Housing

How the UK's new-build housing estates encourage car dependency

Green travel and climate targets are being undermined by new-build housing estates designed to be car dependent, a new report has claimed.

A file image of a new-build housing estate. Image: David Martin (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Last year, a new housing development sprung up opposite the estate near Wigan where Jane Kenyon has lived for the past 16 years. 

Dozens of young families and working professionals moved in, but Kenyon soon noticed something curious: none ever took the local bus. 

“I never learned to drive, and I catch the bus to work every day for work, errands and appointments. Nobody – except for some school children – is ever on that bus with me in the morning,” she says. 

As someone who has relied on local bus services all her life, this wasn’t particularly surprising to Kenyon. Almost everyone around her drives a car, and taking public transport has increasingly become inconvenient, expensive and time-consuming.

Thanks to service cuts, Kenyon is forced to take two buses to work, and struggles to do anything on a Sunday when buses now only come once an hour. The stop has no shelter and no protection from rain or wind. 

“Once I stood waiting in the pouring rain with a woman whose car was out of action for two or three days for an MOT. She told me next time she’d hire a car instead,” Kenyon says. 

Thanks to a combination of declining investment in public transport and prioritisation of car use in planning, this is the reality for people living on new-build estates across Britain. 

A report released by Transport for New Homes (TfNH) this week revealed the problem of car-dependency has been growing in recent years, with almost all the 20 greenfield new-build sites visited by researchers found to be poorly designed for green travel options like walking, cycling and public transport.

These estates, the report concluded, are locking thousands of people into car dependency at a time when reducing emissions from vehicles is vital for fixing the climate emergency

“The UK has a developer-led [planning] system. The location chosen for building has nothing to do with whether the site is suitable for public transport connections,” Jenny Raggett, Director at TfNH says. 

In spite of government pledges to improve access to green travel, Raggett says we’re arriving at a stage where “if you can’t afford a car, or you don’t drive, in many areas you’ll find your choices are becoming very restricted”.

The government has repeatedly been accused of underfunding public transport services by local leaders.

Most recently, regional metro mayors including Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Tracey Brabin in West Yorkshire wrote to the government about a £3bn funding package that had been pledged for buses as part of the levelling up white paper.

The mayors said the government had double counted the funding, with the sum including £1.5bn for emergency funds during the pandemic. As such, they said funding was “inadequate” for guaranteeing future services. 

The housing estates visited by TfNH researchers were frequently designed without public transport links or pedestrian access in mind, with recurrent problems including a lack of green space and trees, front doors opening directly onto parking spaces and no nearby public transport options. 

Homes were served by up to three parking spaces, and in one instance, a new road was too narrow for a bus to reach the new stop by the estate. 

It’s a situation all-too familiar to Emily Martin, a 28-year old who lives on a South Oxfordshire estate which she describes as a “typical” new-build with “violently orange roofing, odd street planning and a pain to direct visitors to”.

Martin, whose real name is not being used as per her request, moved to the estate in 2016 as it was the only housing she could afford in the area.

“It feels like we just live in a big car park,” Martin says. “So much of the estate is given over to car parking.”

When Martin first moved to the estate, there were no buses available, leaving a 15 minute walk to the nearest stop or a 30 minute walk to the station. No footpath was built out of the development, meaning residents had to walk over grass and through hedges to exit on foot.

“It was pretty surreal watching people in business clothes walking across the dewy grass in the morning and essentially going through a hole in a hedge to get off the estate,” she says. 

The infrastructure has improved since then, but Martin still considers the development “hostile” to pedestrians and cyclists, with the saturation of cars leading to on-pavement parking and the lack of footpaths near the estate forcing Martin to jog on roads while exercising.

“Last year one of the main brick-built roads was so damaged that it was like cycling over a xylophone – a lot of people here have huge SUV-type cars, which presumably weigh a lot,” she says.

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This poor infrastructure isn’t just an annoyance for Martin, but dangerous too. “Lighting is very poor in a lot of areas, and some footpaths are completely dark at night. I avoid going out alone at night if I can, and don’t make evening plans if I know I’ll have to come back alone,” she says. 

A lack of pedestrian access was a common theme in TfNH’s report, with researchers joking that they saw more cats than people on the estates they visited. 

This lack of pedestrian infrastructure has social consequences too, creating fewer chances to bump into neighbours.

Life can feel very “insular” on her estate, says Martin, with neighbours having only “minimal” interaction with one another.

Martin has access to a car she can use, but for those who don’t drive at all, getting around is a nightmare. 

Local councils are supposed to consider transport links, amenities and impact on surrounding areas when scrutinising planning applications for new development.

Yet many councils are overstretched due to underfunding, says Raggett, meaning they have limited capacity for “planning long term rather than just responding to planning applications”. 

Combined with pressure from high housing targets, this can lead to approval of inappropriate development, says Raggett. 

Years ago, says Kenyon, the train service in her area was good enough that “people could hop home for lunch from the centre of town then get the train back again”. 

Now, services have been slashed and everyone who has a car relies on it almost all of the time. 

“Unless something drastic changes, it’ll be impossible to wean people off their cars. How are you going to convince people to swap their shiny SUVs for a bus stop in the rain?” She says.

It’s not only those living on car-dependent estates who are being affected by these design choices, Raggett says. 

As new roads are built for the new estates, this leads to greater out-of-town development of shopping centres and facilities, all while town centres decline, she explains. 

“There are people I know in my neighbourhood who don’t own cars – previously they’d be able to walk into town for what they need. But now things have closed and facilities have moved out of town,” she says. 

“Nobody is deliberately trying to push a US-style, car-dependent lifestyle on people – but that’s what’s happening now. We’re bringing America to England.”

Raggett adds that there’s an element of unfairness to the way these developments are planned, given new-build homes are often the only kind young people and families can afford

“A lot of people move to these places because it’s all they can afford to buy as a family. But I was quite distressed at the size of some of the gardens I saw they were given. I just thought it was so unfair,” she says.

“It’s always obvious as well which houses are the ‘affordable’ kind. They’re much smaller, and the gardens are smaller or just non-existent.”

Rosie Pearson, director of the Community Planning Alliance, suspects the lack of green space, small gardens and few trees makes many of these estates unsociable places to live.

“Often they’ll build developments where you have to cross a big road to get to a green space which really doesn’t encourage children’s play. It’s like that element is just an afterthought,” she says.

Raggett is keen to stress that there are ways to do things differently, pointing to the Poundbury Estate in Dorset, owned by Prince Charles, as one example. 

Bus stop are often far away from new-build estates, if they exist at all. Image: Pixabay

“Everything is walkable, rather than being out of town, and the affordable housing looks the same as all the others,” she says. 

“It’s an example of where, if you start with strong principles, you can create something actually sustainable.” 

Some councils have also attempted to build car-free housing estates, though these have had mixed success, with developers flogging private car parking spaces on one such estate in London.

Raggett acknowledges that altering the pattern of car-dependent development will be no easy feat, and says the planning system in the UK needs to “change substantially”, with councils able to control “where we build and how we build in a much more integrated way.”

Without a total overhaul, she says, we’ll run the risk of exacerbating the problem even further, with 300,000 new homes per year promised by the government to meet growing demand.

“What’s happening now is a vicious circle. The more people drive, the more people will cater for it,” she says.

“At a time of climate emergency and with a need to cut congestion on our roads, this is not the way we should be building for the future. We have to draw the line and do things differently.”

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