Do the latest planning changes embrace sustainability?

Apex planning sustainability

The planning White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ covered a lot of ground when it came to bringing the planning industry into the 21st century, but does it do enough to address the issue of sustainability?

Sustainable planning

Sustainability should be a major part of the planning process across the UK – after all, it has been almost 30 years since local authority planning departments first took on the ‘think global, act local’ ideology.

But is this a case of talking the talk rather than walking the walk?

All the right noises are made – for example the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)  makes it clear that the planning system should be playing a major part in creating sustainable development. It states clearly that the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.

Sustainable Development Goals

And yet the planning White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’  which was published in summer 2020 and which looks likely to be made a bill this autumn makes no mention at all of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), despite the government having made a commitment to them. This is a concern that has already been raised by the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons (HoC):

“The government has not yet done enough to drive awareness and embed the SDGs across the UK – including within government itself. We reiterate the recommendation made in our predecessor Committee’s 2017 report that the government should do everything it can to support partners (government agencies, local government, civil society, business and the public) to contribute towards delivering the Goals. The government should show leadership by introducing an SDG impact assessment as part of the cost-benefit analysis undertaken by government, or for politically strategic events such as the Queen’s Speech and Budget.’’ Read the full publication.

There are three aims when it comes to sustainable development, according to the NPPF. They are:

  • To help build a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that there is sufficient land to support growth and the provision of infrastructure;
  • To ensure a sufficient number and range of homes can be provided in a well-designed and safe built environment; and
  • To protect and enhance the natural, built and historic environment, including mitigating and adapting to climate change and moving to a low carbon economy.

Conflicting Approach

However, it is clear that building new housing developments with sustainability in mind does not seem to be a priority. Admittedly there are some key reasons for this the government’s attempts to tackle the housing crisis, an economy trying to claw back from a banking crash, and of course a pandemic.

And the White Paper does not appear to make sustainability its main focus either. The core of the planning paper looks to focus on bringing the whole planning process up to date making it more streamlined by digitising the system and encouraging community involvement.

Other recent planning, changes, which we have already covered in previous articles, such as the permitted development amendments, are also not conducive to considering sustainability in developments. For instance, the latest amendments are encouraging the transformation of shops and offices into homes. These old buildings are unlikely to have been built or designed with sustainable principles in mind.

The planning White Paper does have some sustainable principles contained within. For example, to enable improvements in energy efficiency, with a view to being net-zero by 2050, and to make it speedier and easier to assess any environmental impact of a development (and indeed to identify any opportunities for enhancing environmental issues).

However, there is much more focus on the creation of ‘beautiful places’ (with the implementation of rules about tree planting and so on) and the institution of design guidance and codes. But it remains to be seen whether these design guides actually commit to sustainability standards throughout.

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