Capitalism, urban planning and growth

The thrust of capitalism, so we are told, is that it needs almost continual growth to be successful; the alternative is virtually no growth or worse, recession, where we have been stuck for quite some time. I raise this because it is fundamentally linked to why Green Belt, green spaces and high grade agricultural land are under attack from concrete, bricks and tarmac.

Also, locally here in Sefton, despite the Borough’s population falling by 26,800 between 1981 and 2011 14,004 additional homes were built during that period. The seeming conflict between economic growth and a declining population will, in the main, be explained by separate but related social and economic factors i.e. most of us are living in smaller family units and of course living longer.

‘Between 2002 and 2009, the borough has experienced a 2.75% reduction in its overall resident population.’ – Sefton’s State of the Borough document July 2011.

‘The borough’s declining resident population over this period is in sharp contrast to the national and regional picture, which demonstrated a 4.35% and 1.78% increase respectively’ – Sefton’s State of the Borough document July 2011.

Growth pressures are therefore responsible for the ‘need’ to build more houses in the Borough. In turn, because there is nowhere else to turn (i.e. very little brown field land left that has previously been developed and is presently available for redevelopment) planners are telling us that some Green Belt/high grade agricultural land has to be lost.

We plan for growth from an economic perspective because it is hard wired into just about everything Government/The Treasury thinks and does. The thinking seems to be ‘if we not planning for growth, we are creating recession’. Planning for growth means building things like houses. Building houses needs folks to buy them/rent them. Our falling Borough population should logically have meant we would buy less/rent less houses but our living in smaller family units and living longer has saved the economic (growth) day because less of us require more houses.

As an aside one point that has concerned me for as long as I have been a Sefton Councillor is that Sefton is virtually always compared to other parts of Merseyside to justify some stat or other yet the Borough’s physical connection with Merseyside (Knowsley and Liverpool) is far, far smaller than its lengthy border with Lancashire. Indeed, it is surely the case that the vast majority of Sefton has far more in common in many ways with the Lancashire communities that surround it than it does with much of Merseyside.

Moving on, what’s all this about Sefton’s population starting to rise again because that is what the planners now tell us is going to happen?

Until very recently we have been looking at a continuing potential for Sefton’s population to decline but then, almost out of the blue, planners have told us that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have said that Sefton’s population is to rise due to people moving into the Borough. But how do they make such projections and how reliable are they. Indeed, where do ONS gain the data from to make such a prediction?

On one level these ‘surprise’ projections have been met with a high level of scepticism. Just who will be moving into Sefton, why and indeed when? Is this just taking the numbers of people moving about the UK, adding in migrants from outside of the UK and then giving Sefton a share of the higher population? Surely, it could not be such a crude calculation because logically people moving into Sefton would be doing so because of the availability of jobs either in the Borough or close to it in Lancashire and Merseyside. I have yet to see a reasoned, understandable and reliable explanation as to all the factors that will cause Sefton’s population to go into reverse and start rising again but the ‘fact’ that ONS say it will is going to be a big factor in creating more pressure for house building.

But what about urban planning (whilst we await a clear and credible explanation of why, how and when our local population is to rise)? I recently started to read a book that made comment on such. The book was about an American city in deep crisis – Detroit, but a couple of things jumped out at me that could help to explain why no matter what is going on beneath the waves planners always plan for growth.

‘there seemed to be a bone-deep American reluctance to even flirt with the notion of getting smaller’ and ‘I teach land use and planning and there’s nothing in there about downsizing’ and ‘the assumption is that a population is expanding, so how best to control it’. – The Last days of Detroit – Mark Binelli P 2013

Fundamentally, UK planning policy has been economically led for generations but are we at a cross roads? Surely, environmental sustainability and food production are now the most important things to plan for. Building more houses because we always have done fits with all the major historical imperatives of capitalism but maybe those major imperatives need to change – indeed I become surer that they do every day.

I would never advocate a socialist economic approach as many in the Labour Party and trade union movement do because frankly it simply does not and will not work. But neither am I in any way convinced that ploughing on in the same way as we do now for growth, growth, growth at all cost growth is going to be a sustainable way forward. World resources are in decline, the world population is increasing, environmental catastrophe is just around the corner yet our major worry is economic growth?

The bottom line is that the areas of Sefton that are presently not concreted over are part of a mere 2% of the English land mass that is made up of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Taking more of such land to build on is simply nuts! It may only be 2% or 3% that is lost this time but we have done it before that’s why many of our houses in the Borough are built on what was previously such land. In 10 or 15 years the planners will return and tell us that another small percentage of that diminishing amount of ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land is needed for building and the same cycle will repeat itself. That is not environmental and food production sustainability it is the politics of the mad house. We are not planning for the future, more like failing to plan for the future and Labour, Conservatives and yes even some Lib Dems are not waking up and smelling the coffee.

Planning policy is fundamentally an economic growth tool it needs to become a sustainability tool balanced between the environment, food production and the economy otherwise we are all going to hell in a hand cart.