Local politics on three horizons

If you think the system is broken, but you can’t wholly transform it, how do you engage with it? That’s a challenge I see politicians grapple with all the time.

After the recent round of local elections I tweeted a hope that new Green Party councillors who were in power – as the majority in Mid Suffolk, or coalitions elsewhere – might find answers to that question in the area of housing policy. Many had just been elected opposing new housebuilding.

We know (or should know) that it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to square the construction of more than 300,000 new homes per year with our commitments to decarbonise our economy and regenerate our biodiversity. The current policy framework and industry practice are wildly destructive. Even if they adopted every trick in the book to build well, it’s still hard to build that much within our rapidly shrinking carbon budget. Many studies have found this.

Business as usual cannot continue. Something needs to radically change.

But let’s say you’ve just been elected as a local councillor. You can’t just sit on the sidelines making interesting academic arguments, you face real-world decisions. You’re on a planning committee, invited to vote on an application brought forward by a large developer that exemplifies ‘business as usual’. Do you just oppose it because it’s not the ideal? Or let’s say you’re running for election – do you join hands with the local ‘no to development’ group in focusing on all the reasons to oppose it?

That’s the line that a lot of local Green Parties and their councillors take. To point out the shortcomings and argue that, in theory, if the whole system were radically transformed, this application shouldn’t even have come forward.

But this risks looking irrelevant, or out of touch. The party often argues against new development proposals on environmental grounds. Those involved justify this, in the face of an ever-worsening housing crisis, by arguing for a structural transformation to solve the local problems of homelessness, overcrowding and high housing costs. But it isn’t a strategy that a local council could bring about, and meanwhile the housing problems are getting worse, and the biodiversity and climate emergencies are descending into chaos and disaster. To be ‘realistic’ risks ignoring this onrushing ecological chaos; to be ‘radical’ risks ignoring the very real social disasters already with us.

What on earth do we do?

What we need is an approach of radical realism: a realism that is not only in touch with current constraints, but also considers a field of future possibilities.

One good framework we might use to think about this is three three horizons model. This assumes that businesses, technologies, political policies and even whole civilizations exhibit life-cycles of initiation, growth, peak performance, decline and even death. Dominant players today will decline and new players will come through – the change can be slow, or abrupt.

As Greens especially we want to look to the Viable Future horizon – to say this development shouldn’t happen at all; it should be three smaller ones, with housing pressure redistributed to areas of the country with more empty homes through structural economic reform; mass housebuilding would be less needed as a strategy to reduce housing costs if we had a Land Value Tax and rent controls; the three small developments should be better connected to the town centre by public transport and cycling/walking routes; one should be above a car park that’s underusing land; they should be twice as dense, with more greenery; one needs a new GP surgery; they should use different low impact building materials, and have much higher energy performance. And so on.

We want to say all of that, but none of that is valid in planning terms, and it lacks realism – policy, political, economic – in the dominant system today.

Faced with a planning application, we must make a decision within the Business as Usual horizon. What are valid grounds in the planning system to refuse or approve this application? What else could this developer do within the constraints of the dominant system? What will the real-world impact be of it going ahead, or being refused? Where do our priorities lie?

If you spend any time working within the system you realise a lot of these constraints are real – it isn’t all greed and indifference on the part of the developer.

Developers must contend with the additional costs of remediation, site access and legal negotiations on the ‘ideal’ brownfield sites; the paucity of existing sustainable transport infrastructure they will connect into; the underpowered financing system for affordable housing; and so on. Even well-motivated developers struggle to produce the environmental standards, levels of affordability, etc they might aim for. They will look at your radically different proposal and shrug their shoulders – can’t be done, mate.

Stuck between these two positions we could also look to the second horizon, the Innovation Towards the Viable Future that can happen within the current dominant system. People are trying out new ways of doing things which we can point to – community land trusts, eco villages, low impact modern methods of construction, community-engaged transport plans, etc. They are the future in the present.

These are things we can put forward as realistic adaptations of business as usual. Developers can be pushed to rethink specific aspects of their plans. Local councils can set out more creative and forward-thinking requirements in their Local Plans, subject to being tested for their viability in the dominant system. They all take us in the right direction, even if we’re unsure of the destination.

We shouldn’t respond to real-world proposals with only one horizon. Preoccupation with the Viable Future excuses NIMBYism; support for Business as Usual excuses climate denialism. We should weave all three horizons into our responses – whether our policy proposals going into a local election; our ideas for a Local Plan consultation; or our reaction to a planning application. We can talk about the viable future we want to work towards; we can propose viable innovations that would dramatically improve the proposals; and we can take a view on whether, on balance, we would support or oppose the application in front of us.

I would hope that would lead to Greens adopting lines more like this:

To not lose sight of the perfect; but to not make it the enemy of the on-balance-probably-good.

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