This coming weekend I will be once again ensconced with fifty or so other citizens of my beloved Oxford as part of the city council’s “Citizens’ Assembly” on the climate emergency. Three weekends ago we heard from a range of experts and practitioners in five policy or technology domains that contribute to either increasing or reducing emissions: buildings, transport infrastructure and services, renewable energy infrastructure, waste reduction and biodiversity and carbon offsetting. This coming weekend we will be more engaged in discussing possible responses and making recommendations to Oxford City Council.

Land: The elephant in the room

At the end of the first weekend, we were all asked to put these five areas into a priority order. I’m not sure if anyone else did so, but I put them in exactly that order: 1. buildings, 2. transport, 3. renewable energy, 4. waste and 5. biodiversity etc. This seems like an obvious order to me.

We know, for instance, that buildings have the biggest impact on the city’s carbon footprint. Until you sort out the buildings and land use, you don’t actually know where to build the rapid transport infrastructure to get people from a to b, c and d. That will determine where locally generated renewables can go and the likelihood of communal services like district heating taking some of the load. And so on. Greener, denser cities enable you to build biodiversity (and maybe offsetting technology) back into the urban fabric.

It all comes back to land. And our entire history of land use is largely to blame for where we are now: creating sprawl with inefficient use of the most advantageous locations for economic, leisure, social and cultural opportunities created by the whole community: government, civil society and commercial. In order to make progress on net zero in a sustainable way we have to wean ourselves off this western, second millennium notion of flogging off, or giving away, permanent “rights” to “land block” as well as the twentieth century idea that wherever you choose to lay your head you are entitled to get everyone else to pay for the infrastructure you give up by choosing not to live in cities.

That will determine, for instance, what we need to rebuild as opposed to retrofit with energy-efficient technologies. Increasing densities, redeveloping communities, gives the chance to build in rapid and active travel services, to build in local power generation and communal power use, and urban greenery and biodiversity. Increasing density alone reduces the environmental impact of the average inhabitant.

Oxford Skyline...from OPT Lecture presentation
Oxford Skyline…from OPT Lecture presentation

Planning to fail

In terms of land use, the old saying that “failing to plan is planning to fail” simply doesn’t apply. For all the grandiose local plans every couple of decades, promising every time to provide the housing we need, or new transport policies or whatever, none of them have any teeth in a world in which the permanent occupiers of the most advantageous locations have no incentive to give up, or even just share, “their” patch of valuable community connectedness. As a result, we are unable to redevelop those locations, built maybe a century ago for a town of a quarter of the population of today’s Oxford that would give us new, homes and businesses bristling with green technology and close to amenities and opportunities without forcing people into longer and longer journeys, commutes or whatever.

Nor does nature care who claims to “own” such locations. If Manhattan, London or Tokyo end up under water as a result of rising sea levels, who will care then about the landowners’ losses? Well, actually, since they generally are the most valuable locations on earth, controlled by the best connected and most powerful people, the politicians will care, and will spend as much as necessary to maintain those locations as desirable and valuable. While the rest of us pay for that, and for those of us without our own exclusive patch of land, pay even more on top for the areas we have left. If you happen to have a patch in Lagos or Manilla, or maybe even Hull or Hartlepool however, tough luck!

Our very notion of “land ownership” will be challenged by climate change fundamentally. So we need to remodel our economy around sharing equitably the resources we want or need to take from nature. If we are declaring an “emergency” over our use and abuse of the planet, we must start with that most fundamental one, our occupancy, to the exclusion of all others, of parts of it that are made valuable by the activities and growth and prosperity of the entire community, including the non-human “communities” it supports.

Just Finance for Climate Justice

So how does all this relate to how to fund any changes we need to make, whether to prevent or to mitigate if we fail in that, runaway climate change? By all accounts there is much disagreement over the potential costs for publicly funded interventions – new transport infrastructure, energy infrastructure, help to transform the housing stock and so on.

£1 trillion to reach net-zero by the least ambitious 2050 has been mentioned by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Others that we can reach that within existing budgets set for reaching 80% reductions by 2050. And still others that it will be a net positive investment if we move quickly enough and lead the pack in exportable technology and lower costs of living. And that excludes the almost certainly larger private sector expenditure that will be required to upgrade or replace housing, other buildings, vehicles and retraining for work in a decarbonised economy. Though of course the most optimistic claim that this expenditure would happen anyway as existing appliances, vehicles, heating systems, housing and such like need replaced eventually.

All this expenditure, however, whether public, private or community “sweat equity” will benefit people unevenly. More correctly it will benefit places, locations unevenly. The areas that find themselves better connected to jobs, social and commercial opportunities by expensive public or private infrastructure will gain. Areas under threat from the effects of climate change or out of reach of expensive new efficient infrastructure, will lose. The costs of retrofitting energy efficiency into much of the existing housing stock, much of which uses land highly inefficiently in high demand areas, will affect the least well off hardest. While the costs of not being able to afford to “upgrade” will increase the costs of living as older fuel technologies become relatively more expensive.

So to use the current dominant system of financing public expenditure of predominantly taxing productivity – our work and investment in productive enterprise – will mean yet more of a transfer of economic resources to those who happen to “own” the better connected, in demand, locations from those who don’t, or can’t.

Fortunately, there is a better system, and one without which it is difficult to see how effectively we can mitigate climate change at all. A “tax” which at the same time as replacing less efficient taxes on productivity, makes those who benefit from positive social changes pay more than those who don’t benefit, or even suffer, and encourages owners of in demand areas, attracting high tax bills on their higher value sites, to find ways of intensifying the use of those locations to spread the tax bill.

In providing a mechanism that positively encourages increased efficiency of land use in areas best provided for by the rest of the community, we can remodel our cities with highly efficient up to date technology, at higher densities, with better planned infrastructure – including “natural” infrastructure.

We know from studies of towns and cities in Pennsylvania, USA, where they have even just split their property taxes so that they gradually increasingly tax the location value and decrease the proportion of tax on the value of the buildings, leads to a rapid and significant increase in urban redevelopment.

So for all these reasons: a fairer way to get those who will benefit most from mitigating measures to pay most toward them; the incentive as a result to bring forward sites in high demand areas where density, street layout, local infrastructure and so on can be more reliably planned; the opportunity that affords to redevelop area to the highest efficiency standards, we have to find a way of switching to a location tax system.

Think local, act together

Now sure, that’s all very well, but the Citizens’ Assembly is to advise a district council, with a moderate bark, in the form of making local plan policies, but little bite in terms of ensuring the “wishlist” policies of the plan – densification, redevelopment, and so on, actually happen. Competing for access to the capital funding that may be required for infrastructure out of stretched government budgets. No way of varying the way local taxation is levied to make all these beneficial effects happen.

Nonetheless, so much of what we might want to recommend on Sunday will be beyond the current competencies or responsibilities of local authorities to implement, at least individually. If this is an “emergency” then it is an emergency for us all, not just for Oxford. And we should, if we are ambitious for our city, push hard for such systemic changes, and try to be in the forefront of them. Indeed, some of what is needed could be achieved through financial and policy support for civil society organisations, such as locally and mutually owned community development trusts able to assemble sites, offering options for existing community residents to remain local in new efficient developments more suited to the needs of their occupants.

We can house all the people who need or want to be here, to ensure the future of our world leading institutions with a high tech hinterland that keeps the best brains investing here, in a cleaner, cheaper, denser but greener city with better transport infrastructure and a minimal carbon footprint. Our collective failure to manage the resources of the planet has led us to this emergency, avoiding it or mitigating the effects of it demands that we work with the economics of nature and recognise that our conceit of “owning” parts of the earth to the exclusion of others, for as long as you like is unjust. Taken to its logical conclusion, it follows, that those we recognise as “owners” can determine whether those who are not “owners” live, where, and at what cost, or die, literally or socially.

Not costing the earth: funding climate resilience