Winnie the Pooh can teach the Government a thing or two about environmental planning

Nik Darlington 6.00am

In the first Winnie the Pooh storybook, Piglet becomes stranded in a flood of biblical proportions. Holed up in his home, the water rising higher and higher, he fears the worst. Piglets cannot swim. Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear could climb trees; Kanga can jump very high; Rabbit could burrow; Owl can fly away; and Eeyore can make very loud noises to attract attention. Piglets are little helpless animals in comparison. So in desperation, Piglet scrambles for an old glass bottle into which he places a scrawled call for help. Off this bottle bobs and there Piglet waits, hoping that someone will come to his aid.

Elsewhere, Pooh Bear has been having a nap. He awakes to the drumbeat of heavy rainfall and water flowing into his house. On looking out of his window at the rising water levels, he knows he is in a ‘Serious Situation’. Pooh Bear escapes by climbing on to a branch, not forgetting, of course, to take provisions of ten honey jars with him. Four days later, the water has not subsided and Pooh Bear is still sitting there, honey supplies finished. A bottle floats past and Pooh Bear, thinking it to be another pot of honey, grabs it in his paws. It is Piglet’s note! Pooh Bear resolves to help but he cannot swim. So he uses his biggest empty honey pot as a boat and sets sail.

Pooh Bear soon comes across Christopher Robin’s home, which is situated on higher dry ground. Christopher Robin is so happy to see Pooh Bear and when he hears about Piglet’s plight, resolves to set out to rescue him straightaway. However, Pooh Bear’s honey jar is not nearly big enough to support him and Christopher Robin, let alone a Piglet too. What to do? Could Owl carry them on his back? No, says Owl, he couldn’t support them both. Then Pooh Bear has a rare brainwave: use Christopher Robin’s upturned umbrella as a vessel! It wobbles but it floats and off they set to save Piglet, who is naturally delighted to see them, and so ends this little Pooh Bear adventure.

This is a tale of friendship, courage and ingenuity under pressure. It also tells us a bit about environmental planning. The flood represents the onset of grave climatic change - or just bad flooding, like that experienced in places like Worcester or Cumbria in recent years, or on much greater scales in Pakistan and Australia. It is a lesson about man’s (or Piglet’s) helplessness in the face of Mother Nature’s full fury.

And like the relative weakness of Piglet compared to his friends, different peoples have different capacities to cope with damaging climatic change. For instance, the flooding in Queensland was horrifying but the humanitarian fallout cannot compare with catastrophic flooding in less developed regions of the world. Likewise, an earthquake in Pakistan is more devastating than in New Zealand or Japan, or even China.

Sometimes, this is a clear-cut development issue. Other times, how you cope with environmental disaster - or any environmental change, fast or slow - relies a great deal on how well you plan for it. Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear can both climb trees to escape the rising water but the former was in a superior position because he had the foresight to live on higher ground.

The point is that in this country, we face major environmental challenges in the years to come, such as rising population and climate change on a very small land mass with limited (and finite) natural resources. And in the UK, we are the Christopher Robins. The Pooh Bears of this world - and heaven help the Piglets - face even greater challenges.

The Government’s tentative responses to these environmental challenges have been presented in recent weeks, in the form of the National Ecosystem Assessment (which I reported on last month) and the Natural Environment White Paper. The former is an innovative quantitative analysis of the UK’s ecosystem services; the latter is essentially a push for greater localism in environmental planning and preservation.

The concern of some people, such as the Planning Officers Society, is that the localist approach, whilst well-intentioned, cannot produce the integrated action necessary to plan land use for the future. Instead of a cohesive approach, the drive for voluntary cooperation between existing local authorities and new bodies like Local Nature Partnerships, Nature Improvement Areas, and designated Green Areas, will produce a fragmented, inefficient response. The Localism Bill abolished Regional Spatial Strategies and whilst a new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is being established, it is not clear yet how it will work alongside the myriad local bodies tasked with managing ecosystem services and natural resources. Moreover, as interesting as is the National Ecosystem Assessment, and however potentially useful it is for environmental policymaking and planning decisions, there is a danger inherent in planning that is driven purely by economics. As George Monbiot has written, the true value of nature does not have a pound sign in front of it, and cost-benefit analyses are invariably rigged in favour of business. Smart accountants will always make development add up.

However ideologically unpalatable it is to some people on the political right, the natural environment increasingly requires centralised planning solutions, especially when considering infrastructure such as housing, transport and urban land use. I turn again to George Monbiot, who recently insisted on ‘strict urban planning to keep cities from collapse’. For too long, governments in the developed world have carelessly allowed conurbations to sprawl inefficiently outwards, instead of capitalising on the environmental efficiencies inherent in urban living by planning for high density cities.

Central governments will not always make the right decisions on strategic infrastructure and land use. That much is made clear by the misguided tunnel vision of the HS2 rail project, for which local objections should defeat central insistence. However, as competing demands for land increase in years to come, exacerbated by the effects of climate change and a rising population, central government cannot afford to leave important environmental decisions to (often grossly underfunded) local bodies.

The Scottish Government published in March its groundbreaking Land Use Strategy, a strategic national framework that recognises the complexity of land use and ecosystem management. There is no such joined up approach being offered by Westminster, where land use is covered piecemeal by the likes of Defra, DCLG, DECC, DoT and HM Treasury.

The author of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, once said that ‘organising is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up’. This coalition government has demonstrated a boldly pragmatic and non-ideological mindset since taking office. In several respects, not least in the localism agenda, it is proving to be one of the most radical and reforming of governments in many years. Nevertheless, there is a danger that on planning, the Government is ideologically dismissing an integrated approach in favour of extending responsibility to communities. Localism is great for running a local park. It might even stem construction on flood plains. Yet it cannot provide integrated national solutions to big strategic challenges.

Instead of the necessary umbrella solution that Pooh Bear deployed to save Piglet, if you will, we are presented with lots of smaller honey pots and shuttling around on Owl’s back. If Pooh Bear hadn’t had the ingenuity to use Christopher Robin’s umbrella, and instead had to come up with a fragmented, slower plan using different methods - ‘all mixed up’ - then tragically it could have been too late to save Piglet. So much for a happy ending.

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