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22/03/2016

Climate change means we're not waving but drowning

Words:
Illustration: Oivind Hovland

Has planning for climate change slipped down the list of the government's planning priorities? Chris Shepley suggests it's been washed away by more trivial concerns.

I hope you weren’t affected by the floods this winter.

I did spend some time wondering what I would rescue first if the worst happened. After appropriate cogitation, I decided that the priority would be my wife. Followed by my historic collection of Planning Policy Statements, my saxophone, and my supply of chocolate peppermint creams.

But it’s not a subject that lends itself to humour. Specialists in climate change have been saying for some decades now that, if global warming continued, we would see more extreme weather events and very heavy rainfall. (More moisture in the warmer atmosphere, and all that sort of pretty convincing scientific thing). It is a matter of amazement to me that, now we’ve had as predicted a bundle of extreme weather events and unprecedented rainfall, there are still people who argue that climate change is not happening. 

They are now fairly few in number, sometimes dubiously financed, sometimes bonkers, sometimes not; a fiercely bright Oxbridge educated friend of mine, who believed all he reads in The Telegraph and The Spectator, argued that sea levels were not going to rise after all. I said we’d best be prepared just in case. 

There was a period in the first decade of this century when ministers and planners talked of little else. The government of the day issued a wide range of policy documents, and urged us all to take it seriously. There is a duty on plan-makers to mitigate and adapt to climate change (S 19 of the 2004 Act). The RTPI declared it to be its number one priority. But since the recession it has plunged down the agenda, and though the NPPF says climate change is a core planning principle, it doesn’t seem like it’s the top priority.

"Things like dealing with coastal zones, tackling flooding, and modifying the energy mix are 50-year plus issues"

Another thing I might save in a flood is the manifesto of the Planning and Climate Change Coalition, of which I am a supporter. You can see this on the website of the TCPA, who with Friends of the Earth are the leaders of the coalition.

In what now seems a futile gesture, it urged before the election that the new government should take a new course. It said, like everyone who knows anything about anything at all, that we are planning at the wrong geographic scale. It argued for longer-term planning. Local plans have a short time horizon in this context. Things like dealing with coastal zones, tackling flooding, and modifying the energy mix are 50-year plus issues.

It noted that we lack the skills and resources to do this, and that we lack leadership from central government. It pointed to the lack of co-ordination between government departments and agencies. It emphasised the relationship between social exclusion and climate vulnerability, which we saw during the floods.

It contained excellent proposals for institutional and policy change, which I’ve no space to outline here. A first step, it seems to me, would be for the government explicitly to consider the climate change implications of its various policy changes, some of which (like developing a random collection of brownfield sites in the green belt, or allowing barn conversions in deepest rural areas) may not come up to scratch. RTPI research shows that dispersed settlement results in higher greenhouse gas emission.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. I wonder if someone could mention to the secretary of state that he has an opportunity here. If I were he (heaven forfend), I would want posterity to remember me for doing something exciting and good; for being the person who made a difference, and got us all enthused and applied to tackling the causes and effects of climate change. Not for being the man responsible for the dismal irrelevance of making it easier to convert launderettes to flats.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Image credit | Illustration: Oivind Hovland

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