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Jon Reeds
Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability


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An Egregious Future

Few elephants live in this country and most of those that do live in zoos. So conservation of them is unlikely to figure in any 25-year environment strategy, which is a pity, as the Plan published by the Government yesterday must have had two very large pachyderms roaming silently around the launch room.
I'm referring, as regular readers of this blog will have guessed, to urban sprawl and car dependency. They are certainly hinted at, big-time, in the Plan but there is no significant action proposed to deal with the former and the strategy explicitly says it intends to do nothing about the latter.
The 25-year Environment Plan, A Green Future, begins with six goals, four additional goals and six policy areas. It's a grim omen that mitigating and adapting to climate change is one of the additional goals rather than Number 1 and many of the report's aspirations are pretty abstract and full of loopholes.
You will only find one mention of urban sprawl in the report, page 35 noting the important role of green belts in preventing it. Nor will you find mentions of greenfield land or soil sealing.
Let's say from the outset that there are many positive things in the strategy, not least the commitment to improving soil health and protecting peatlands. But as ever, actions speak louder, and the proposed actions on soils are minimal and include nothing to prevent soil sealing. Peatland action is even more limited and the commitment to phase out horticultural peat use only by 2030 is, frankly, pretty pathetic.
But the elephants do make a little bit of noise, even when straying near the Treasury's sacred beast, house building. A section on housing and planning admits we are building on 17,000 ha of undeveloped land every year. That's 170 square kilometres of land destroyed, but it claims 12 percent of the UK is green belt and there is the usual, increasingly unreal, commitment to protecting it. Green belts will be enhanced, apparently.
But commitments to protecting much else, namely ancient woodland and grassland, high flood risk areas and the best agricultural land should be judged on performance so far. Enough said.
The usual weasel words about positive environmental outcomes reducing opposition to development, however, should serve as a warning for where we're heading, i.e. protection not of the environment, but of Dumb Growth.
The key commitment on development is to embed a Net Environmental Gain principle. This sounds good, but it pretty soon becomes apparent that it's the current Net Biodiversity Gain principle given a bit more oomph in guidance.
The State of Nature Partnership has already shown how damaged UK biodiversity is and it plainly needs all the help it can get. But it's just part of the country's natural capital and protecting it is only one of the ecosystem services to which the report gives occasional polite nods.
NEG rapidly becomes NBG on page 33 and this is dangerous as it's plainly aimed at buying wildlife groups off, perhaps the lobby the Government fears most. Behind it lies an unspoken belief among several of them that intensively managed farmland is environmentally worthless and not worth protecting.
Yet even the most intensively worked arable land provides a range of ecosystem services that we lose at our peril, like production of food and water, flood control, more biodiversity than anyone likes to admit and even a small amount of carbon sequestration. And open land of any kind contributes to the intangibles offered by the countryside.
So, despite a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use change, developers will be perfectly free to go on destroying huge areas of countryside, secure in the knowledge they can put in a few sad plots dubbed as nature conservation areas amidst the concrete, the brickwork and the lawns. Dumb Growth as usual.
More than 15 years have now passed since the Treasury launched its crusade against the rural environment and separated Whitehall control of planning and transport. If A Green Future is weak to the point of pointlessness on housing development, then it's positively harmful on transport.
Mondeo Man has probably moved on to an Audi by now, but he's still exercising unhealthy control of transport policy.
The grandly named Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, er, challenges us to encourage new modes of transport, whatever they might be, and to seize opportunities for zero emission vehicles. These, of course, don't actually exist.
We also, allegedly, have to prepare ourselves for autonomy and a blurring of the distinction between private and public transport. In practice I presume this means getting killed by driverless cars and using Uber instead of public transport.
Although the strategy admits transport now accounts for 40 percent of UK final energy use, it fails to admit it's now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is pathetic stuff, designed to perpetuate the view that cars and lorries can somehow be turned into an environmental free lunch, instead of the planet destroying monster they have become.
But it fits perfectly with the ambition go on promoting urban sprawl. Dumb Growth Nation as ever.
Despite the prime minister having given her authority to the report, it remains very much a DEFRA strategy, with farming featuring prominently. These are important areas, of course, and the report does contain many good proposals, even if closeness to sheep farming has ensured many are pretty wooly.
But, as a 25 year plan for the nation's environment, it fails at the first hurdle, namely tackling our addiction to Dumb Growth and driving. The Smart Growth alternative is as far from Whitehall thinking as ever.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 January 2018


A Property Desiring Democracy

All but the most avid free-marketeers today accept there are instances of market failure and that these require government intervention now and then. But I am beginning to wonder if the current level of debate about English housing policy is starting to mark a sort of democracy failure.
It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms tried from time to time. But no-one, he said, pretends democracy is perfect or all-wise.
And, of course, he was right. Representative democracy gives us huge benefits which massively outweigh its disbenefits, and one of those is that the people we elect periodically have to face the electorate to justify their actions and their plans.
One of the things politicians try to do is attract young voters, and that's perfectly healthy. But recent decades have seen that impact on housing policy, with young adults' ability to buy their home as early as possible becoming a central plank of all the main political parties.
Economics, however, is no respecter of political ambition and young adults' ability to buy has been contracting, despite political obsessions. The average age at which they can buy has now risen to 32.
Whitehall's response over the past 15 years, and the response of its more obedient followers in Westminster, has been to blame the planning system for failing to yield enough of our vital greenfield land for destruction for low-density market housing. You know, the sort young adults can no longer afford to buy and many of which are hardly aimed at first-time buyers anyway.
But that period has seen another phenomenon which has nothing to do with ability to own your own home, namely the huge mushrooming of buy-to-rent. There are no doubt many reasons for this, including the ups and downs of the housing market, the vast disparity in UK incomes and lenders willingness, at a time of low interest rates, to finance it.
Yet the huge growth of the private rented sector that has resulted is one of the principal reasons younger people are unable to buy. I recently suggested, entirely facetiously, that if the Government wanted to improve ability to buy, they should extend Right-to-Buy to the private rented sector.
That would be politically impossible of course, but any Government has plenty of levers it could push to make private renting less commercially attractive and to encourage those who own rental properties to sell them.
Instead, however, it continues to waste billions on Help to Buy which has Helped To Push Up Property Prices and Helped To Finance Huge Bonuses For House Builders' Directors.
All this assumes that politicians' need to secure young peoples' votes is the only really important aspect of housing policy. And, before you ask, yes I am a home owner, although I didn't buy until I was in my 30s which is how things used to be. And yes, buying your own home is a perfectly legitimate and sensible ambition for anyone.
But many people will never be able to buy given the current way our housing market operates and the ever growing level of income inequality.
Sajid Javid's recent suggestion of fifty billion quid of borrowing for social housing was a recognition of this, though he must have known the Treasury would simply dismiss it. But that's the scale of the challenge we face and the only way house building numbers are ever going to rise significantly.
And recognising it would be another nail in the coffin of the current dysfunctional planning and housing regime which is geared to building expensive, low-density, greenfield housing at remote locations, for sale or rent, which is actually doing very little for first-time-buyers' aspirations.
Now England is, apparently, promised a revised National Planning Policy Framework. That is a major opportunity for a Smart Growth approach to tackle these problems or, at the very least, to voice opinions in support of one.
Democratic involvement in the planning system was supposed to have been enshrined by the 1947 Act and sustained ever since. But all that's been sustained recently has been increasing Whitehall control.
So, here is an opportunity to help reduce at least some of our democratic deficit. Too much of that can lead to democracy failures.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 January 2018