To Tackle Climate Change Labour Must Rebuild The Planning System Not 'Bulldoze' It

(MENAFN- The Conversation) The UK's planning system is the primary means by which the public decides how land is used. These decisions will be paramount for addressing the climate crisis; after all, land can store carbon that would otherwise heat the atmosphere and host renewable energy installations that can replace fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, planning departments, as extensions of local government, are also among the most depleted by austerity.

Local government funding fell by nearly 50% between 2010 and 2018 as the work of planning was increasingly outsourced to private-sector consultants. Despite losing much of its capacity, the planning system and local government have been expected to do as much if not more than they did before 2010. With several councils at risk of bankruptcy , this contradiction is now untenable.

Austerity has delivered an absence rather than an excess of planning – as far as planning means democratic deliberation over the use of land. As I argue in a new paper on the approval of a coal mine near Whitehaven in Cumbria, northwest England, the result has been an obligation to accept investment at whatever cost, no matter how dirty or damaging the outcome, and an erosion of local expertise and wherewithal.

What might an incoming Labour government do differently? Labour leader Keir Starmer has suggested he would“bulldoze” some planning laws in a bid to build 1.5 million houses in five years. Homes may be an important priority, but after 14 years of Conservative rule, the UK's planning system needs rebuilding, not demolishing.

Austerity limits decision-making

Cuts to local, regional and national public investment have diminished the potential of planning as a choice between alternatives. Levelling up schemes, set up by the government to address regional inequality, have only provided 10% of their promised funding.

Local authorities are desperate for any investment. In the case of the Cumbrian coal mine, this meant accepting higher carbon emissions in return for the creation of jobs in the area.

Whitehaven will host England's first deep coal mine in 40 years. Simon Cole/Alamy Stock Photo

Labour has not confirmed its intentions for local government funding. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has argued that planning reform should come first , with the expected economic growth being used to fund the public sector. That is a gamble, and arguably puts the cart before the horse – investment in public services can spur growth and ensure it creates public goods instead of just profits for developers.

Expertise has been hollowed out

Economists Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington have argued that an increased reliance on consultants to carry out state functions diminishes the state's institutional memory and its capacity to perform the same tasks.

A similar process is occurring in the planning system, where half of all planners are now working in the private sector . Planners, often lacking job security or sufficient resources, must gather information about a prospective development to produce recommendations for local authorities.

Consultancy staff move between roles representing industry, writing policy and even making planning decisions for an area they may be unfamiliar with or spend little time in, weakening local authorities by diminishing their knowledge of an area. There is also the prospect of conflicts of interest where, for example, a consultancy develops a local policy one day and advises developers on it the next.

To address the problem, Labour has proposed hiring 300 public-sector planners . However, data from the Royal Town Planning Institute indicates 2,500 planners left the public sector between 2013 and 2020 (around 25% of the workforce ) as working conditions and salaries declined.

Policy ambiguity

Alongside austerity, attempts to deregulate planning , have produced confusing guidance for decision-making in local government.

This posed a problem during the review of the Cumbria coal mine. The National Planning Policy Framework was introduced in 2012 to“streamline” planning. This document cut guidance to local authorities from 1,200 to 50 pages and contained a circular test for coal developments which effectively allowed environmental harm caused to be offset by economic benefits.

The importance that should be given to downstream greenhouse gas emissions from burning the mine's coal (and other fossil fuels) is also unclear in national policy. It is currently the subject of a separate supreme court case that will affect a legal challenge to the mine. National policy is not only ambiguous to planners, applicants and the public, but planning decisions are also disconnected from the wider goal of decarbonisation.

What we are left with is a system that struggles to plan in any meaningful sense. We can see this in the fact that 78% of local plans, the main policy documents for most planning decisions, will soon be out of date , superseded by new national policies or other changes since they were adopted.

These problems stretch beyond the planning system. Most people living in the UK will be familiar with the notion that public services have been stretched to breaking point – and the planning system is no different. But planning also suffers from wider failures of leadership and state coordination.

For example, the UK has lacked an industrial strategy for some time, never mind one which would tackle major regional inequalities. The Levelling Up fund was supposed to address some of these issues in England, but is now seen as insufficient and hampered by a model for awarding investment that pits local authorities against each other to compete for limited funding. The coalition government's preference for top-down devolution has made it difficult for England's regions to use land for social and economic aims, such as nurturing key industries or overseeing a house-building programme.

England's regions are hamstrung by little autonomy and low investment. EPA-EFE/Adam Vaughan

Considering all this, it seems perverse to propose bulldozing parts of the planning system rather than renovating them. Not that the system needs to return to its pre-austerity state. But deriding planning laws as Labour has done lets private firms off the hook (for sweating their discounted public assets rather than investing) while sidestepping the problem of diminished public sector capacity.

An energy transition will require the state to take on more economic planning, and governments are turning towards using public money to make private investment less risky. We should worry about further efforts to diminish the public's capacity to shape and direct that investment in any meaningful way.

A strong public planning system would not be a barrier to an energy transition. It is in fact a necessary corollary to the increased need for industrial strategy that governments are slowly acknowledging (including the Conservatives ).

We need a public process for deciding how best to balance the competing demands on land – a finite and precious resource – not bulldoze a system in need of repair.

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