26 February 2005

Norfolk needs less development, built better

By Andrew Boswell

This week's column is an open letter to the Deputy Prime Minister on the East of England Regional Authority's (EERA) draft Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS), currently under public consultation at http://www.eera.gov.uk/ until March 16th 2005.
Dear Mr Prescott,

The RSS is a plan of enormous significance for the future of the East of England. Despite efforts by our local media, many in Norfolk have probably still never heard of it, and EERA are widely thought not to have promoted the consultation effectively.

I hope, though, that the response this time may be better than the previous consultation, to which only 88 individuals from a regional population of 5.4million responded - that is, about 0.001% of the adult population. A 'public' consultation with such a limited response cannot provide a true representation of people's views.

Norfolk born people are familiar with the region's environmental and natural beauty, relaxed pace, quality of life, and local character, whilst others of us have come here to enjoy these lifestyle benefits. Yet the majority in Norfolk may still be blissfully unaware that the RSS proposes 478,000 new homes to be built across the East by 2021 - a build rate of nearly 24000 a year, with 72,600 being in Norfolk.

These new homes will inevitably bring new roads, shops and other commercial infrastructure. Expansion in schools and hospitals will be needed too - although the plan fails to show how this public infrastructure will be funded. We can expect triple accounting and further PFI Fiascos to leave Council Tax payers with the bill for decades to come.

Not just costly, supercharged growth and business development will destroy this region's way of life: business and construction industry interests will come first, the needs of our people poor second. Similar growth plans for the South East will fry that already overheated region, and extend the pressure on our Eastern region too. Fast-life stress and London/SE pace will become ever more common place in Norfolk.

Whilst some growth is inevitable, it should be at a natural pace, not rapid and forced. Many Norfolk people feel their justifiable concerns are being ignored by your government's policy to "develop" the South East and Eastern Regions at the expense of other UK regions, as rapid large-scale private construction will spread concrete and tarmac over ever greater areas of our beautiful county.

The enormous strain on local services, the environment and infrastructure, lagging behind development in both regions, will fuel a housing crisis amongst the worst off in our society - the RSS also doesn't offer enough low cost housing to keep pace with such massive growth.

In short, your regional development plans need rethinking. You should:
  • rebalance economic activity across the whole country;
  • bring empty homes back into use in regeneration areas, such as the North, via an effective empty homes policy.
Then less development would be necessary in the South East and East.

The RSS directly contradicts your own Government's stated position of making climate change a key global issue. EERA accepts "climate change will be inevitable over the period of this strategy" and only advises reactively 'adapting' the region to it. Beyond some small scale sustainable energy, the RSS sets no pro-active policy vision for Norfolk's role in reducing carbon emissions. This is an unacceptable renunciation of responsibility - planners and developers must take responsibility for carbon reduction, as much as governments, industry and individuals.

This can only be achieved by making all planning processes "carbon emission aware". You should show a real commitment to tackling climate change by legislating that all planning and transport decisions must quantify their carbon emissions, and prove they meet strict limits. Without existing legislation, the EERA plan should put be on hold until it is resubmitted with a full assessment of the carbon emission costs of its every development.

Greenpeace have recently suggested ten "climate steps", necessary to your government's credibility on climate change: immediately adopting the following would enable the "built better" sustainable development of our region:
  • setting tough environmental standards (zero emission levels) for all new buildings;
  • subsidizing domestic renewable power such as solar and state-of-the-art energy efficiency;
  • requiring all new buildings to include combined heat and power plants; and
  • promoting a much greater expansion of renewable energy production.
We need clear policy and vigorous action on Climate Change from the top. Please will you, and Tony Blair, address this. At the level of regional planning, your office could rapidly make significant beneficial impact on all our climate propects by adopting the above 'Less Development, Built Better' policy. Norfolk people who cherish our unique 'Do Different' way of life would benefit greatly.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Boswell