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First Welsh national spatial strategy published

Housing and local government minister Julie James has launched the national spatial strategy in a 180-page document called Future Wales.

This blueprint sets out where housing, employment and infrastructure should be developed to support town and city centres; achieve decarbonisation and climate resilience; and improve the health and wellbeing of Wales in the period up to 2040.

Future Wales: The National Plan 2040 focuses on growing existing urban areas and ensuring that homes, jobs, and services are located in the same area.

It identifies Wrexham and Deeside; Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys; and Swansea Bay and Llanelli as nationally significant areas for growth.

The framework sets out the spatial issues that the four regional strategic development plans (SDPs) – for North Wales, Mid Wales, south-west Wales, and south-east Wales – will be expected to accommodate.

The requirement for the planning system to be “plan-led” is reiterated, as is the need to prepare SDPs. Local development plans will have to be compliant with both Future Wales and forthcoming SDPs.

The focus of housing policy remains on delivering new affordable homes, although it is made much clearer that it is for local authorities to set overall housing requirements – a key function of the new SDPs.

The requirement to prepare green belts in the south-east Wales and North Wales regions remains, but Future Wales is less prescriptive than the earlier version of the blueprint. In the case of the south-east Wales region, green belts should cover an area to the north of Cardiff and Newport and the eastern part of the region. In respect of the North Wales SDP, identification of a green belt “around Wrexham and Deeside to manage urban form and growth” is expected.

Over the next 20 years – the lifetime of the blueprint – the additional housing need in Wales, under the latest central estimate, is around 110,000 dwellings.

During the initial five years (2019-20 to 2023-24) it is estimated that on average 7,400 additional homes will be required annually, with close to two-thirds of these homes needed in south-east Wales, just over a fifth in south-west Wales, and the remaining additional homes largely in North Wales. Only a relatively small number is needed in Mid Wales.

It is estimated that over this five-year period the annual additional homes should be split almost equally between affordable housing (social housing or intermediate rent) and market housing. This represents an average of approximately 3,500 (48 per cent) affordable homes and 3,900 (52 per cent) market homes a year.

The document (on page 94) identifies 10 so-called pre-assessment areas where significant onshore wind farms can be located. These areas avoid the three national parks and the five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that make up a quarter of Wales.

The blueprint details 18 separate policies covering issues such as transport, connectivity, heat networks, biodiversity, the need for a significant amount of new tree cover, and a lengthy and detailed policy on strategic placemaking.

It stresses that urban growth and regeneration should be based on the following strategic placemaking principles:

  • creating a rich mix of uses;
  • providing a variety of housing types and tenures;
  • building places at a walkable scale, with homes, local facilities, and public transport within walking distance of each other;
  • increasing population density, with development built at urban densities (50 dwellings a hectare) that can support public transport and local facilities;
  • establishing a permeable network of streets, with a hierarchy that informs the nature of development;
  • promoting a plot-based approach to development, which provides opportunities for the development of small plots, including for custom and self-builders; and
  • integrating green infrastructure, informed by the planning authority’s green infrastructure assessment.

The ‘town centre first’ principle will be at the heart of urban policymaking, the document insists, stressing that ministers can intervene in the planning application process “where a ‘town centre first’ approach is not being followed”.

The blueprint highlights that ministers will be investing significantly to improve active travel and public transport. “This needs to be combined with the implementation of policies in Planning Policy Wales which require development to be directed towards sustainable locations and designed to make it possible for everyone to make sustainable and healthy travel choices for their daily journeys. It will also require planning authorities to refuse planning permission for car-dependent developments which would otherwise encourage car use and undermine sustainable travel”.

The document notes that “transport in Wales is currently dominated by the car”. Future Wales insists that “we must reduce our use of cars and allocate more space for walking and cycling”.

The government intends to prepare and publish a review of Future Wales at least every five years and to assess progress against the national wellbeing indicators; policy-related indicators, integrated sustainability appraisal, and what it calls contextual evidence.

James said: “The past year has shown us just how important where we live is to our health and happiness. It’s easier to be healthy and active when we have safe and attractive green space nearby. If more of us are able to work locally or at home we can shorten commutes, reduce congestion, and use our local high streets more.

“We have already committed to a ‘town centre first’ approach, which means locating services and buildings in town centres wherever possible. This plan will help to deliver it.

“This plan sets out our priorities for growth in employment and housing, in particular affordable housing. It sets out a vision for our villages, towns and cities developing at a walkable scale, with homes, local facilities, green spaces, and public transport within easy reach.

“This work predates the Covid-19 pandemic, but living through it has brought home for everyone how important liveable communities are to our health and wellbeing.”

In a related but separate development, the government has also published an updated version, edition 11, of Planning Policy Wales to align with Future Wales.

In a letter to James, RTPI Cymru Roisin Willmott FRTPI said the framework would be an important mechanism to shape the future of the country, particularly as Wales recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Welcoming Future Wales: The National Plan 2040, Willmott highlighted that the institute has been asking “for some time for a national spatial strategy for Wales with an express vision reflecting general national goals with stated outcomes”.

“We recognise the impact Covid-19 has had on public resources and the bringing forward of projects such as this, so we congratulate the government on progressing this important plan during difficult times.

“It is now essential that all ministers support the application of Future Wales. Other national strategies, such as the Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan (WIIP), must work alongside Future Wales, providing a strong integrated policy direction across all of government.”

RTPI Cymru warned that the framework’s publication was the first step in a much longer process; long-term support from all portfolios within the Welsh Government and from the wider built environment sector is needed for its ambitious aims to be achieved.

Future Wales: The National Plan 2040 can be found on the Welsh Government website.

24 February 2021
Roger Milne, The Planner