Since c.1900, the rate of oil consumption has grown around two billion times faster than population growth globally. In other words: over-population is far less of a problem than fossil fuel-based lifestyles. This is good news, because while the former we’re stuck with, the latter we can change…should we wish.
In 2010, the UK Government called climate change “one of the greatest public health threats of the 21st century”. It’s first national Climate Change Risk Assessment (2012) reveals that impacts are expected across all sectors: 1) disruption of transport networks and communications; 2) increased competition for water, energy and materials; and 3) flooding and coastal erosion.
The Environment Agency estimated that the 2007 floods cost £3.2bn, and the 2012 floods £1bn. How about 2014? These losses are not external; they are an extravagance we cannot afford.
One of the primary issues faced by flood victims in the 2007 floods was lack of drinking water, requiring military assistance for distribution. At the same time, DEFRA reported that farming fell 14% (£800m) in 2011-12 due to ‘unusual’ weather, a particular issue for a nation with only 60% food self-sufficiency.
We do not know for certain whether these extreme events are a result of man-made climate change, but we do know that five of the wettest years in the last half-century have been post-2000 and the global scientific community are united. As southern England emerges from yet more eye watering flooding, one hopes that the ‘man on the street’ is waking up to this and that politicians can finally start making lasting change.
Most planners know that 21st century industrialised world lifestyles are unsustainable – three planets for the average European and five for the average American according to the WWF - yet most consultants still spend their working lives planning settlements built to that specification. Why? Because they have no choice. The fundamental decisions are made by those in control of the equity, mainly the landowner in its choice of developer (influenced by local accountability, or lack of), and subsequently the developer in their vision and choice of planning and delivery team.
On the other side of the fence sit the local authority planners whose biggest weapon is (fast-dwindling) red-tape aimed at the lowest common denominator: ecologically illiterate developers responsible to locally unaccountable shareholders. Local authority planners apply these policy mechanisms, but it does nothing to alter developers’ approach, and in fact is counter-productive when applied to eco-literate developers.
‘Eco-literacy’ is a simple yet profound concept coined by David Orr and Fritjof Capra in the 1990s, which draws a parallel between the need for the knowledge of natural systems with the widely accepted need for the ability to communicate. We must strive to communicate, and now we must strive to ensure we have enough fresh air, water and food.
In the UK we now have so many impact assessment methods that “impact assessment fatigue” is recognised by Public Health England as a genuine problem; I wonder if Big Pharma will produce a drug for it.
The limitations of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) - a mechanism that mitigates against a single very large-scale development proposal (e.g. nuclear power station or motorway) - have long been recognised, hence the legal evolution of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SA/SEA), created to consider options strategically ‘upstream’. As far back as 2000 the UK Government acknowledged that a particular weakness of EIA is the lack of stakeholder engagement, particularly with the public, but also with non-statutory stakeholders (e.g. Third Sector). It’s been recognised more recently that SA/SEA suffers from similar issues: a 2010 Government report acknowledged the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of SA/SEA citing lack of: skills, wider stakeholder participation and “clear spatial focus”. Perversely, particularly with regards to neighbourhood-scale planning, public consultation is only mandatory at the end of each process. And what about those major or super-major housing schemes that fall under the EIA threshold?
These legal and policy drivers provide consultants like me with work, but their impact on the health of people and the planet is marginal: they are reactionary add-ons, and external to a system directed solely by reductionist quantification: pounds and pence.
So, here are two proposals that I think could reduce the need for red-tape, while increasing quality of life. I’d be interested in readers’ opinions on whether you think they would work or not:
1) place a ‘Duty of local responsibility’ on landowners and developers to ensure their assets are used with the long-term future of that area and its people as a primary concern;
2) include ‘ecological literacy’ as a central part of every curriculum, particularly on those courses that lead on to the control and development of land.