I’m sure that no one doubts that we desperately need investment in our local communities, in particular to insulate our homes and workplaces, to provide local jobs for local people, to provide clean and cheap renewable energy and to recover our depleted nature and weakening food systems. Our communities have crumbling services, from social care to local public transport. Locally agreed investment priorities, with the right incentives, could begin a green transformation of our country and support the local economy, without allowing the rich to get even richer and wealth to flow into corporations based in tax havens.
Instead the government has brought forward plans that could see predatory developers and landowners riding rough-shod over agreed local priorities, further damaging our already degraded environments, and reducing commitments to affordable homes and to community facilities. These plans, rather than boosting local economies, could be a threat to existing sustainable businesses. ‘Investment Zones’ are a core element in the Tory ‘Growth Plan’, heralded by the now unravelling mini-budget. According to the Government “Investment Zones will accelerate the housing and infrastructure the UK needs to drive economic growth.”
Government guidance states that their aim is to “remove burdensome EU requirements”. These include Habitats Regulations and the requirement to provide an Environmental Impact Assessment, key tools in protecting nature during the planning process. Even worse, the guidance seems to allow for Investment Zones in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected environments. The stated expectation to ‘mitigate environmental impacts’ fails to meet the government’s own – already weak – ‘biodiversity net gain’ requirement outside investment zones. No wonder the major environmental protection organisations have called into question the Government’s commitment to its own legal target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.
The legal requirement to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 through a series of carbon targets has been completely ignored. The guidance states that “Key planning policies to ensure developments are well designed, maintain national policy on the Green Belt, protect our heritage, and address flood risk, highway and other public safety matters” will apply, but it is silent on climate change commitments. The stated intention is to “accelerate” development. To do so without explicit carbon commitments is reckless in the extreme! “The planning system”, the guidance goes on to say, “will not stand in the way of investment and development”, and that Investment Zones “will benefit from a liberalised planning process”. This clearly means that local communities will lose their rights to resist unsustainable development. Instead, developers will get to by-pass local objections entirely. These objections are often on environmental grounds.
In my opinion the planning system is already unfit for purpose. Local Plans should be pro-active in stating not just were the Local Planning Authority wants development to take place, but the type and design of this development. Instead it is reactive, in as much as once sites for development have been identified it is totally in the hands of the developer what is built. The creation of Investment Zones will further reduce the power that Councils have, and have a chilling effect on planning everywhere. Developers will insist they can’t compete against IZs without looser regulation outside the zones too. House builders will avoid locally agreed requirements for affordable housing, meaning many local families, key workers and those facing homelessness will continue to be left behind.
The driving force behind the current government’s strategy is a simplistic and all-encompassing belief in growth as the universal panacea for all our problems. Yes, there are sections of our economy that it makes good sense to grow – renewable energy and the retrofitting of energy saving improvements to our existing housing stock for example. But blanket growth for the simple purpose of increasing Gross Domestic Product in the belief that the wealth accumulated by the already well-off will trickle down to the rest of us is at best naïve. Moreover, infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible.
But it will also be disastrous for our attempts to limit the effects of global warming. Releasing new land for development is wrong on so many levels. Green-field sites, land that is currently undeveloped, must, as far as possible, stay undeveloped. We need to do a thorough assessment of not just the number of new houses we need (note need, not want) but the type of housing we need. We should then aim to build any new housing on brown-field sites, and be prepared to create higher density housing rather than build on currently undeveloped land.