Time to work together

Much of the country is still reeling from Friday’s not-really-a-budget which also launched a disastrously unsustainable growth plan and an even bigger deficit on the nation.

Nature conservation bodies, with their vast memberships, were quick off the mark expressing their surprise and anger and it’s great to see them returning to the fight. There are threats in all of this to our environment, our economy and our society and it’s clear there is already the beginnings of a broad front of opposition, at least in terms of the wider environment.

The RSPB, for instance, described the proposals as “an attack on nature” and “uncharted territory” and promised not to stand for it. Amazingly, Downing Street was surprised by the reaction.

There has also been a furious response on the planning front. The Community Planning Alliance was quick to offer its support to the conservation bodies in the “fight to stop the Government’s war against nature”. Co-founder Rosie Pearson penned a rapid blog on what she called an inferno of environmental rules.

She did a round-up of the main objections to investment zones, the free-for-all on infrastructure building, the scrapping of environmental schemes for farmers and the bonfire of EU green laws. These destructive proposals are at the forefront of the Government’s push to scrap regulation and planning, reduce its tax income and build as many of the wrong kind of houses in the wrong places as possible.

All these issues will be at the forefront of the fight this winter to get better policies. What do we need to do?

1.  Firstly, let’s stress that this needs to be a cross-party fight, involving all the mainstream political parties. These plans emanate from a small and unrepresentative section of the government which seems only concerned with doing what flaky neoliberal think-tanks order it to do. Conservatives I know are as appalled as everyone else.

2.  Secondly, it needs to go much wider than just nature conservation and planning. The Growth Plan 2022 sets out sites for “investment zones” which are a complete mixture of areas. Some are plainly in need of investment, given the parlous states of their economy; others are already overheated. Some do offer room for expansion on brownfield land with sustainable connectivity; others are dominated by high-value natural or agricultural landscapes already under stress from low-density housing and road-dependent distribution industry sprawl.

Then there are the infrastructure projects, a bizarre mixture of useful and unsustainable. Kicking the list off with no less than 86 major road capacity improvements tells you all you need to know about the importance the document places on sustainability and the fight against climate change. True, there are a handful of rail schemes, but where are the plans to get rail-based public transport in our cities, to electrify Network Rail, to grow rail freight?

“Road improvement projects” inevitably took priority

Various unproven carbon capture and storage and hydrogen proposals make the cut, as do a couple of big nuclear power stations. But where are the plans for tidal barrages (which sadly the wind energy sector has been lobbying against – come on, guys, we need to exploit all these technologies)? This won’t be the now inadequate “net-zero by 2050”. This will be not-zero, ever.

You really wouldn’t know from this that clumsy attempts to grow the economy via housing sprawl have already left parts of the country seriously short of water and damaged our vital food production at a time of international shortages and an already huge balance of payments deficit.

3.  Thirdly, we need to spell out positive alternatives. Only a small and dwindling band of diehard neoliberals think a dash-for-growth will work any better than it did in the early-1970s, early-1980s or the early-2010s. Unleashing even more extreme versions in our fragile economy is all set to lead to hyperinflation, recession, mass unemployment, greater inequality and civil unrest.

We shouldn’t be having to waste time on this. We’re facing accelerating climate change, a biodiversity crisis, a weak and declining economy, shortages of energy, food and water, a dangerous security situation, gross inequality, poverty, failing public services and the growth of extremism.

What we need is a serious, co-ordinated campaign for sustainable development, whatever the best route to that is. We need to remind campaigning bodies that they need to work together as they have successfully done in the past and that, working together, they need to lead this.

Oh, and we could remind everyone that the Smart Growth philosophy already exists and is designed to provide co-ordinated strategies for many of these problems.

Jon Reeds