The solution is compact cities

The problem is prosperity.

The world’s population is expanding rapidly.  Whilst we in Europe have been trapped by the economic crisis, the likes of Brazil, India and China have found room to manoeuvre, adapting and continuing to grow at phenomenal rates. 

By 2050 there will be 9.3bn people living, breathing and consuming our planet’s resources, with 75 per cent of these living in cities.  To accommodate this we would need to build the equivalent of more than one new Birmingham every single week for the next 40 years.

The successful cities of the future will be more compact and efficient.  But to realise this future, we need to overcome the paradoxes created by prosperity and connectivity.

The stark fact is that unless we make our cities more efficient and sustainable, the quality of life of most people everywhere in the world will suffer.   Rapidly urbanising populations are a feature of emerging economies, but the new middle classes in the likes of the BRICS also expect their quality of life to keep growing. 

City development has relied on continuing low energy costs.  But population growth, consumer demand and supply reaching nature’s limits are putting pressures also on rising energy costs, and together these present a massive threat to people’s quality of life. This is the Prosperity Paradox.

If we don’t find solutions to this paradox, the world could face a major crisis. 

So we need to encourage and plan for more compact cities.  These will see people living closer to their place of work and commuting less, travelling more on public transport and less in cars.  Urbanisation has seen fragmentation of communities, but in the compact city your neighbours and friends will be nearer to you, and where you shop, work and play will be closer to where you sleep. That will save energy, reducing per capita spend and therefore keeping disposable incomes up. 

Politicians alone can’t deliver the compact cities we need.  In an interconnected world, we need governments incentivising smart growth; communities moderating their short-term demands for goods for the benefit of their friends and neighbours in the long-term; business offering smarter, more integrated solutions that work in the long-term rather than just responding to the short-term demands of their shareholders. 

Overcoming this Connectivity Paradox requires good story-telling.  Politicians need to be more honest with voters about the short and long-term trade-offs of decisions; communities need to discuss and plan for their own future needs; businesses need to articulate a vision to shareholders that realises long-term value as well as short-term gain.

The responsibility doesn’t just fall on our politicians, our community or our business leaders.  It falls to each and every one of us, individually and collectively.

Jeremy Bentham is Head of Scenarios at Shell.

Photograph: Getty Images

Shell Head of Scenarios

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.