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Planning and Development: Women’s Safety

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 20 April 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

The debate that I have secured this evening might seem at first like a discussion about planning, but actually it is so much more. Let me say first of all that I recognise that the Government have already taken steps to address the need for safety, particularly women’s safety, to be taken into account in planning developments: it is set out in guidance for local authorities, and in many cases the police are an integral part of decision making.

I appreciate that earlier this year the Minister took the time to discuss with me a Bill that I introduced to Parliament on the topic, the Planning (Women’s Safety) Bill, but—and it is a very big “but”—we are still not addressing the issue at its heart, or in a way that reassures women and girls across the country that they are safe, nor are we doing it sufficiently loudly at a national level.

I have a 25-year-old daughter for whom I wished and genuinely believed that we could achieve a world that was much safer for her generation than it had been for mine, but when I consider the reality of modern life I realise that in so many ways we have not. Not only does she still text me to tell me she is safe when she gets home, but I have to text her to say that I am safe when I get home. Unfortunately, that is the measure of how insecure women and girls feel in our society today, making their way home on our streets.

The mention of Sarah Everard’s name conjures up a very difficult period not just for her family, but for all of us. The outpouring of grief that followed her death was indicative of the very feeling that I have spoken about. Women saw themselves in Sarah Everard, with the threat that they face every day. Sadly, she was just one of the hundreds who tragically lose their lives in this country every year.

Between April 2019 and March 2021, 177 women were killed by a man in this country. In 2020 alone, 110 women were killed. The built environment may not have played a part in all or even many of those deaths, but if we can save just one life by doing things differently, surely we should. It is not good enough that we still have to have vigils and run campaigns to draw attention to the problem—a problem that is only too visible. It is there staring us all in the face every day: when we go to work, when we make our way home in the evening, when we put the bins out. I know because, like every woman in this place, I live that reality. I think about overgrown hedges, about alleyways that are not properly lit, about roads that are deserted. The reality is that we are living in built environments that do not take our vulnerabilities into account, because for the most part they were created by people—men—who did not share those vulnerabilities or fully understand them. That is not a judgment; it is simply an internationally recognised fact.

I want us to start to shift the building blocks to ensure that our built environment is designed and created with protecting women not just in mind but central to everything that is done—that it is no longer an afterthought. It should not take a tragedy, the loss of a young life, to be the catalyst for our motivation to do that.

The issue of women being omitted from consideration in urban planning is, sadly, neither imagined nor new. Politicians and planners are acknowledging in cities across the world that women experience their environments differently from men. For example, women who combine productive work with being a mother or carer are more likely to use parks and public spaces in daylight hours. I want to see legislation demanding that all projects of this kind have undergone risk assessments undertaken by women—and not just piecemeal, authority by authority, but conducted by a recognised national standards agency to ensure that they meet national safety criteria before they can be granted planning permission. If gender bias could be removed from the design of our built environment, we might actually begin to prevent, rather than react to, violence against women. We need well-lit walkways and safe routes from public transport. We need design without gender bias and with gender appreciation built in—a safe last mile home for women in this country. Let us not forget that that will benefit everyone.

We can provide women with the foundations that they need to have more agency and to feel less vulnerable in their daily lives. We need to see equality between men and women in policy and in legislation. What works for one does not work for all: we know that. We need to go back to basics in planning, and take the necessary steps to protect women. I know that when the Minister responds he will draw attention to the steps that are already being taken to improve the situation, which I acknowledge. The national model design code safety guidelines state:

“Consideration needs to be given to safety and security issues in respect of street layouts and footways, especially in areas in which”

there are

“a large number of people…Passive surveillance of the street, good lighting and high levels of street activity are desirable”.

The guidance also states, in respect of public spaces:

“Insecure places can disproportionately affect some of the groups with protected characteristics. Local authorities will need to take this into account when devising and implementing design principles, having regard to the Public Sector Equality Duty”.

That does include thinking about women, but, again, it is a piecemeal approach, authority by authority. Some authorities have done a good deal—London has considered this in its planning, as have Ipswich, Nottingham and many others—but all of it is done in a way that is almost obscured from the public; the public are not aware of it. Although it is a fantastic first step, we need to do more. One of the most important steps towards women’s safety would be to make them feel secure, confident in the knowledge that an area had been well designed, knowing which areas are safest, and knowing that it had all been done with their safety in mind.

This campaign must not only involve women. It must be vocal, visible and accessible to women across the country, not just here in Westminster but through a national discussion. Perhaps the Government could consider a commission to hear the views of women from all parts of the country, and consider significantly involving the devolved authorities so that we can act together as a United Kingdom to safeguard the safety of our women and girls and, as we build a fairer society, build a safer society as well when we build our cities.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing this important debate. She is right to highlight and speak so powerfully about the issues that she has raised. I too want to take a moment to pay tribute to Sarah Everard and all those other women who have sadly been victims in this country. The Government empathise deeply with the calls for a greater focus on women’s safety in planning and more generally. This is a priority in my Department and it rightly deserves a cross-Government approach. However, I want to say at the outset that planning is a devolved matter, so I can speak only for the laws and rules that extend to England. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the planning system in England already has a framework of policy and guidance in place to make new developments safe, and I am grateful to have this opportunity to highlight it today so that, hopefully, planning authorities around the country will be even more aware of the guidance that is in place.

I thank the Minister for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing the debate. It is important, and it has made me think about the challenges involved.

One point I want to raise with the Minister is that this is not just about the planning of new developments; it is about the delivery of them as well. There are several estates being built in my constituency. People are already moving in, and many women have approached me and said that there is no safety in the form of street lights, pavements and secure walkways for them. So this is about not only the absolute end of the project but the delivery of the development.

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I have had exactly the same sort of developments in my own constituency—large developments that have taken a number of years. In fact, I helped to get some street lighting in the first part of one development because I had exactly the same issues. These are things that I will certainly take more consideration of in this role.

Our view is that any change to the existing planning system requires careful consideration in order to avoid any unintended consequences. I will briefly set out for hon. Members the current planning process in England, but I must reiterate that women’s safety relies on much more than just good planning practice, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said. My Department has made it clear through the national planning policy framework that planning policies and decisions should aim to create safe places. Chapter 8 of the framework explicitly states that planning policies and decisions should promote public safety. That can often be achieved with pedestrian cycle routes, high-quality public spaces and the active use of park and playgrounds.

The supporting section of the framework’s planning practice guidance on healthy and safe communities expands on that. It states:

“Planning provides an important opportunity to consider the security of the built environment”


“those that live and work in it.”

It also references section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, as amended. This requires all local, joint and combined authorities to exercise their functions with regard to their effect on crime and disorder, and to do all they reasonably can to prevent both.

On the subject of design in the planning system, the hon. Lady rightly mentioned the national design guide and the national model design code, which help councils and builders to create buildings that are safe for every member of the community. Specifically, the national design guide sets out 10 characteristics of well-designed places that councils can refer to when considering a planning application. The guide is also used by planners creating local policy so that they, together with the community, can define what good and safe design means in that area.

The national guide emphasises that where developments have public spaces and a network of streets, they must be safe and secure and accessible to all. Importantly, the guide makes it clear that shared spaces should be safe and feel safe, not just for the people living or working in nearby buildings but for visitors and passers-by too. That is essential for overcoming crime and the fear of crime because, as hon. Members will know, when a development gains a reputation for being quiet, poorly lit or dangerous, it is likely to attract even more criminal behaviour and it becomes a vicious cycle.

The national design guide does a lot to prevent that from the outset by asking for an assessment of risks in all new developments and a clear plan for mitigating them. It also encourages the use of what are known in the industry as “active frontages” so there is a steady stream of people taking the same route at different times of the day.

Finally, the guide makes it clear that natural surveillance should be factored into the planning equation, with windows and balconies so that people can feel safe in the knowledge that local streets and public spaces can be seen by people nearby from above and at street level.

That is what the national design guide seeks to achieve, but there is also the national model design code, which sets a baseline standard of quality and practice that councils are expected to meet when developing their own local design codes and determining planning applications. This includes how the design of new developments should enhance the health and wellbeing of local communities and create safe, inclusive and active environments.

The national model design code states that developments should include natural surveillance of the street, good lighting and high levels of footfall to deter criminal behaviour and ensure people feel safe walking the street. Importantly, the code reminds planners that insecure places can disproportionately affect groups with protected characteristics, including gender.

The Government’s policy and guidance on safety in new developments must be taken into account by councils when preparing their development plans, and they are very much a material consideration in planning decisions. The planning system is centred on effective community engagement, so when preparing a design code that sets the design standard for a local area, or when determining a planning application, there is an opportunity for everyone, including women and all those with an interest in personal safety, to help shape new buildings, streets and public spaces. In that sense, there is already a strong requirement that the planning system should do all it can to help ensure the safety of women and, indeed, all members of the community.

The Minister is generous in giving way, and I hear what he is saying. Perhaps he could meet me to discuss this, but I have very upset, angry and distraught people, particularly women, on this new estate, where there is no lighting on certain streets and where some pathways do not yet exist. There seems to be no provision for those pathways.

I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, we are currently considering a raft of planning issues, so perhaps this is something we can discuss.

The Department for Transport is also giving councils further guidance on street design. We are working closely with DFT on a revised “Manual for Streets”, for all councils in England to use when designing new roads and pedestrianised routes. It helps councils to make sure that paths and public spaces are overlooked by residential buildings, have good lighting and do not suffer from blind corners or other design flaws that can be exploited by criminals.

Last year, DFT launched a call for evidence on personal safety measures in streets and public spaces, to find out more about how people, particularly women, feel unsafe when using the street and experience harassment, intimidation or unwanted sexual behaviour in public spaces. The aim was to gather information to understand the problem, identify possible solutions and include what works and, more importantly, what does not work in that space. A new version of the guidance is set to be published later this year.

Another crucial safeguard in protecting women’s safety through the planning system is the support and advice on Secured by Design standards, which is available from the police through a network of designing out crime officers across the UK. These officers play a key role because they can liaise directly with the architects, designers and local planning authorities on a particular planning application. They can also provide specialist advice on the security of new buildings, as well the refurbishment of old ones, so they are as safe as they can be. Ensuring that consultation with Secured by Design and other experts in the field is taking place right from the start of the design stage is the best way to ensure that a proposed development protects women, girls and anyone else who may feel vulnerable—that is where our focus must be.

That said, the Government wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more to protect vulnerable women, which is why, as hon. Members will know, in July last year we published our cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy. It sets out our ambition to ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere—at home, online and on the streets. The strategy presents a number of measures designed to improve women’s safety, including the online tool StreetSafe, which encourages women and girls to anonymously report areas where they have felt unsafe, whether that is because of poor lighting, a lack of CCTV coverage or the people who were around them.

Since 2020, we have also provided £70 million to police and crime commissioners and councils in England and Wales through our flagship safer streets fund. That initiative is specifically focused on preventing neighbourhood crime, crime in public spaces and violence against women and girls. It has funded life-saving projects comprising not only traditional crime prevention techniques, such as better CCTV and street lighting, but creative interventions such as bystander training and educational initiatives to change attitudes and raise awareness. We are committing a further £150 million to the safer streets programme over the next three years, with tackling neighbourhood crime, antisocial behaviour and violence against women and girls as its key objectives.

The Government recognise that the built environment has a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing, so it needs to feel safe and secure for every member of the community. Through the design guide and the design code, we are giving both councils and developers the tools they need to create green, sustainable neighbourhoods with safety at their very heart. Those tools are already being put into action. Let me give a couple of examples: in Cambridge, the development at Marmalade Lane was designed to prioritise pedestrians, with a focus on social interaction; and Horsted Park in Kent was designed with visibility over parking spaces, with tree and shrub planting kept low to maintain visibility along the street and towards front doors—that is exactly the point that the hon Lady mentioned.

Our cities are also making improvements to existing public spaces, with good maintenance and management and a focus on lighting design that involves collaboration with a wide range of groups. We are also doubling our efforts to protect women and girls not just through effective planning but through a comprehensive strategy to reduce the prevalence of violence against them in the long term. That rightly means a wide range of Departments treating this with the urgency it deserves. I can give the hon. Member for Edinburgh West the commitment today that I will work with her and Members on both sides of the House to deliver on that mission, ensuring that housing and planning policy is playing its part in creating a safer society for all, which I am sure we all want to see.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.