Covid and a tale of two plans

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m losing my critical edge, but in many ways I’m starting to feel sorry for Boris Johnson. This is partly because he is so far out of his depth. His ambition to be a Churchillian statesman exceeds his ability by such an extent that it is embarrassing to watch. But mostly it’s because that responding to this Covid pandemic would have been challenging for any Prime Minister, no matter who they were or from which political party they were drawn (with the possible exception of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern of course). We have not been in such a situation before, so no politician has any experience to draw on. And for each decision there are multiple competing considerations – the hard science, our economic wellbeing, our mental health as well as our physical health, and our human rights. And as following the guidance of one will often clash with the guidance of another, you are bound to get criticism from different factions no matter what you do. Quite simply, there is no right answer to any problem or situation.

Having said that I’m surprised that the libertarian wing of the Conservatives have not been more vocal in the their opposition to the various restrictions imposed upon our freedoms – perhaps they are scared of ‘getting it wrong’. However, there have been protests against the wearing of masks (though these have not been getting much press of late) and I have heard people argue that the repeated lockdowns deprive them of their liberty and human rights. I’m a big supporter of Human Rights (I’ve been a member of a small group that has helped Bridport to declare itself a Rights Respecting Town) but we need to understand two things: Human Rights are human constructs not ‘God given’ and inalienable; and they have to be balanced by responsibility. So as well as having the basic right to do certain things like meet and socialise with who we like, we also have a responsibility to protect the fellow members of our community by doing everything we reasonably can to prevent the spread of the virus.

Dorset Council is currently in the process of consulting on two major, and highly related, projects: It’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy and Action Plan and it’s draft Local Plan (the plan for the future development of Dorset which guides decisions on whether or not planning applications will be granted for the next 15 years). A major factor in both is transport. Transport is the single largest sector for carbon emissions in Dorset. My original Climate Emergency motion to Dorset Council (which, despite going to Council 18 months ago, still has not been debated) called for “a Dorset wide transport strategy that discourages car use, encourages walking and cycling, and drastically improves rail and bus services.” Whilst transport comprises one of the 9 sections of the draft Strategy and Action Plan, there is nothing close to the comprehensive transport strategy that I think is needed, particularly when reducing the need for travel is a major consideration in the draft Local Plan. I would like to see much more vision and ambition in both plans. I would like to see us develop a network of what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls eco-towns: small, self-reliant communities connected by an efficient and cheap public transport system. The aim would be to break our dependency on the motor car and to focus on the development of our local economies.

Next to transport, I think that planning decisions constitute the most important set of considerations with regards to a net reduction in carbon. Not least in these considerations are the number of new homes we need to build. I read recently that the actual construction of a building contributes to over 50% of the carbon emitted over the life of that building. One of the big factors in any local plan has been the Government’s Housing Needs Assessment – an assessment, based on a standard formula, for assessing the number of new homes each local planning authority must build. So some potentially good news this week was the announcement that the Government is backtracking on its plans for changing this housing formula. These new, new changes will see more of a focus on the North and the Midlands, and the prioritising of building new homes on twenty urban brownfield sites across the country. Hopefully this will mean a large reduction in the number of new homes Dorset’s new local plan has to deliver.

But do we need to go further than this change of focus? Do we need to rethink how we live? Where we live? Should we consider a total ban on any development that requires the destruction of green fields? Despite my smugness at living in such a beautiful location, I have to admit that there are many eco-benefits of city living. Not least of these are transport. If I lived in London I would not even consider owning a car. But should we also start rethinking the size of the properties we aspire to? Should we give much greater consideration to the sharing of resources? To community living? I haven’t got answers to these questions, and I accept that any debate could quickly become very heated, but I do think it something that eventually we will be forced to consider – so it may be worth starting now and feeding the results into forthcoming local plans.

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