As Yorkshire suffers, again, we are reminded that as a nation we are critically unprepared for the impacts of climate change. This failure is largely about political leadership yet it is expressed in practical terms by a failure to organise ourselves to meet the scale of the challenge. The result is that as the climate crises intensifies we will all be made poorer and more vulnerable than we need to be, while every year there will be a Fishlake, or worse.
The first government that has the ambition to address this could be the next Labour one, and they should:
- Sketch out a framework to secure national resilience to climate impacts;
- Develop the policy, legal and governance instruments to deliver this resilience;
with the urgency with which Attlee’s government approached the post-war recovery.
The Adaptation Problem
In stark contrast to the decarbonisation challenge adapting to climate impacts requires the radical remaking of places as its impacts are much more variable and complex for four main reasons:
- Climate impacts play out very differently across the diverse physical and social geography of the UK. Urban and rural areas, upland and coastal all require different and fine grain responses tailored to the diverse geography of the UK.
- Climate impacts affect people in different ways and particularly on those social groups least equipped to be resilient.
- Building resilience requires interlocking measures from big spatial scale coastal realignment to the detail of the way buildings are wired. The interdependence of this decisions is vital in determining long term solutions and often driven by catchments and coastal system which do not fit with local government boundaries.
- Building resilience requires thinking about the very long term and at least 100-year planning horizons. This implies new ways of thinking and working. Time is also running out to begin building resilience so we need to act now and radically.
While for now we are very badly organised to meet the challenge of climate change, with institutional fragmentation, too many national and local agencies with a stake in adaptation but no single entity with oversight of the complete agenda; austerity has impacted on the skills and institutional capacity of all the key players relevant to building resilience; and deregulation, for example the rapid expansion of Permitted Development; have all played their part in weakening our ability to act.
We can, though, learn from the past, not least from that Attlee government and the creation of the post-war new town development corporations. These bodies were designed to manage large-scale demographic change and reconstruction in an era of acute housing shortage. They were designed to both deliver numbers and quality and inclusive communities at the same time.
The record of these corporations is impressive, yet their potential to deal with environmental crisis has largely been ignored. This proposal takes up that potential through the enactment of a National Resilience Act, that would create Resilience Development Corporations (RDC).
Each RDC would have a clear founding purpose and legal power to do everything necessary to secure the resilience of a particular locality. Unlike the new towns each designation would be based on an area of functional geography that shared key vulnerabilities and where joint planning and delivery had added benefits, not least modernised to reflect the importance of community participation, long-term sustainable development and clear and specific goals on climate adaptation and mitigation.
The corporations are intended as an idea to be layered over the top of existing structures, unifying and coordinating their powers where these are related to climate resilience. Initially there would be six resilience development corporations in England:
- the Humber to the Wash, including the River Don catchment;
- the Wash to the Thames;
- Portsmouth and Southampton;
- the Somerset levels and the Severn estuary;
- the South Pennines between Manchester and Leeds/Bradford;
- and Blackpool and the Lancashire coast.
The board membership of the RDC would need to reflect existing institutions such as the Environment Agency as well as the voice of communities. Each Corporation would have a fixed life depending on the scale of the challenge in a locality and would eventually be wound up so the planning powers would be returned to local authorities.
The idea of the RDC acting as master developer working with existing institutions in a coordinating way it’s a powerful incentive for local authorities to agree to such a proposal. Above all they would provide the community with certainty about their own future and investors and insurers with the confidence to continue to invest and support vulnerable places over the long term.
A National Resilience Act
The National Resilience Act would provide for the establishment of RDC and provide for the detail of their designation, operation and governance. The Act would place duties on Ministers to prepare national policy to support the RDCs, as they will be the fairest and most effective means to support each and every community that will eventually face an extreme weather event.
Now is the moment for Labour to match its decarbonisation ambitions with ambitions to support and protect communities across the land.
Hugh Ellis and Hywel Lloyd