A place for food in pro-development planning?

English: Sustainability chart

English: Sustainability chart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

By Jess Halliday

The launch of the UK’s new draft National Planning Policy has food and environmental groups fearing for the future of the country’s green spaces and town centre, as the coalition government’s idea of ‘sustainable development’ has a strong pro-development flavour.The draft was launched last week and is open for consultation until October.
It is often easiest to understand the implications of policy proposals by listening to groups wearing the goggles of their own interests, giving them an incredible ability to read between the lines:
A framework that slashes back over 1000 pages of policy to just 58 means slicing through bundles of red tape and turning new projects into reality more quickly and more cheaply. Hurrah, say the developers and building companies.
But a growing body of planners, civil society groups, architects and academics who are enlightened to the crucial role of planning in the food system are not celebrating. Such a light-weight framework is too way light-touch, they believe. It is business-, not community-oriented, and it will become much harder to protect prime growing and organic land from development.
Speaking (ahead of the framework’s official publication) at a one-day conference on Food and Spatial Planning organised by Sustain and the Royal Institute of Town Planning (RITP) on 15th July, Friends of the Earth food campaigner Helen Rimmer, called it “an assault on the planning process”.
Suzanne Natelson of Sustain’s Local Action on Food also expressed concern at the pro-development turn and said Sustain “will be working to influence it”. Sustain already published a report on Good Planning for Good Food, and its cooperation with the RITP has led to the latter developing guidelines on food for planners.
A major taking point of draft framework is how it defines ‘sustainable development’. According to Damian Carrington, writing in The Guardian, the definition provided is “heavily weighted on saying yes to all building work and rather light on avoiding harmful developments”.
Carrington picks out the phrase “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”, and reads it as “development plans – houses, supermarkets, roads, business premises and so on – will be given the green light, unless there’s good case made for not doing so”.
Yet even when civil society and community groups keep an obsessive eye on applications to ensure no such good cases pass unchallenged, developers in the guise of big business have huge clout to mount appeals that local authorities, with coffers accountable to the electorate, cannot counter.
Business first?
Call food problematic and many people will reply: “Where’s the problem? We just go to the supermarket”. Sure, the globalised, retail-led food chain has made cheap food available to the masses in a way that it has never been before. Far fewer people fret about going hungry today than a hundred years ago.
Yet it’s more complicated than just hushing the hunger pangs. Supermarkets are the crucial, final link in the globalised, industrial food supply chain that has lifted cities out of their food context, and placed them in a global one that feeds off oil reserves and exploitation of land and cheap labour.
Food may be cheap at the till, but the bleep of the barcode scanner does not show the externalised costs beyond the price tag. The costs of infrastructure to haul food long distances, for example; the cost of countering emissions from transport and processing; of caring for people suffering the health effects of eating cheap food laden with fat, sugar and salt; of disposing of uneaten food and packaging; and so on. These costs are not paid by supermarkets, but by shoppers – not in store, but in their annual tax bill.
That is why feeding the city should never be left to supermarkets as a single, simple solution. Even when they promise to build new brand new apartments or fund a new classroom, the social sweeteners designed to wear down opposition will never be enough to cover the whole, global bundle of externalities.
And however socially-aware they may wish to be seen, supermarkets must make money – and that means having a high profile in places where there’s a demographic fit with their core target shoppers. If no supermarket is able to see commercial value in poorer, run-down areas, a business-oriented planning strategy could end up widening inequalities in our urban areas.
As Carolyn Steel, architect and author of The Hungry City, explained at the Sustain conference, the city’s problems are not viewed through the lens of food, big cities become food desserts, where “the only people that get fed are the rich people”.
In her view, “supermarkets were invented to eradicate the human – to take the human out of the food chain”.
And if you’ve got no humans, how can you have a community?

Source: Sustainable Food Blog

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