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Engineers map out a route to more sustainable living places

National and local planning policies must be aligned around a common sustainability agenda for both housing and infrastructure, according to a report published today by the National Engineering Policy Centre, led by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The report, which was delivered in partnership with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, says that the planning system must be demystified and stakeholders empowered in order to unlock the potential benefits for society.

Read the report here

The current housing crisis provides a real opportunity for change in both the quality of living places and the scale of housing delivery in the UK, says the report, but the complexity of the housing problem demands a systemic approach. It is estimated that the UK needs 300,000 new properties a year to meet current demand, with one million homes projected for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc corridor alone.[1] Together with the imperative of a legal target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the urgent requirement for more housing can be used to drive policy changes that will make the places where we live, work and play more sustainable. This can be done if the social, environmental and governance issues between planning, housing and infrastructure are better understood and people have the knowledge and tools to collaborate in finding workable solutions.

Illustration mapping out the housing system

Using a participatory systems approach, engineers and professionals representing the multiple disciplines across the system of housing, planning and infrastructure, worked together to develop a shared understanding of the current system of the process. Engineers worked in collaboration with economists, planners, sociologists and community leaders to provide an independent, big picture view of the whole process. Together they created a detailed map that captured challenges and identified opportunities for change. The report identifies key elements of the system and how they impact and interconnect with one another, and pinpoints areas where change can be most effective.

The key leverage points for positive change include:

  1. Encouraging the development of a sustainability agenda to support progress towards the target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions to catalyse a coherent cross-government plan for housing, infrastructure and placemaking. This agenda would call for better integration between national and local planning policies for delivering places. At a local level, it would mean that development frameworks and local plans are aligned with this national sustainability agenda.
  2. Facilitating support for local planning and better masterplanning to enable planning across local authority boundaries as well as efforts to level up by addressing regional disparities in productivity and access to social infrastructure.
  3. Providing a flexible funding model to enable holistic business cases for place that can be administered nationally or locally. These would account for factors that enable high-quality developments, meet demands for public services and actively engage residents in delivering places.
  4. Providing technical and financial support to planners in local authorities to address internal barriers to delivery. This includes resources for increasing the number of staff and providing technical and administrative capacity for existing staff.
  5. Harnessing the power of data sharing to improve access to information about the planning process. This would include platforms for digital collaboration that can enable meaningful interaction and communicate the value of high-quality development to existing communities as well as empower those who are unable to access the planning process.

Tim Chapman FREng, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Director at Arup and Chair of the Sustainable Living Places Working Group, said:

“While there are no ‘silver bullets’ to solve the UK’s housing crisis, we hope this report inspires a shared understanding and brings together multiple disciplines and views to tackle the complex system-of-systems of planning, housing and infrastructure. The report shows how a cross-sectoral effort to work with government can succeed in embedding low carbon modes of transport and utilities into place-making and enable real progress in reducing carbon emissions.”

Notes for Editors

About the National Engineering Policy Centre

We are a unified voice for 43 professional engineering organisations, representing 450,000 engineers, a partnership led by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

We give policymakers a single route to advice from across the engineering profession.

We inform and respond to policy issues of national importance, for the benefit of society.

The Royal Academy of Engineering

The Royal Academy of Engineering is harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society and an inclusive economy that works for everyone.

In collaboration with our Fellows and partners, we’re growing talent and developing skills for the future, driving innovation and building global partnerships, and influencing policy and engaging the public.

Together we’re working to tackle the greatest challenges of our age.

For more information please contact: Victoria Runcie at the Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 0207 766 0620; email: [email protected]

[1] NIC. Partnering for Prosperity: A new deal for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc. 2017;1–91. Available from:

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