Despite the glaring lack of a mandate or support from Tory MPs, it seems Truss continues to intend to roll out a series of damaging initiatives to support her ‘growth, growth, growth’ agenda – a key tenet of which is ‘accelerated development’. To achieve this there will be a bonfire of regulations. Previous attempts at planning ‘reform’ were halted in the face of Tory opposition, so the new wheeze is to shoot holes in the existing system with ‘Freeports’ and ‘Investment Zones’. Below, I look at the investment we really need and then unpick the government plan for Investments Zones.
Mission-based investment for a just transition to a green future is desperately needed. We do not shy away from the need to raise national funds through borrowing. At the same time as private investment, with the right incentives and controls, it could begin a green transformation without directing wealth to corporations based in tax havens. We desperately need to insulate our homes and workplaces; provide clean and cheap renewable energy and recover our depleted nature and weakening food systems. As many nature charities say, environmental recovery should be a key tenet in local investment. Green leaders across local governments are looking at how to push the boundaries of what is possible to increase local green investment.
The Government Investment Zones (IZs) plan could see predatory developers and landowners riding rough-shod over agreed local priorities, further damaging already degraded environments, and reducing commitments to affordable homes and to community facilities. At the time of writing, it seems possible that IZs could be peppered across England (luckily for Wales and Scotland, devolved powers are a block). This will have a chilling effect on all planning protections. Developers beyond the zones will insist they can’t compete without looser regulation there too. Tax breaks to developers will reduce funds for public services while undercutting local firms, poaching valuable staff, and threatening the viability of the local economy.
Attack on Nature
IZs will ‘remove burdensome EU requirements’. These include Habitats Regulations and the requirement to provide an Environmental Impact Assessment, key tools in protecting nature during the planning process. Even worse, the guidance seems to allow for IZs in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and other protected environments (3.4 in Expressions of Interest Guidance). The stated expectation to mitigate environmental impacts fails to meet the Government’s own - already weak - biodiversity net gain requirement outside investment zones. No wonder the major environmental protection organisations have called into question the Government’s commitment to its own legal target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.
Ignoring the climate emergency
The legal requirement to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 has been completely ignored. The guidance lists examples of ‘key planning policies’ that continue to apply – on the Green Belt, heritage, flood risk, and (no surprise) highways – but is silent on climate change commitments. The stated intention is to ‘accelerate’ development. To do so without explicit carbon commitments is reckless in the extreme.
Attack on local decision making
“The planning system will not stand in the way of investment and development”.
Local communities will lose their rights to resist unsustainable development. Instead, developers will get to bypass local objections entirely. These objections are often on environmental grounds. Councils spend years developing a ‘Local Plan’ that identifies where development can, and cannot, take place. IZs are designed to circumvent this.
Less cash for communities, less affordable housing
“We will… focus developer contributions on essential infrastructure requirements”.
Current rules ensure developers contribute funds for local facilities, helping Councils to provide school places, recreation, sustainable travel options and other community needs. In their place, the government ‘will consider’ providing grants, but it is clear these too will have to be shown to support ‘growth’. House builders will avoid locally agreed requirements for affordable housing, meaning many local families, key workers and those facing homelessness will continue to be left behind.
What Green Councillors have done
Truss has no mandate for these attacks. The Tory party is riven with divisions over much of this. Angry responses are coming from the environmental movement and beyond. We have a duty to give a political voice to this. Our councillors have challenged local Tories to take a stand, both on the generalised attack on nature, and on the specifics of Investment Zones. Inevitably, but tragically, Tory council leaders have generally remained tight-lipped. But we can be proud that we have contributed to the swirling discontent within their ranks, whilst giving a political voice to the millions in our communities who are aghast at government descent into the hell of libertarian – environment and community trashing – economics.