A UK plan to hit net zero emissions could tackle economic and social injustices, too

The Extinction Rebellion protest last month. Image: Getty.

Thanks to the youth climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, David Attenborough's BBC One documentary and Greta Thunberg's visit to the UK, climate change is finally riding high on the political agenda. The common ask for politicians and policymakers to tell the truth about climate change, and to reconcile it with serious action seems to be ringing in the ears of our political leaders. Just this weekend, both Labour and the Scottish National Party joined 59 Councils in declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’. No doubt others will follow over the coming weeks.

Achieving a transition that is both green and just will not be easy. Governments have dealt with previous emergencies such as WWII or the Great Depression by stimulating the economy in ways that also worked to increase our environmental impact. Going forward the task will be to find the ways that we can improve people’s quality of life and bring about broadly-shared prosperity whilst also delivering significant and absolute reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – no easy task.

Whilst the escalation in ambition and focus is very welcome, it has brought to the fore the need for credible plans that are capable of turning the protestors’ demands into practical action. This is the task of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, which launches this week. The purpose of this new Commission is to set out a plan to deliver a rapid and just transition to a green, sustainable and fair economy.

While much of the technology and knowledge required for the successful delivery of a green transition already exists, the practical delivery of it will entail a level of mobilisation and collaboration that is almost unprecedented in our history. Fundamental will be elevating the challenge of decarbonising our economy to a national mission. It will mean an investment programme and industrial strategy – a Green New Deal – that could radically reduce our emissions, deliver broadly-distributed prosperity, and deliver well-paid, high quality jobs. To work, it will need to be led by a Prime Minister and government that is determined to make it the central focus of their administration, and who have the capability and willingness to work alongside town halls, unions, civil society, business and the public at large.


First and foremost amongst these must certainly be the public: even a cursory glance over to France during the recent, and ongoing, gilets jaunes protests shows what can happen when you get on the wrong side of the people on these issues. The UK must not repeat these mistakes; our response needs to ensure a green transition that is fair and just and that has public engagement at the very heart of its decision-making process. It also needs to redress the historic injustices that have left many communities behind following unmanaged industrial transitions in the past and an unbalanced economy that’s still too skewed towards London. Workers and communities that are reliant on carbon intensive industries must be supported through a just transition to a sustainable economy that provides jobs, prosperity and hope. We must also consider the economic and social injustices associated with the issue including the disproportionate impact by, for example, gender, class and ethnicity.

Well-designed, a green transition presents the opportunity to achieve this. Given the scale of the challenge there will be a lot of work to do; this opens up the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and to giving people a genuine stake in society.

For instance, decarbonisation will require that we mobilise a workforce that’s capable of retrofitting and upgrading hundreds-of-thousands of homes – thereby employing thousands of people and having a material impact on many more's quality of life. Elsewhere, we will need to accelerate the transition to zero carbon transport infrastructure, by investing in electric vehicles and bringing our public transport systems up to 21st century standards. We will also need to explore less tangible ways of reducing people’s impact, for example by correctly market anomalies that make it harder for people to do the right thing.

Business as usual is running on borrowed time, and the window of opportunity for responding has narrowed. The International Panel on Climate Change has warned of serious consequences if global average temperatures rise beyond 1.5C. Given our historical emissions, the UK has a responsibility to demonstrate leadership and show how rapidly decarbonisation can be reconciled with improving people’s quality of life. This will require a revolution in political leadership, and the delivery of a coherent plan that tells the truth and puts people front and centre in how we respond.

Luke Murphy is an associate director at IPPR and head of its new Environmental Justice Commission and

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.