Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The Inspectors report on the south East Plan

Last year a panel of Inspectors sat to examine the South East Plan. I gave evidence on behalf of SWT, and many other conservation organisations also spoke. This panel has now reported and we can now see their document.

Any report on a regional plan is bound to be vast so this is just a first impression. We must also realise that there is probably a limited amount that a regional plan, and any subsequent report, can achieve. But it is the most strategic document that we are likely to be able to influence so if we are not happy, we should not be shy saying so.

Just what is being proposed by the plan and now by the Inspectors?

First, the Inspectors recommend that house building numbers for the South East should go up from 29,000 per year to 32,000. In the plan period that’s an extra 62,000 houses. To put that into context that is larger than Worthing just for the extra houses!

The total amount of housing planned for before 2026 is 640,160 – that is equivalent to about 14 Worthing’s. At the recommended density housing will cover 16,000ha, or 160 sq km, (not allowing for infrastructure like roads, shops, businesses etc). This is nearly half the size of the Isle of Wight.

These are worrying figures!

Climate change and our ecological footprint.
Some aspects of both the Plan and the Inspectors report sound quite good. Addressing climate change and a reducing our ecological footprint are examples. Yet all these are merely aspirational. There may be good words on climate change for instance but the overall plan will result in massive increases in greenhouse gas – at a time when the scientific evidence is that a 60% reduction is probably far too little. The plan period runs until 2026, Climate change simply must be addressed in that time.

The panel even attempts to excuse likely poor performance in terms of the aim to reduce the ecological footprint of the South East. It indicates that the increased footprint form all the extra development will be offset by massively reduced resource and energy use elsewhere in the business sector. This may sound good but there is no evidence of these improved efficiencies. There will have to be an awful lot of efficiency improvements in existing businesses and buildings to counteract the increased ecological footprint of over 640,000 new homes.

Transport plans do have some good indications in that the panel wish to see car use reduced, with more restrictions on cars and road charging. The panel, however, “believe it to be unrealistic to achieve an absolute reduction during the life of the Plan”. This reflects a lack of urgency regarding climate change, resource use and the need to reduce our ecological footprint. Again we must bear in mind that this is a 20 year plan – such issues simply must be addressed in this time.

Similarly with airports, the report still asks the plan to cater for a possible extra runway at Gatwick. Again, there seems to be no recognition of the urgency of climate change and the need to consider what to do about the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gases

Nature Conservation.
The nature conservation elements of the plan have remained intact, and this is welcomed. We have, however, campaigned for nature conservation to be pushed higher up in the strategy. We asked for a “green infrastructure” policy to be included as one of the cross-cutting policies. In doing so we wish to see an ambitious ecological network rolled out as a positive environmental agenda so development has to go hand in hand with environmental improvement. This should have been a real basis for a win-win approach. On the face of it we won the argument and a green infrastructure policy is now recommended. The policy itself, however, needs to be considerably improved. It seems simply to refer to urban greenspace – important in itself but hardly the large scale, integrated environmental enhancement that is required to counter-balance such huge development pressure.

Water resources.
Water resources are a problem in the South East, with less water per head of population than in Ethiopia. However, the panel considers that water efficiency measures and water resource development will answer the problem. This sounds good but Water Companies are sceptical that water efficiency can be delivered on the scale required. More importantly this report hits the problem that all reports do at this point – it is committing us to resource development that has not even been properly examined in terms of its environmental effects.

All in all the report from the panel of Inspectors is disappointing but not surprising. People are doing their best but the engine that drives environmental damage grinds on.

This one change please!
If I were to ask for one big improvement that I think could be achieved it would be to have a very positive and expansive ecological network properly integrated into the spatial strategy of the Plan. If we are going to have to have all this development then it must go hand in hand with environmental enhancement. And this environmental enhancement must be orders of magnitude greater than we have experienced so far.

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