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Our planning system is woefully ill-equipped to tackle climate change

Ellis Woodman
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The UK planning system has long abandoned any ambition to present a vision of our cities’ future, writes Ellis Woodman

In the closing pages of Vers Une Architecture, Le Corbusier famously presented his readers with the stark choice between two futures: Architecture or Revolution. Penned in the aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik uprising in Russia, his rallying cry spoke to the sense of impending doom that pervaded European culture at the time. It also recognised that every crisis is a moment of opportunity. In this country it would take another war before our political classes accepted that the active shaping of our built environment represented a necessary step towards ensuring an equitable and stable society. The introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947 provided the bedrock for a programme of post-war reconstruction that formed the physical infrastructure of the new welfare state. 

Following the news earlier this month that Parliament had passed a motion calling for the declaration of a state of ‘environment and climate emergency’, it is tempting to hope that we are witnessing another such coalescence of political will. While the motion does not commit the government to any immediate legislative action, it reflects a clear sense that climate change has, however belatedly, claimed a place at the top of the political agenda. It calls on the government to work towards a date for carbon neutrality before its present target of 2050 and for ministers to draft proposals within the next six months to restore the country’s environment and create a ‘zero-waste economy’. The potential implications extend well beyond the technical performance of our building stock. The frequency of building development cycles, the reliance of our construction industry on concrete and steel, the very organisation of our cities and transport infrastructures all now demand urgent reappraisal if the motion is to prove more than an empty gesture. 

The planning systems of many of our European neighbours offer tested models that can help us think about how to remake ours

A recognition that our obligations extend far beyond our borders is also imperative. The debts owed by countries in the global south, many of them former British colonies, continue to present a significant impediment to addressing the crisis at a global scale. Our efforts in the UK will be of little consequence unless we also commit to a meaningful programme of aid and reparation for countries we have exploited in the past. 

However, one of the largest obstacles to addressing the changes we need to make in our home country is unquestionably the poverty of our planning culture. The victim of decades of systematic underinvestment, the British planning system is woefully ill-equipped to manage the scale of the challenge that now lies ahead. More problematic still is the extent to which it has been allowed to become a reactive, rather than propositional, mechanism. Geared towards inhibiting unwelcome development, it has long abandoned any ambition to present a vision of our cities’ future. 

Following the declaration of the climate emergency we surely have to accept that this failing is no longer tenable. Top-down planning may never have sat easily with the British, but the achievements of the post-war years demonstrate that this cultural prejudice is not unshakable. 

Thankfully, while the reinvention required is radical, the planning systems of many of our European neighbours offer tested models that can help us think about how to remake ours. The fact that the UK is currently placed 13th in a ranking of European countries’ responses to climate change offers one indication of how much we have to learn. The transformation remains far from certain, and in the vital few months ahead it is imperative that the built environment community energetically makes the case for change. While Le Corbusier’s invocation of the threat of civil unrest may have been a case of the master propagandist crying wolf, Architecture or Extinction represents an altogether more tangible choice. Our equivocation in making it may already have gone on too long.

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