Why planning needs top down thinking and bottom up action.

The Government has announced a review of PPG7 - the planning policy guidance that deals with the countryside. Planning decides how we co-create our towns and villages, cities and countryside, and ultimately, how and where we live our lives. Before looking at how it might need to change, lets step back and look at the big picture.

Top down thinking: Think Global.
We are running out of oil. The US/UK invasion of Iraq was a direct result of this, as Michael Meacher MP made clear "The overriding motivation for this political smokescreen is that the US & UK are beginning to run out of secure hydrocarbon energy supplies." (Guardian, 6/9/03). This new era of dwindling fossil fuel supplies, or, 'energy descent', will change almost everything we take for granted. Modern agriculture, for example, depends utterly on oil. "One of the most damaging aspects of the contemporary food system is the extent to which the supply of even the most basic foodstuffs has become dependant on petroleum."('Eating Oil', SUSTAIN/Elm Farm Research Centre.)

And then there's climate change. "Higher temperatures are thwarting farmers' efforts to expand food production…. If 2004 brings another large shortfall comparable to this year … there could be chaos in world grain markets by this time next year as more than 100 grain-importing countries scramble for scarce exportable supplies." (Earth Policy Institute briefing, 17/9/03)

So here's a question for planners and policymakers everywhere. How do we rearrange our lives and landscapes to meet our basic needs, without fossil fuels, in an increasingly uncertain world?

Bottom up action: Act local.
"One of the great challenges in energy descent is to replace mass solutions and systems with a great diversity of systems and solutions to suit the particular needs of sites, situations and cultural contexts" (David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability.)

I believe we need a planning system that supports and empowers individuals and communities to make the local changes that will increase self-reliance, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and improve quality of life. Such a 'planning system' already exists, it's called permaculture design, and there are people making use of it in Britain and all over the world to create healthy and productive homes, gardens, farms, schools, and businesses.

Many of us want to live in the city, and there are many people in Britain using permaculture in cities to transform derelict sites, small gardens, build eco-houses and help neighbourhoods to become friendlier places in which to live. But to meet the big challenges of energy descent and climate change we will also need to repopulate the countryside, build green, and develop new forms of agriculture that produce good quality food without the need for big inputs of fossil fuels. Now we get back to planning policy. To create low input farming systems needs people, so the planning system needs to allow for new developments in the countryside. English Nature has suggested that new housing developments in the countryside might even boost local biodiversity. Well designed, they could also improve food productivity, education and health opportunities.

Permaculture gives us the ecological thinking and practical design tools we need to develop durable local solutions. My hope for the planning system is that it will not hinder this work. My dream is that it will positively encourage innovation, allow for experimentation, and, most importantly, capture the imagination and creativity of people everywhere. If we all develop our own wonderful bit of the solution then collectively we can overcome the big challenges ahead.

Andy Goldring is the Coordinator of the Permaculture Association (Britain).
Email: [email protected]

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