is there a need to rethink the types of homes and tenures? For example an aging population and the increasing costs of social care present an opportunity for multigenerational living with more easily delivered and more affordable social care infrastructure. Has “build to sell” market become “too big”; in many cases leading to lower quality and poor sustainability outcomes; is there room for a bigger rental sector financed with a view to the long term.
- The planning system via the S106 / CIL instruments are not working in large parts of Wales in terms of delivering balanced communities with appropriate levels of affordable housing and social infrastructure.
- There is no regional planning framework for South East Wales; the properly and objectively assembled regional Strategic Development Plan (SDP) provided for the Wales Planning Bill has yet to materialise; more important that plan needs to be explicitly linked to the transport planning and the longer term expansion of the Metro. In doing so we need to be ambitious.
- There are also commercial realities to face, the volume house builders face constraints so we have to be realistic about what PLC housebuilders can contribute in marginal markets – this demands new approaches to planning, financing and public/private partnerships if we are to respond at scale quickly.
- The public sector (and not just the private sector) is still building major public services away from public transport. For example most of our existing and planned major hospital in CCR are poorly located for public transport access: Prince Charles, Llandough, Royal Glamorgan and now the new Llanfrechfa near Cwmbran. Heath Hospital could be better connected with a station at Roath Park (which is the nearest point of the rail network to the hospital).
- Across the region, there are limited sites of scale without constraints; in many cases we need to consider de-risking sites and aggregate a development programme across a larger number of perhaps smaller sites.
- This is more than a planning or “planners” issue; this is much broader and multidisciplinary. It’s about how we live and how we can bring more economic activity back to many of our town and city centres. We have to bring together innovations in housing with economic development, regeneration, transport, skills, energy, etc. We can’t fix it from the bottom of a silo!
What could or should we do?
At the outset we need to develop an overarching vision for housing and transit oriented planning and development in South East Wales. This needs to be produced via a broad conversation with developers, builders, buyers, funders, designers, architects, academic, officials, buyers/renters – all of us in fact. And we need to be unconstrained; any vision needs to reflect changes needed on both the supply and demand side and to reflect future living models (multi-generational, different tenures, build to rent, stronger rental sector, etc) and the impacts of climate change.
My further suggestions below (in no particular order) should really be subject to a more informed debate and discussion. Already a number of key players are joining in such a conversation….
- A core feature I assert of any vison is a requirement to start building more densely around our public transport network. We must stop buildings and developments that are clearly reliant on car access. When we are spending nearly £750M on the next phase of the South Wales Metro and more to follow, our regional Housing Plan and Strategic Development Plan needs to integrate with the Metro.
- We need to incentivise development within the existing urban grain and discourage unnecessary green field and ”out of town” development; encourage higher density development and to support local economies we need to explore ways of reducing business rates for small independent businesses to facilitate more mixed uses in such schemes.
- We need to encourage more build to rent (noting the rental sectors are much larger in many European countries) with more robust and long term legal protection for “renters”. This approach can also lead to higher quality and more sustainable developments. If you build with a long term interest in the ongoing maintenance of a property you are less likely to include components and materials with a poor maintenance profile and invest in a sufficient build quality to minimise your ongoing maintenance costs. Long term funding for such development is more likely from for example, pension funds.
- Explore potential role of Development Bank of Wales (as key financial instrument available to the public sector) as well as RSLs and other not-for-profit delivery vehicles that are less constrained by the commercial model of the PLC house builders.
- Is this an opportunity to leverage the momentum behind the Valleys Task force to bring forward early interventions – some pilot schemes for example. Perhaps this can be combined with the proposed CCR housing challenge with Phase 1 intended to enable £30M (£15M from the region plus £15M from WG)
- I can’t see us make any major progress of scale without a properly remitted and fudned public authority. We need a Metro Development Corporation (based on a Land Authority for Wales model perhaps) with CPO powers and a clear remit to assemble land assets, remove development constraints, bring forward projects and work with the RSLs and private sector where practical and possible. In doing so we could pool existing local authority land assets across the region.
- Any project specific partnerships that are established need to “retain control” of developments of scale to ensure sustainability is retained throughout design and development and long term use.
- We also need to make early progress and bring forward some pilot schemes (perhaps related to already identified Metro Hubs) to demonstrate the potential of the approach.
- We need to engage the best people we can in the conversation – including some of my colleagues at Cardiff University in respect of housing, architecture, planning and urban design as well as the Future Generations Commissioner and groups like Community Housing Cymru (CHC) and The Design Commission for Wales (DCFW); there are no doubt others. It’s worth looking at “Metro and Me”[x] and some of the very valuable contributions in the publication that accompanied the event in October 2018. This really helped make the case that we need to develop an approach that integrates housing, economic development, planning, transport, regeneration, etc and all against the backdrop of climate change.
- We also (and one for TfW/WG to address now) is to build in sufficient capacity headroom in the development of the South Wales Metro. Today the valley lines only carries about 12% of the commuting demand into Cardiff. My understanding is that current plans will double this. I dont think this is anywhere near enough – our ambition should be to see at least 50% of all journeys on public transport.
Some example of potential Transit Oriented Development schemes…
To get our collective juices flowing can I offer some concepts and/or schemes that can help move us toward more TOD…they are not thought through in detail but I hope present some of the thinking we need in this space.
- Develop a range of smaller scale housing and regeneration schemes in/around current & proposed stations on Metro Phase 2. Small scale low/medium rise-residential from both new build and re-purposed existing buildings (as is already happening in Pontypridd)
- Pontypridd. Lets’ leverage the investment in the Metro and secure a major mixed use regeneration across the town. That means an additional metro rail station at the bus station, more buildings re-purposed for residential, some sites re-developed for low/medium rise apartments (4-8 stories). Can we open up the river on Taff St to improve the urban realm? Let’s integrate arts, culture, history and community uses into our thinking – and engage the local community in the process. Can we re-energise the market on the back of greater emphasis on local food, let’s bring in some hotels and tourist infrastructure. Can I suggest a Welsh Government funded chain of “Paradors” in the valleys – let’s start in Pontypridd; these could be used for skills/training in food preparation, tourism, etc and linked to Coleg Y Cymoedd (I’ll cover this in another article) Can we also secure more public sector job relocations? And as per below, business rate relief for small, local and independent businesses.
- The NW Corridor Metro extension (see Figure 11) set out in 2013 Metro Impact Study[xi]) is a real and likely early project and has been looked at a number of times over the last ten years to support the approximately 10,000 new homes in Cardiff’s LDP, including those under development Plas Dwr (see earlier) and onto M4J33 and Creigiau. Can we accelerate its development and secure further TOD housing allocations on the route all the way into RCT (instead of building more car based homes at Llanilid) to help build the fare box for future Metro services and so bolster the business case to actually build it?
- Trefforest south to Taffs Well. This whole corridor, including the old industrial estate, could be densified (again as illustrated in the 2013 Metro Impact Study) with more mixed and residential uses integrated with the new proposed Metro station at Nantgarw – and potentially further stations at places like Upper Boat. Yes I am aware there are constraint (river flooding being one) but if we design more low/medium rise with living on the higher floors this helps mitigate potential impacts.
- Combined with a new direct rail Metro connection between Quakers Yard and Blackwood via Hengoed[xii] a corridor of development can be enabled – especially between Nelson and Hengoed (including Ystrad Mynach & Tredomen business park). Again there are constraints, but this does provide an opportunity to develop a site of scale around a potential public transport corridor. It would be possible to operate tram-trains from Nelson/Tredomen to Cardiff in perhaps 25~30 mins and to Pontypridd in 10~15 minutes.
- This new Metro connection (Figure 12) will also significantly enhance the public transport accessibility & employment catchment of Pontypridd, Ystrad Mynach, Tredomen, Bargoed, Blackwood, Abercynon and Merthyr and connect the largest centre of population in the valleys (Blackwood/Pontllanfraith) without rail services – all of which can help support more development in those locations. It also perhaps presents the best opportunity to create significant economic value by changing the transport geography of that part of the region as not all services need to go to Cardiff. For example, a direct service between Blackwood and Pontypridd for example, in less than 30 minutes perhaps, really begins to change the economic geography of the mid valleys. We should also reflect that this scheme also provides an opportunity to integrate the Valleys Regional Park[xiii] and its improved regional accessibility into our thinking.
- Bridgend Town Centre. In a similar way to Pontypridd can we repurpose some of the existing town centre to support more residential – with new low rise development to infill and again some public sector re-locations to the town centre. Could be supported by plans to bring Bridgend College into the centre. This could be aligned with a tram-train shuttle 4tph between Maesteg and Bridgend.
- An extension of the Metro into Lower Penarth using tram-train capability to help remove traffic from the roads from Penarth into Cardiff (and esp. around the Barons Court roundabout) – perhaps more tactical but will certainly help with more modal shift esp. if linked to a P&R at Cosmeston
- Machen to Newport – Perhaps longer term but important for Newport and its development. Can we apply the tram-train capability to connect Caerphilly with Newport to enable more TOD based housing in the Machen area and, via on-street sections in Newport, encourage regeneration in the south of Newport?
- Bute-Street/Lloyd George Avenue – as part of a new direct Metro link between Cardiff Bay and Central[xiv] (as part of a more ambitious Cardiff Crossrail) lets re-landscape the link between the centre and the bay utilising tram-train tramway and battery capabilities.
- Can I also add the example prepared by Dr Francesca Sartorio and Wendy Maden as part of “Metro and Me” (Figure 13). It explores a more public transport and active travel friendly densified development proposal for a site near Caerphilly station. It was based on their three-tiered multi-scalar TOD approach to design of this particular site. I think this a lesson we can apply across all of the region.
- Since I penned the first version of this article in April, I have had plenty of comment and suggestions. Some pointed at some more recent schemes in the UK which also embraced TOD and sustainability. Examples include Northstowe in Cambridgeshire; the Urban Transport Group also produced a good report, The Place to Be, on the subject earlier in 2019.
- These are just a few ideas, there are other opportunities – in place like Ebbw Vale, Merthyr, Barry, Caerphilly, Pontypool, etc – I am not trying to be prescriptive here..
Some of the groups I have talked to have agreed in principle to try and arrange a workshop or charrette with key stakeholders & partners. Initial discussions could be framed around how the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Review[xv] could be delivered in line with Future Generations Act objectives. As plans emerge for an event, I will be happy to share details.
I also think that the CCR, WG, TfW need to formally adopt TOD principles to frame the ongoing expansion of the South Wales Metro and for the region perhaps to lead on a really ambitious TOD plan linked to the development of the SDP.
I don’t think we can tinker at the edges anymore – we need a substantive response to address what is now a global issue.
Vancouver, Transit Oriented Affordable Housing Study 2017-19
City and County of Denver,
Barry, Cardiff University, Capital Law, IWA, Arup, Various Contributors, 2018, “Metro and Me”
Consortium, 2013, “Metro Impact Study”