This post was originally published by Business Green.
There’s no solution to the climate crisis without tackling the nature crisis. They are interdependent.
Lots of blogs and speeches start like that, and it is true. But that does not mean that there are no tensions between different environmental ends. We want to arrest climate change, restore nature, protect landscapes and ensure social equity, all within a finite land area. What gives when these goals clash, as they sometimes do?
That is the question half posed in the latest issue of the US magazine, Mother Jones. I say ‘half posed’ because the magazine’s contributors know their answer: build, build, build to deliver the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and avert climate breakdown. In a compelling essay in the edition, environmentalist Bill McKibben acknowledges that environmental campaigners are skilled at saying no – “it’s what we do” – and recognises that new developments can be ugly or jarring. But we are in a climate emergency and that entails urgency. As McKibben says: “It’s not easy to retrain our eyes, but it’s easier than altering the laws of physics.”
The UK also needs to get building, both to electrify the economy and to respond to the economic challenges of IRA and the EU’s Green Industrial Plan. We can and should argue about what to build and where, but a sustainable future requires big changes. Rural land lies largely outside the planning system, though we need major and contentious changes to farming practices to achieve net zero and restore nature. We also need wind and solar farms; pylons and overhead lines; electricity substations; new factories; denser towns and cities to improve people’s lives and reduce carbon emissions; mass retrofitting of homes, with millions of heat pumps; new rail lines and cycle lanes; EV charging points; bicycle storage, and so on.
I would love to believe we had a planning system capable of directing the infrastructure we need to the right places. Introducing the second reading of the Town and Country Planning Bill in January 1947, Lewis Silkin said the bill would begin “a new era in the life of this country, an era in which human happiness, beauty, and culture will play a greater part in its social and economic life than they have ever done before”.
It is almost inconceivable that any politician today would talk of planning in such lofty terms. The system has been bashed about for decades, subjected to successive waves of cackhanded reforms aimed at speeding up and depoliticising decisions. But land use change is inherently political. We should recognise this and plan positively for an equitable and rapid transition to a net zero, nature positive future.
Too often, however, the planning system is seen as the problem, not the solution. Campaign group Britain Remade included 86 references to planning in a recent report, dubbed Powerbook: A playbook for energy security by 2030. None of them were positive: “glacial pace”, “broken”, “unnecessary planning delays and blockages”, “bottlenecks”, “substantial challenges”, “slow, bureaucratic, and uncertain”, “excessive bureaucracy”, “burden”. In January, Rachel Reeves struck a similar note in a speech to the Fabian Society. She was strong on Labour’s plans for a green transition – “the very centrepiece of Labour’s economic policy” – but saw planning merely as an encumbrance.
I understand these concerns. The system now is slow, underpowered and detached from the urgent national missions of achieving net zero and restoring nature. But it is too easy a target.
For instance, the Powerbook states that “it can take 13 years to build a new offshore wind farm in Britain due to a malfunctioning planning system” (emphasis added) but this is simply untrue. As the report makes clear, there are many other reasons for delay. These include the complexity inherent in major infrastructure projects, the propensity of politicians to dodge hard decisions and the difficulty of getting grid connections.
On the grid, March’s report by the government’s offshore wind champion, Tim Pick, states: “If you take just one message from this report, it should be the urgent need to upgrade our national grid for a world of high renewables penetration, and widespread electrification of homes and businesses.” The Offshore Wind Acceleration Taskforce was business heavy, with no NGO representation, but its message is clear: planning is not the main problem.
My concern about the heavy emphasis on weakening planning to achieve net zero is twofold.
First, net zero is not the only goal. It is not even the only environmental goal. Complexity is part of life. Simplifying planning does not remove that complexity. We need to deal with climate change, but we also need to restore nature and we should want to protect beauty. The planning system should aim to deliver these multiple outcomes.
It does not have to be a battle. The RSPB, for instance, has set out reasonable proposals for “accelerating nature positive offshore wind”. Thinking about birds or marine life or landscapes may add a layer of complexity, and even some costs, for developers. But planning is not there to serve developers: it is there to serve the public interest.
Sensible developers know that, in the long run, trying to force through big infrastructure projects ends in acrimony and delay. This is my second concern about what may be an impending battle between net zero and other environmental aims: that it will end in tears on both sides.
I have been involved in arguments about planning and the environment for almost 20 years. For 13 years, I was chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity. Battles over onshore wind and housing dominated my time there.
There was a familiar pattern. Planning and ‘nimbys’ were blamed for stopping development. Restrictions were eased and developments imposed on local communities. But it was never enough to appease the pro-development lobby because, surprise, surprise, it was never just planning holding things up.
In response to the imposition of developments, voters – “middle England” – got angry and expressed it in elections (until 2019, planning for housing and renewables was the only environmental issue to sway seats in general elections). Faced with this backlash, governments took fright and made it harder to build stuff. New onshore wind was effectively banned in England in 2015. In the case of housing, the shires are still in revolt and the government appears to have given up trying to meet housing need.
Let’s not go through this again. We really do not have time for it. We should start by listening to each other. Ultimately, like Bill McKibben, I think environmentalists need start saying yes to development. But we will get what we need faster if we plan for it properly, recognising the complexity of decisions and the need to reconcile different interests, rather than further weakening the best instrument we have for deciding what happens to land with broad public consent.