Tag Archives: Environment

Five steps to providing more homes without trashing the environment

Let’s start by putting aside the debate about whether we need more housing. It’s been done to death, and the overwhelming consensus is that we need more homes if the law of supply and demand is not to make housing already more unaffordable than now.

The real-world debate is about where those new homes should be built. There are broadly three options: within existing settlements, both rural and urban; extending the boundaries of those settlements; or creating new settlements. Reality means a combination of all three, but striking the balance is the difficult bit.

A key tension is how we create enough housing while preventing unnecessary damage to the natural and built environments. Can we proceed in a way which will not inflame town against country? Can we deliver development with minimum adverse impacts on the natural environment – of which we are temporary stewards – and maximum positive impacts on the built environment? Can we avoid building sprawl which changes the character of communities, often for the worse?

There is no magic wand, but we could begin with a simple toughening-up of some planning policies.

First, force house-builders to stick to their commitments on providing affordable housing. When a developer says a specific proportion of the houses on a development will be affordable, that is the figure that should be delivered. The final plans for the Sherford new community near Plymouth show a reduction from the initial 40% proposal to 15%. Affordable housing benefits local people on modest incomes.

Second, to make better use of what we already have, there should be restrictions on second homes. This will assist the housing shortage and prevent communities from being turned into ghost villages. An outright ban on owning more than one home would certainly be unenforceable and probably politically unacceptable, but some form of punitive taxation on homes not normally occupied for less than, say, 4 days a week could be devised.

Third, and continuing the theme of better use of existing buildings, the common practice of planners specifying separate zones for housing and for other non-intrusive uses should become the exception, not the norm.   Housing and retail can mix very easily. Walk along almost any shopping street outside the honeypots and look at the number of unused rooms on the floors above the shop facades. As current buildings reach their sell-by date, there is an opportunity to use high-class architectural designs to turn those streets into a vibrant mix of ground-floor retail with 3 or 4 floors of housing above them.

Fourth, stop the urban sprawl. In my home town of Exeter, the local plan provides for 12,000 new homes over the period 2006-26, mostly located on the existing city boundaries, and taking up greenfield land. More intensive housing densities within the city, a willingness to think of 5 floors rather than 3 as the norm, and a purge on persistently empty houses would not only enable the city to meet its own needs. It would also retain its compactness, which is one of Exeter’s great attractions. The same can be said of many towns around the country.  And sprawl doesn’t help our battle against climate change.

Finally, central government needs to take land use policy out of the “too difficult” tray. In particular, it needs to recognise that land is not just there to be built on.  Policy needs to understand the vital role of land in producing our food and put food production on a level playing-field with other industries when it comes to land allocation decisions. At present, agricultural land can be taken for housing developments because government inspectors enforce policy-led housing targets in local plans. In the same way, renewable energy structures on farmland have been gaining planning permission because there is a government policy to increase renewable energy generating capacity. But there is no food production target, because successive governments believe it’s best left to the global market, and so farmland has no defence against the developers.

These measures don’t provide all the solutions. But can we make a start here please?

Advertisements

Local austerity – how the environment and the people lose out

Like other local authorities across England, Devon County Council is having to make cuts to services in the name of the god Austerity. The Council’s Tough Choices consultation invites the public to comment on where the cuts should fall. Does it really?

One consultation in progress is the public transport budget, where Devon says it needs to make savings of £1.76m out of a budget of £5.77m, or nearly one-third of the total [1]. To achieve this, bus services across the county will be reduced, following a withdrawal of subsidies to the bus operators. Councillors decided to go out to consultation on the proposal, even though they recognised the environmental and social downsides set out in the officer report [2]. These are:

  • reducing the scope of bus services as an alternative mode of travel to the car
  • a consequent likely increase in traffic
  • increased vehicle emissions
  • increased greenhouse gas and other emissions
  • reduced public transport network resilient to future effects of climate change
  • reduced sustainability of communities served by council funded bus routes that will have a reduced level of service in the future
  • reducing the ability of people without a car to travel to work
  • a negative impact on knowledge and skills, employment levels, and local businesses

It gives more than pause for thought that any public body is prepared to implement policies with these results.

Meanwhile, the Devon highways budget is also under scrutiny. The budget for maintenance alone is currently a hefty £63.8m [3]. The saving the County Council intends to make here is £3.4m, or 5%. The goal is to “find different, more cost-effective ways of doing things and that non-essential work is stopped so that we can maintain a safe and effective highway network while helping to support economic growth”[4]. The proposed reductions put forward for consultation, and which look likely to be implemented are:

  1. Reduction of gritting and snow-clearing flee
  2. Change of criteria for gritting and snow-clearing routes
  3. Stop maintaining grit bins
  4. Closure of picnic sites
  5. Stopping grass cutting (except for visibility areas)
  6. Stopping weed treatment
  7. Remodelling of the parish lengthsmen service
  8. Reduction in Neighbourhood Highway Team staffing

The impact assessment of these cuts acknowledges they are expected to make life worse for some people, particularly in rural areas [5]. However they do not have the long-term environmental impacts envisaged for the public transport cuts.

The extent of Devon County Council’s commitment to social and environmental improvement is revealed in other savings measures. A cheap cut is the proposed £0.1m saving from reducing school crossing patrols, which will lead to increased car use as parents drive their children to school and, in the words of the officer report, “Increases in motorised travel will have the double effect of reducing daily activity levels and increasing collision risks for those children who continue to travel on foot.” [6].   UPDATE 14 February:  Devon County Council’s Cabinet decided yesterday not to proceed with the school crossing patrol savings.

Apart from the social and environmental vandalism, what is striking about all these measures is that they are easy to implement.  By contrast, the main highways budget is spent through a long-running contract with a private company, South West Highways, recently extended to 2017.  As is so often the case, the relationship between the commissioner and the contractor gets very close. In this case, the Council and SWH have set up a “Virtual Joint Venture” [7].  Council and SWH staff are co-located at County Hall and in the local delivery units, which gives SWH easy access to the driving seat. Under the current contract, SWH receives a fee of 2% of turnover.

Dismantling any of this would be considerably more difficult than cutting a subsidy or sacking a few lollipop ladies. And of course reducing highways spending in a roads-dependent county like Devon would have the economic growth lobby up in arms. So should we be surprised that the axe is falling on the easy targets rather than on the substantial contracted highways budget, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences?

It’s unlikely that Devon County Council is the only local authority making the same judgement calls.  But that doesn’t mean they are good ones.  The real villain, of course, is Austerity.

Notes:

[1] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_sc152.html

[2] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_document.htm?cmadoc=minutes_exc_20150114.html, minute 280

[3] https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/maintaining-roads/

[4] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/background/background-information

[5] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/files/2014/10/Highways-budget-impact-assessment-2015-to-16.pdf

[6] http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_pte152.html

[7] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_hcw141.html

Atonement: why the baby boomers should vote Green

Exeter, January 2015

It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).

The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.

A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.

But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.

It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:

  • A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance.  This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
  • A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
  • A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors.  No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
  • A  banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry [1].
  • Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
  • Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business [2].
  • A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
  • A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
  • A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
  • A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England [3].
  • A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
  • Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
  • The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….

I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.

We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.

Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.

It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?

The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.

Notes:

[1] See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/

[2] See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation

The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk

[3] Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf

The BBC should run a competition for a new national anthem

The United Kingdom’s national anthem has remained unchanged since it came into common use in the latter part of the 18th century. The underlying sentiments are summed up in its first line – God save our gracious Queen – and the theme continues throughout. We, the Queen’s subjects, pray to a god that many don’t believe in to keep the monarch safe, victorious, and long-lasting.

There are very few people indeed who don’t have some affection for the person of Queen Elizabeth II and – given the apparent successor to the throne – the words Long may she reign will strike a chord with many. Yet setting aside the personalities, is the current anthem really fit for purpose in the 21st century state?

Republics disposed of hymns of praise to their monarchs at the time of their formation. La Marseillaise originated in the French Revolution and is now enshrined in the Fifth Republic’s constitution. It is a song of praise to the people of France, though you need a strong stomach to gloss over some of the more nationalist, violent and racist bits of it. The German national anthem – the third verse only of the song beginning Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (the rest of the original having been perverted by the Nazis) – celebrates a fatherland of unity, justice, brotherhood and freedom. It too has formal status, adopted by Presidential edict in 1991 as the national anthem for the re-unified Germany.

Other countries with monarchies have recognised that their citizens may not always want to sing the monarch’s praises. Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have two anthems: a “royal” anthem and a national anthem. The former are similar to the UK’s; the latter celebrate the land and the people.

Within the United Kingdom itself, Scotland and Wales have adopted what are in effect their own national anthems: Flower of Scotland and Land of our Fathers respectively. These celebrate the nations, not the rulers. They are sung at international sports fixtures when the national teams are playing, leaving England, oddly, with the UK national anthem.

Views on the UK anthem’s music are inevitably subjective. Played slowly it sounds like a dirge. Played with vigour it can be stirring. Benjamin Britten’s 1961 setting of God Save the Queen is a moving and exquisite piece of music, but the delicacy of the first part will not play well at a rugby international.

There is nothing to prevent the UK anthem from being changed. We don’t need the government’s or Parliament’s permission. The British Monarchy website states: “There is no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition.”

So let’s have something fit for the future, and which won’t give some of us a pain in the throat when we’re expected during the next decade or so to sing God Save the King. Something which celebrates our natural and built environments, our scientific and artistic achievements, and our social progress. Something free of triumphalism and favour of peace rather than conflict. Something which appeals to all citizens, irrespective of nationhood, race and faith (and no faith).

How do we find it?

As we live in the age of media competitions – Eurovision song contest, X-factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and so on – there can be no more fitting organisation than the BBC to run a competition come up with a winner.  To avoid a race to the bottom, the first step would be for the BBC to set up a committee to determine the shortlisting criteria.

The committee would determine the process for inviting submissions and for judging the winner , and would consult widely on its proposals in draft. Its membership should include as a minimum a poet, a composer, a choir director, an independent-minded MP, a social scientist, an environmentalist, a historian and someone who knows about running large-scale competitions. Existing works would not be ruled out if they met the criteria or could be modified to do so.

There are two other reasons for asking the BBC to take this on. First, it has a truly national reach through TV and radio and on-line services, so offering the potential to involve as many as possible in the voting. Second, as the controlling body for the Proms, it is well placed to ensure the Last Night concludes with the winning entry, in place of the old.

If you agree write to Lord Hall, the BBC Director-General, saying so and spread the idea as widely as you can.  The time is right.

(Thanks to www.nationalanthems.info for some of the information used in this blog.)

How to fix a consultation

One of Exeter’s less attractive pieces of public realm is the bus and coach station. Draughty, uncomfortable, made of brutalist concrete, and with half the site used exclusively as an overnight bus park, proposals for its redevelopment have been round for years.

Now, however, action is in prospect. The site developers – The Crown Estate and TIAA Henderson Real Estate – recently staged a small exhibition of their plans to gauge public opinion. There was no model, only an outline plan showing areas marked for retail, restaurants, leisure and a cinema, plus a new more compact bus station and a small greened public open space. The development is being presented as an extension of the existing Princesshay shopping centre.

Armed with the public’s views, the developers have said they intend to submit an application for outline planning permission before Christmas. Whether what the developers have collected really represents the public’s views is a moot point. Visitors to the exhibition were asked to complete a form which asked them to express a view on five propositions, by ticking the box for each one to state whether they strongly agreed, agreed, didn’t know, disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Let’s look at the five propositions (in italics), with my comments on each.

1. I think the extension of Princesshay and the proposed leisure facilities are a good thing for the city. No opportunity to support the new leisure facilities – which will be a swimming pool – without supporting the rest of it.
2. I think the bus and coach station is in need of redevelopment to provide a new gateway to Exeter. A no-brainer, barely worth asking.
3. New and accessible public spaces in the city centre will benefit visitors and residents alike. Well, yes, they probably will, but the statement is not related to the development under discussion.
4. I would welcome an increased variety of places to eat and drink and more choice in city centre leisure activities. Again, no opportunity to disaggregate the proposition. Many people in Exeter would like to see a new city centre theatre on the site, but that’s not on offer and the questionnaire doesn’t invite comment on alternatives.
5. I think the city as a whole will benefit from this new proposed development. How can a layman form an informed opinion on this? We don’t know what the new shops and restaurants will be: will they be more chains, or will they be at affordable rents for small businesses? LOL.

The questionnaire aims to encourage respondents to say Yes to the goodies, without any recognition that there could be other issues. For example, there is no invitation to comment on the changes to traffic arrangements arising from the development even though this will have a major (if beneficial) impact on current travel patterns.

Just contrast this slanted approach to consultation with an equally recent major survey from Exeter City Council seeking information to inform its decisions on next year’s reduced budget. To take public parks as an example, the survey asks respondents how often they visit parks, what time of day (with different questions for winter and summer), what they use the parks for, and how far they’d be willing to travel to a park. The survey concludes by asking respondents to assign a priority from 1 to 5 to a range of services: cutting grass; maintaining hedges; pruning & replacing trees; planting & maintaining flower beds; maintaining buildings; maintaining features eg. sculptures, paths, gates, walls & memorials. These are open questions, with no nudging respondents in a particular direction. Which means the results will be worth something.

That’s real consultation.

Irish elections and the visual impact of the personality cult

Waterville, Co Kerry

You always know when an election is in prospect in Ireland. You see it the moment you leave the Rosslare ferry terminal. Large, really large, poster-size photographs of grinning candidates attached to what seems like every available lamppost or telephone pole. It gives a new dimension to the meaning of roadside clutter.

This month, it’s a double dose: elections to the European Parliament and to Ireland’s county councils. It’s far from clear, at least to the outsider, which candidate is standing for which election. By driving from Wexford to Co Kerry via Limerick City – to take a random but real journey – the keen observer can deduce who the European candidates are because their faces recur and recur and recur. Just when you think you are safe from the enthusiastic youth who resembles a wannabe TV presenter, he pops up again at a remote crossroads in Kerry.

Party labels are visible but not prominent. The candidate’s face and name are everything. There must be a PR firm that teaches election candidates how to try to look earnest, honest, responsible, caring and cheerful in a single facial expression. I’d ask for my money back. One or two of them bring it off, but most don’t. As we drove past a smiling avuncular-looking figure my (Irish) wife said she wouldn’t trust him an inch. My favourite is the candidate whose expression looks as if her idea of a good time would be pulling the limbs off small animals, or worse.

Poster sites are myriad. Heavily used sections of road, both in town and country, find posters from different candidates competing for the best positions. Barely used country tracks are not exempt, since there may be a farmer or two living there. My award for the worst-taste location goes to a Kerry County Council candidate who placed a giant sized poster of herself at the top of Ballaghisheen Pass in the Dunkerron Mountains, right at the viewing point for a stunning rugged landscape and visible for miles. Since most of those pausing, or even passing, are likely to be foreign tourists it seems a waste of money and an unnecessary eyesore in the natural environment.

It may be advancing years, but despite five days’ incessant exposure to the candidates’ posters, I can’t remember a single name. Ireland, like the UK, has what passes for a “mature” democracy, and almost all electors will vote on party lines. So why the focus on what individual candidates look like?

One reason may be that candidates’ photos now appear on ballot papers alongside their names. This measure was introduced in 1999, partly to assist voters with reading and literacy difficulties but also to address the problem – held to be peculiar to Ireland – of distinguishing between candidates with similar or identical surnames. Subsequent research(1) produced evidence to suggest that some voters were influenced by candidates’ photographs rather than by their political affiliation.

This is a bit worrying. Tuesday’s The Irish Times carried a photograph(2) which illustrates how judgement by appearance can mislead. I have no views at all on the competence of either the Irish or Finnish finance ministers, but if I were being asked who looks the more trustworthy it’s a no-brainer.

More seriously, the Irish system seems to me to reinforce the gulf between politicians and the rest of us. Politicians are allowed extensive high profile publicity in spaces that would be denied to anyone else. Are we meant to gaze on them and admire a new form of celebrity? Why should they disfigure landscapes and townscapes with official sanction?

Of course we should respect the Irish people’s right to determine their electoral system. And there are many things about Ireland that Britain can and should admire. But the proliferation of photographic election posters is not one of them. However much I might respect my home city and county councillors, I don’t want to see the streets plastered with their mugshots at election time.

(1) Buckley, F., Collins, N., Reidy, T., 2007. Ballot paper photographs and low-information elections in Ireland. Available in an open access version at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/31/FB_BallotAV2007.pdf?sequence=3 (accessed 7 May 2014).

(2) http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/european-commission-cuts-2014-irish-growth-forecast-by-0-1-1.1784453 (accessed 7 May 2014)