Land planning policy at the limits to growth

Should there be a presumption against new development?

“Although the current National Planning Policy Framework contains strong policy on climate change, delivery on the ground through local plans has been relatively poor. Local plans in England are not dealing with carbon dioxide emissions reduction effectively, nor are they consistently delivering the adaptation actions necessary to secure the long-term resilience of local communities.

This inaction is due partly to a chronic lack of resources in English local government, which has contributed to a loss of skills on energy and climate change. But it is also related to the government’s cancellation of both the zero-carbon commitment and the Code for Sustainable Homes, as well as the deregulation of planning through the expansion of permitted development, which has led to the conversion of buildings for residential use without effective planning controls….”

From “Rising to the Climate Crisis. A Guide for local authorities on planning for Climate Change”

UK Town and Country Planning Association, December 2018.

Introduction – All new development has resource use and environmental implications

The context for this article is that there is an ongoing consultation in Nottingham about the local plan in which the local anti fracking group is discussing whether, and what, to comment on proposals about fracking.

A proposed change to the local plan has prompted a discussion in the anti fracking group about land use planning policy more generally. Specifically the point at issue is that in UK planning policy there is a presumption in favour of development unless the proposed development fails to meet certain criteria. In this article I question the wisdom of this policy in the context of the ecological crisis and argue that there should be a presumption against new development. (Change of use of existing structures is a different matter for reasons explained below)

Why? The answer is that there is no such thing as a new “development” that does not have implications for the environment and resource use (including  fossil fuel use resulting in carbon emissions).  Also there is no such thing as a new development that does not give rise to pollution and/or wastes. 

Everything that is “developed” takes materials and energy out of the environment somewhere and sooner or later it gives rise to pollution and wastes that go back into the environment. Think of a new building. To make it a site must be cleared – so, for example, an old building that is to be demolished becomes wastes. At the same time new bricks are made from materials dug out of somewhere, baked using fossil fuels that are also dug out of somewhere. Building timber must also be taken from somewhere, processed and taken to the building site and so on.

The “implications” almost always lead to increased use of fossil fuels, carbon emissions and a degradation of the environment. In addition the “capital formation”, which is what is usually involved in “development” – is the most energy and carbon intensive form of economic activity. If development involves a new building it involves cement, bricks, wood, steel, land clearance, drains, roads – with the materials created by processes which use fossil fuels. If the development involves a new factory it is the same and the new machinery will process materials which come from somewhere – i.e. materials have been taken out of the environment. If it involves roads it involves fossil fuel use…

As a result in a genuine “climate emergency” there should be a presumption AGAINST new development. That does not mean that no new development would happen and no new development would be allowed – it only means that there would have to be proof that the development would reduce emissions (energy use net). To economise on resource use and reduce waste development would then involve re-purposing and adapting existing structures and buildings – which is why I refer to the presumption being against new development. It would create a pressure to start repairing, recycling, re-using and more thorough maintenance automatically – development will be slower, more considered and society will be less manic too (Thanks to Peter Jaggar for advice on this point).

A future of scarce energy resources

This idea might appear outrageous to the economic growth fetishists but it is the logical consequence of “declaring a climate emergency”. You either mean it or you don’t. (I think this will highlight the fact that the powers that be who declare climate emergencies have not thought through what they mean). 

To this point should be added that once global oil production begins to slide, and the economy starts to contract, the idea of a presumption against new development will make perfect sense to everyone because resources for new development will be very scarce. A close look at what is happening in the oil sector shows that sliding oil production in the near future is not at all a fantasy. The largest oil field in the world is the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. It has recently been revealed that its production has fallen from 5 million barrels a day to 3.8 million. 

I recall being told many years ago of how, during world war two, when petrol was scarce, people were asked “Is your journey really necessary?” As oil gets scarcer still it will not just be journeys but energy squandering during “development” of places that will also need to be looked at. This time is coming soon and is not just the result of climate change but also of fossil fuel depletion. 

The pressure for fracking has occurred because oil and gas sources are being exhausted. Oil and gas are being tapped by more invasive and damaging technologies from harder to access reservoirs. Such technologies are the main sources of new oil and gas and yet are loss making for the companies that deploy them. In a short time there will be a crisis in the oil market – also from geo-political conflicts. So saving on energy use will become a major issue that planners will have to consider – not only to mitigate against climate change.

There are already policies in the UK planning policy framework to minimize climate emissions and energy use but more is needed including by putting blocks on new development. For the planning establishment ideas like support for “degrowth” are no doubt currently a step too far. Yet when your top priority is economic growth it is not surprising that what appears to be a “strong” climate policy fails to deliver in practice. If the energy supply becomes scarce then the planning system will be operating in completely new conditions and will have to change anyway.

Historical precedents for preventing major land use change

Preventing major land use change is not without precedent. The Aboriginal people in Australia before British colonialism had a religious duty to maintain the ecological system in which they lived as it was – they used fire and water management to return the ecological system to the same point whenever necessary. (Left to itself there would have been a natural succession of vegetation that was inflammable. Controlled burning that returned the eco-system to the same point periodically was a management device that fundamentally meant no development.) Their system was sustainable and they kept their management of the Australian land mass like that for 8.000 to 15,000 years. The British colonialists thought they were lazy – but their system, which suppressed “development”, meant that they only worked for about 3 hours a day. In that sense they were a superior civilisation, but they did not have the weaponry and brutaility of colonial invaders.

It’s not just land use – there is a need for a presumption against large scale and faster technologies too

A presumption against new development should be a more general principle beyond the planning framework too. “Development” is not only a planning and land use issue. Development is what we have come to expect in regard to technologies and levels of economic activity. 

This is a serious problem. It appears quite evident that, although there is no law that says so, there is an implicit presumption in favour of technological development which virtually all politicians enthusiastically support. “Innovation” is a hurrah word and the restrictions on the actions of corporations to introduce technologies with possible far reaching consequences barely exist. Those who oppose such developments are denounced as anti scientific or as scare mongers.

The key issue here is one of scale and speed. There is a place for new technologies but why must they always be faster and bigger – thus automatically using more energy? “Innovation”, doing it faster, doing it more complicated, doing it bigger has become an expected norm. And each of these uses more energy, creates more wastes and more toxicity. After 1G it has to be 2G, 3G, 4G and then 5G. Never mind health risks – never mind that the mobile phone has more functions that you don’t use and has to be permanently plugged in in order to charge it up. Never mind that the internet of things gives you facilities that you don’t want and are too much faff to learn how to use. The juggernaut of toxic bigger and faster “progress” is assumed to be unstoppable. Meanwhile the carbon footprint of this goes up and up and up. The amount of plastic that it is wrapped in chokes the oceans.

Development in Reverse Gear

In all of this there is no concept that “going backwards” might be an acceptable and preferable way of responding to the climate/energy crisis. For example, Kris de Dekker explains how the European Union has done studies showing how more energy efficient tumble dryers will save on lots of energy but.. “But how much energy use would be avoided if by 2020 every European would use a clothesline instead of a tumble drier? Don’t ask the EU, because it has not calculated the avoided energy use of clotheslines. Neither do the EU or the IEA measure the energy efficiency and avoided energy of bicycles, hand powered drills, or thermal underwear…”

I recent abandoned my “smart phone” and got one that only tells the time, takes text messages and functions as a phone. Nothing else. One charge will keep it on standby for 30 days. What a revelation. How simple it is.

At a certain point a superior civilisation would say – no more. Rather like the Aboriginal people such a society would say – the only change allowable in industrial and material production, as well as in land use, is the change that uses less energy and less materials. And you have to prove before you do it that it would not be toxic to the environment. Otherwise NO. You can’t do it.

What kind of institutions to block toxic development?

We don’t need new institutions to do this because they are already there – but instead of institutions like the planning authorities and regulatory agencies facilitating change and growth they should do the opposite – they should strangle change unless proposed developments would makes things safer, less resource intensive, cleaner.

In previous epochs we had natural commons – communities of people lived in communities of species – plants and animals. Participation as members of a commons, commoning, was focused on protecting against the forests and the pastures and the water and the animals being degraded by over use or driven to extinction. 

We cannot repeal the Enclosure Acts that were used by the elite to steal the commons. We cannot go back because too many generations have passed and too much has changed. But even the elite eventually recognised that private property in land had to be subject to the interests of the wider community. That’s how we got the planning laws. And now we can make the planning process more participative, more democratic. We can help people protect what it is in their locality that they like and value, and we can put resources into advising local people about what they need to know so as to protect local landscapes and green spaces, local water, and local atmospheric quality against big corporate developers. We can begin to reassert the needs of the community of people and the communities of species on the use of land. That way, when we put the brakes upon development, the locality will still develop but in a slow and considered repurposing and re-use of existing spaces into safer places that are pleasant to live in at the same time as we degrow the economy.

In conclusion – what we don’t do can be more important than what we do do

Here is another analogy to make my point. A third of a century ago I suffered from what was called “manic depression”. Eventually I realised that I had to conquer my mania and wondered what I should do to control it. Then I had an insight. It was not what I should do – conquering mania was all about not doing. So I vowed not to leave my bedroom until I had calmed down. There was something that I did not want to give up doing of course – breathing. So I concentrated on my breathing and the stress in my body and calmed down. I spent time reflecting about how I could fulfil my commitments with less effort and time. 

Dealing with environmental degradation is analogous – it is about degrowing the economy – and that is achieved by not doing things. Giving up all sorts of things that are not really necessary. A presumption in the planning system AGAINST new development would help. “Development” would then have to be justified by how it helped reduce resource use and environmental degradation. The planning and regulatory system, made more participative, would democratise the process and help to stop resource squandering and environmentally damaging new development happening.

This version May 29th 2019 (Thanks to Peter Jaggar for valuable comments – he is, of course, not responsible for any errors or mistakes )

Featured image: city plan. Source:

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