Professor Susan Owens’ Response

Professor Susan OwensSusan is a professor of Environment and Policy, and Fellow of Newnham College, at the University of Cambridge. She has also been a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution since 1998, and brings a wealth of knowledge of public policy and wide experience of the theory and practice of sustainable development to the debate. Please click on the link below to read her response to David Miliband’s speech.

Professor Susan Owens’ response to David Miliband

The initiation of a debate about land use is very much to be welcomed, and particularly welcome is a breadth of perspective and a long-term view which have not always been obvious in our debates about the use of land and the ways in which we regulate it. I’d like to pick up on a number of issues which the secretary of state raised, and which I think have tremendously important implications. I’m afraid that there are five of them!

First of all, I’d like to say something about land itself. Land is a resource, but it’s different, it’s peculiar, and it’s not the same as the other resources that support our society and economy. Land provides a material basis for the economy of course, but it also has powerful cultural meanings – it gives us a sense of place, and a sense of history. Therefore, it’s particularly welcome to find it recognised that land embodies multiple values, which are represented inadequately, or not at all, by market prices, and we need to recognise all of these values in our systems for planning and regulating land.

Land is also connected in complex ways and at many different scales to the environment, and these environmental connections we now recognise as increasingly important. It is also, therefore, very welcome to find an acknowledgment of the existence of environmental limits, and boundaries, and thresholds, in the secretary of state’s speech. However, I would like to make one observation about these limits, and that is that defining them will be immensely challenging. Environmental science will help us, but it won’t give us the answers. To try to define the limits in terms of economic utility is inadequate. The concept of ecosystem services, an increasingly prominent and a very useful metaphor, is still an instrumental concept, and therefore misses something fundamental about the respect for the non-human environment which motivates so many of us in our attitudes towards the land. Inevitably and necessarily, therefore, our discussion of environmental limits – and I agree very much that we will need to have this discussion – requires us to engage in a debate about values; that is, a debate about what we think is right and what we think is good, and to apply those values to our use of land.

Let me now move on to say something about sustainable development, and pressures on the land. We do of course always aspire to try to meet social, economic, and environmental objectives simultaneously, but we delude ourselves if we think that we can always do this. Sometimes, maybe more often than we would like to be the case, it is a zero-sum game. As the philosopher Isaiah Berlin reminded us, not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind. This means that we do sometimes need to interrogate the concept of needs, which are the drivers for development and the planning system. Certainly some needs are very fundamental, but quite often we conflate needs with demands. Moreover, in following our demands as consumers, we end up sometimes with an environment and a countryside that we don’t much like as citizens. Therefore we sometimes find it puzzling that the emphasis now is on making the planning system more responsive to market forces – certainly the emphasis in Kate Barker’s reports but also elsewhere –  and that seems to miss the point that planning and markets occupy different categories, and that planning offers us one of the best means we have to make choices collectively, rather than through the aggregation of consumer preferences. Could I also make one further point about the planning system, picking up on Susan [Bell’s] defence, and that is that some of the processes of planning, and particularly plan-making and public enquiries, have offered crucial institutional spaces for debate about the use of land, and for debate about what we want our future to look like. They have also, to the discomfiture of ministers and developers, often questioned the conventional wisdoms in key policy sectors. It is those enquiries that are now about to be streamlined that have often offered a vital check on the philosophy of predict and provide; and how often we’ve seen that needs that seemed so imperative in one decade have slipped away into the sidelines in another. The point is that the process of planning and other means of regulating the use of land is sometimes inseparable from fundamental questions about the way in which we use and value that land.

A third point concerns integration in environmental and land-use planning. It seems to me that we must somehow move towards a system in which all forms of land use; the spatial implications of major policy sectors such as transport and energy; and short- and long-term environmental considerations become part of an overall vision and planning process. This is not a master plan, but it does mean looking at land use in the round, and it would replace a current system which is excessively fragmented, and which separates what is fundamentally interconnected. In 2002, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended integrated spatial strategies as a means of bringing together all the many ways in which we try to regulate and control the use of land, and I think it might be useful to revive that concept.

Fourthly, a comment about climate change and some other environmental considerations. Climate change is undoubtedly the emblematic issue, as it goes in the academic jargon, of the moment, and in slightly worrying ways, climate is becoming synonymous with environmental concern. There is a worry that climate-related policies will be pursued at the expense of other important environmental attributes. And that worry is perhaps exacerbated by the difficulty, the genuine difficulty – for all of us, not just policy-makers and politicians – of confronting fundamentally unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. We do need renewable energy sources, but to put it crudely, we shouldn’t be putting windfarms in wild locations so that we can continue to drive and take cheap flights as much as we want to. Climate is indeed a crucial issue, but I think we miss the point if it becomes a warrant for other environmental harms.

Finally, may I welcome very warmly the emphasis on green infrastructure, and particularly green infrastructure in urban areas, which in another Royal Commission report published earlier this week, we broaden out to call ‘the natural urban environment’. We think it has been under-recognised and undervalued and greatly welcome the new recognition of its importance. The natural urban environment is about more than green spaces; it also has important roles in air quality, drainage, flood protection, and biodiversity.


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