Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The new, concise national planning framework puts sustainable development first. Or does it?

The government has published its draft National Planning Policy Framework - which streamlines national policy from over 1,000 pages to just 52 pages, and is inviting comments in a 12-week consultation.

This will affect not just energy and community energy infrastructure but the future of the entire UK environment. Already, battle lines are being drawn up between business and environmentalists as conservative as the National Trust.

Defra and the Communities and Local Government Department insist that the draft Framework delivers on the Government's commitment in the Natural Environment White Paper to allow communities to earmark important local green spaces for special protection - whether its value is in its natural beauty, its historical resonances, its recreational value, its tranquillity or its richness in wildlife.

Greg Clark said it affords "protections for communities to safeguard the natural and historic environment". It "maintains the Government's commitment to protecting the green belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest; facilitates a new generation of renewable energy projects; paves the way for green transport of the future - the electric car; re-affirms protections for our nation's historic and cultural heritage, and for our wildlife and bio-diversity, including new protection for peat bogs; and helps tackle the light pollution affecting the beauty of the night sky."

A presumption in favour of sustainable development means that proposals should be approved promptly unless they would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in the draft Framework.

Clark praised the conciseness of the new national planning policy and said it made "clearer the importance of planning to safeguarding our extraordinary environment and meeting the needs of communities, now and in the future."

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said it "will give local communities the power to protect green spaces that mean so much to them, while still giving the highest protection to our treasured landscapes such as national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty."

And Business Secretary Vince Cable's perspective is: "The new approach to planning will be a significant step forward in creating the right conditions for businesses to start up, invest, grow and create jobs" and "Strong, sustainable growth is the Government's top priority".

What is sustainable development?

It is this use of the 'S' word that worries environment groups like Friends of the Earth - who called it a "developers’ charter which puts the interests of business ahead of people and the environment", because interpretations of 'sustainable development' are going to be crucial in making planning decisions.

Critics of the Localism Bill and draft planning documents up to now have complained that the term remains undefined.

There are undeniable limits to growth and therefore many maintain that to couple 'sustainable' with 'growth' not only tends to the oxymoronic but has the propensity to become self-deceiving and confusing.

'Sustainable development' as defined by the 1987 UN Brundtland Report, and adopted by the UK government in the past, means making sure that people can satisfy their basic needs now, without preventing future generations from also having the same quality of life.

It rests on three ‘pillars’ – economics, society and the environment, known in business as the 'triple bottom line' - coupled with the concept of social justice.

Almost the same definition is on the Defra website, but with no mention of justice and equality.

However, the NPPF does offer the following: sustainable development means that "all people should be able to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, both now and in the future". The inclusion of that crucial word 'all', should imply the notion of social justice.

The presumption to say 'yes'

With this in mind, the stipulation is that local authorities will give thumbs up to developers unless there are good reasons not to. They should "look for solutions rather than problems so that applications can be approved wherever it is practical to do so".

They should also "attach significant weight to the benefits of economic and housing growth" and "enable the delivery of sustainable development proposals".

Equally interesting is the mandate to "promote the vitality and viability of town centres, and meet the needs of consumers for high quality and accessible retail services"; and "raise the quality of life and the environment in rural areas by promoting thriving, inclusive and locally distinctive rural economies".

On the often contentious issue of mining, the NPPF says planners should "encourage the recycling of suitable materials to minimise the requirement for new primary extraction".

The document hopes more housing will be built, and stipulates the preservation of Green Belts with certain exceptions.

Adaptation to climate change and mitigation are also supported. For example: "the planning system should aim to secure ... radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, through the appropriate location and layout of new development, and active support for energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings and the delivery of renewable and low-carbon energy infrastructure". Planners should also "avoid inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding".

Planning authorities are also asked to "set out a strategic approach in their Local Plans, planning positively for the creation, protection, enhancement and management of networks of biodiversity and green infrastructure".

There is also support for sustainable transport, electric charging stations for vehicles and the continuing use of Travel Plans.

The debate will continue

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) welcomed the "presumption in favour of sustainable development and on local authorities responding to the development needs of business" but criticised the document for failing to include "any meaningful reference to the role of waste management infrastructure", referring instead to the yet-to-be-published National Waste Management Plan (NWMP).

But the National Trust is not convinced by all the fine words in the document, saying the proposed reforms "could lead to unchecked and damaging development on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution".

The 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' has been welcomed by the housing sector, such as The National Housing Federation, as a boost for new affordable homes.

It's quite possible already to see where the battle lines will be drawn in planning offices up and down the land, and the courts.

No one from either the business and industry or the sustainability side of the fence will argue with this statement: "However, we remain concerned that the effectiveness of the NPPF will depend on how it is interpreted in practice by local planning authorities and others involved in planning."

But some will certainly find alarming the rest of the speaker's comment:
"There is still much scope for those opposing development to claim that proposed projects aren't sustainable and use restrictive interpretations" - "technical and academic interpretations of sustainability" - "to subvert the positive, pro-growth policy".

The speaker is Robin Shepherd, a partner with the developer Barton Willmore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I commented on Robin Shepherds ridiculous statement here