Smart Growth and the two paradigms in government that could be one…

green growth

“Anything that cuts the cost of filling up the car is good for our customers, good for us” said Ian Cheshire, Chief Executive of Kingfisher applauding Wednesday’s budget – neatly highlighting contradictions or even conflicting paradigms at the heart of government policy.

Going for growth, aided by relaxed town and country planning provisions is the order of the day. But how can this be squared with the admirable trinity of localism, the desire to become or at least be seen to be the greenest government ever, and with the acknowledged need to restructure the economy for the long term, rather than just grow it at any cost?

Just in case anyone was worried about a drift back to the days of Nicholas Ridley in the 1980s, relax because, unlike with Ridley who delighted in blowing smoke in the face of environmentalism, there will be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. There is Gummerian vision and sense in Greg Clark’s insistence on this so one awaits the essential details with interest. I for one look forward to seeing total carbon footprints and budgets for every local planning authority and hard-nosed business plans – with associated growth potential – for their fulfilment.    

Meanwhile, B&Q, one of Ian Cheshire’s businesses has won awards for its championing of greener products and supply chains and good for them. But its out-of-town business model relies on climate-changing, cut-price fuel to access its customers. Churlish observation or serious point? Personal transport is responsible for an average of c.19% and rising of our carbon footprint and this source of emissions has been growing fast. Now my fear is that with relaxed planning for businesses there will be even more edge of, or out-of-town businesses thrown up in a hurry with less red tape, less interference from costly, growth-killing planning bureaucrats.

All of which will result in more need to travel, more congestion, more costly infrastructure, more carbon, more climate change, less compact towns and cities and poorer neighbourhoods. Britons have become so reliant on our cars that drivers spend, on average, more than one working day (10 hours) every week driving with just 3.7 hours spent walking and 4.6 hours socialising with friends and family. Still, if it makes you happy

Households will become even more car-dependent, in the end their daily bills will rise and those  least well off in our society and who can least afford to travel will be further disadvantaged. As a counterpoint to this if the number of cycling trips returned to 1995 levels by 2015, the savings in health, pollution and congestion would be around £500 million. If trip levels were at Copenhagen or Basel levels…we’d be both richer and replete with well-being.     

And still, Canute-like George Osbourne stands before the inexorable tide of rising oil prices and reaffirms our national vows to the old economy. It is a popular decision of course but ultimately a misadventure. Growth, Growth, Growth is the wrong message. Shrill and a little too desperate even for these straitened times it further infantilises politics and in a small but significant way undermines the nobler and exciting aims of citizenship and the Big(ger) Society espoused by the other paradigm in government.

Those in government – and elsewhere – who are looking at the bigger picture and trying to reconcile real and pressing needs of improving wellbeing and halting environmental destruction are asking what kind of growth should we be aiming for? Where ought we to shape growth towards? How can reinforcing policy initiatives across government that get the shoulder to the wheel or a restructured, long-term, people-based economy be created?

We need a new economy not based on oil and hugely expensive, not to say discomfiting, energy insecurity. Not any old growth, anywhere and at any cost. We need better towns and cities which are lively and full of activity, mixed in use and brimming with social interaction at the neighbourhood level, with most of our daily needs accessible by foot or by bike, not car-based sprawl; we need to create far better public realm so that we can have greater shared experience and contact so that we can grow society, overcome difference, reduce the barriers to and super-charge social mobility. We need new entrepreneurs, family businesses, mould-breaking investors and talents – viscerally commercial and viscerally social – with corporate shared value at their heart, providing services and crafting added value goods that, German-style will turbo-charge the more vibrant, sustainable economy.   It will cost a lot less in the end.   

Smart growth anyone?           

Jonathan Smales

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