In 2008 the UK voted into legislation a target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to a 1997 baseline. At the same time the EU has agreed targets for all member states. These are 20% renewable energy, 20% energy efficiency and 20% carbon emission reductions all by 2020. These are to be achieved across the EU as a whole, which allows some local variation to occur. Germany and the Scandanavian countries, for example, are much further forward with these policies than many other countries.
The big policy question in a country like England, is how best to achieve these results. There are many options, but because of the scale of the activity required there are no easy options. Should we take a scattergun approach and aim to get many initiatives started? Spreading the risk of failure as widely as possible? Or should we aim to do a few very big things and risk that if one of them fails to get off the ground we might miss the target by a kilometer.
One of the ‘big things’ that is planned already is to increase our wind energy generation capacity by a factor of eight. Much of this is already in the planning system, both on and offshore. There are big risks with this approach because these are being dealt with under the creaking UK planning system, which is generally anti-development. There have already been a number of wind farms that have been refused for one reason or another. There may have been good reasons from a local perspective, but they were bad results from a national perspective.
This troubled history of major infrastructure projects is one of the reasons for the formation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, due to come into operation in 2009/10. The idea behind the IPC is that it will be the body that deals with issues of national importance that have historically been delayed by local opposition. New nuclear power stations is an example. These are unlikely to be acceptable to any local planning authority, but they seem to be almost certain to be built. Without them we would be forced to build more fossil fuel burning power stations than we already have. Nuclear appears to be the lesser of two evils. I remain to be convinced.
Interestingly, the Conservative Party has said that if they come into power they will scrap both the IPC and the Regional Development Agencies. Thus in one stroke removing all strategic planning bodies in the UK at the time when we need them most. Without strategic planning we will certainly fail to meet our renewable energy targets for 2020, and consequently will be unlikely to meet the 2050 target too.
A cynic would say that this is straightforward vote getting on the Tories part, local democracy is popular by definition. It will be interesting to see how this one runs. Without the steering power of the IPC it appears to be unlikely that the decarbonisation (ugly word!) of the UK grid can be implemented quickly.
The option remains to go for lower scale neighbourhood projects, like CHP schemes, and widespread upgrading of existing building stock. These can only be dealt with by local planning, and the scale of the work required is such that any local authority would be swamped with queries for the next 40 years if such work is to require planning or building control approval. That doesn’t sound like a reasonable route to success either.
What lies at the root of both sets of issues is the strength of local opposition. Here in the UK we have one of the best educated populations on the planet, yet this same population seems incapable of mobilizing itself to support projects which have some local negative impacts but which are beneficial to the country, and the world, as a whole. Instead, the focus of local activity is almost universally allied against development of any kind, so the planning system we have developed here supports that view.
The counter to local opposition is local leadership. No amount of well meant editorial, soundbites and interviews will change the hearts and minds of people who have decided to oppose development. The voice of local community leaders has more resonance than any others, so if we want local development to take place, the leaders are the people we need to speak with an informed voice.