Final thoughts from David Miliband
First, a big thank you to everyone who has contributed to this blog, especially Shaun Spiers for summarising so ably and even-handedly the many and varied contributions.
I will not try to do justice here to the whole of such a wide-ranging and complex debate, but rather focus on a few of the most salient issues and what I see as the way forward.
In addressing the subject of land use, I firmly believe we need to look ahead 50 years. The lessons from climate change tell us that the negative impact of past actions will remain with us for decades; this is particularly pertinent given the centrality of land use policies in dealing with climate change – both mitigating its impacts and adapting to those that are already unavoidable. Furthermore, the fundamental changes required to achieve a truly sustainable pattern of land use – such as a significant increase in forest cover – will not overnight improve the health of our natural infrastructure, and will require long-term, sustained action.
I recognise that to develop such a long-term agenda, and to be sure that it will endure, will require broad and deep buy-in and consensus. That is why we need an open and inclusive national debate, and why I am grateful to the CPRE for having provided such an appropriate launch-pad at its 80th anniversary.
At the heart of what we should be trying to achieve is to enhance our “natural infrastructure” through decisions on land use and land management that deliver multiple benefits – for biodiversity; landscape; healthy ecosystems; public health and well-being from reconnecting people to our countryside and green spaces; and contributing to economic development. Turning the Green Belt a deeper shade of green must be part of this, and I am glad to note that many respondents have supported this idea. So often the focus is on a rather conservative notion of “saving” the Green Belt – I would like to move the debate to improving its contribution to our national life. Yes, in environmental and social terms through re-greening, but also in economic terms.
A number of respondents raised issues around the concentration of development in the south east. I would say two things. First, the degree of concentration is often over-stated. All of the English regions are being asked to contribute a share of growth and increased housing supply, and the “wider South” (where the Government has designated its Growth Areas and New Growth Points) in fact stretches from Cornwall to Lincolnshire. Second, we do have to build houses where they are needed, so the growth plans must reflect the geographical prevalence of trends in household formation and population.
As I said in my speech, some development is inevitable and it is a mistake to see all development as a threat or even as a necessary evil. Development brings with it opportunities to improve the environment by generating funding to enhance our natural infrastructure, and the real challenge, as Shaun has said, is to plan for and deliver genuinely sustainable growth which integrates environmental, social and economic factors rather than seeing them as to be traded-off against each other.
And, yes, of course, as Shaun says, the right answers on land use aren’t all about climate change. But to have land use policies which do not address the overwhelming reality of the challenge of climate change would be worse than useless. It would be profoundly irresponsible – both intellectually and morally. If we do not address climate change, the impacts on landscape and biodiversity will be vastly greater. In devising land use policies, therefore, we have to keep the ultimate goal of multiple benefits firmly in mind and be vigilant in avoiding perverse outcomes. On the subject of biofuels for instance, where it is very clear that the increased production of biofuels has an important contribution to make to less carbon intensive energy and transport, we nonetheless have to move carefully, as Clive Bates has pointed out, to avoid the pitfalls of over-intensive production which we have learnt so painfully and at such great cost with “normal” agriculture. We will need to ensure that biofuel production is done at least as sustainably as food production, and that it enhances rather than diminishes biodiversity and landscape.
The issue of the perceived conflict between windfarms and landscape preservation loomed large – perhaps too large – in the blog. To be clear, increasing the share of energy derived from renewables is a firm Government commitment and a crucial ingredient of our approach to mitigating climate change and reducing our national carbon footprint. Expanding our onshore windfarm capacity is, undoubtedly, part of the answer. But I am certainly not suggesting that building wind farms is a “stand alone” solution to climate change, or that they somehow substitute for other forms of mitigation (such as reducing carbon footprints through the greater take-up of micro-generation, as suggested by Carol Oliver), or that they should be built “everywhere” irrespective of other factors (including the character and value of the landscape). In terms of this debate around land use, and here I wholeheartedly agree with Shaun, we must not let the pros and cons of onshore windpower become a divisive distraction from the more fundamental issues to which I have alluded.
Now it is the job of government to take the debate forward, forging, as Shaun has said, a new national consensus and developing the necessary shared understanding of what can and should be done, based on better evidence. But this is too important to us as a society for government to take forward on its own. The range of interested stakeholders is enormous, and we can only tackle this subject and manage this process effectively in partnership with other bodies such as the CPRE. As I said on 9 March, I hope the CPRE will help us forge a new and forward-looking consensus for the future. I look forward to your contributions over the coming months.