Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Planning White Paper – what is the end goal?

By Peter Geraghty, FRTPI

The RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

When the government’s white paper on planning reform was launched in August 2020, it was billed as a once in a generation opportunity. It is therefore of considerable surprise that it contains not one single mention of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In launching the paper, the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick said:

“These once in a generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country. We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.”

Despite a commitment by government to the UN’s SDGs, they have not been mainstreamed through the proposed planning reforms. This represents a major lacuna. For SDG11 (make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), in particular, not to be mentioned in the white paper is difficult to comprehend and does nothing to allay the concerns expressed recently 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.[1]

Since the adoption of the SDGs on 1 January 2016, little, if anything, has been done since to mainstream them into planning practice in England. In particular, concern has been expressed from the outset about the lack of awareness of the existence and relevance of SDGs. In 2016, the HoC International Development Committee reported:

“The government’s response to domestic implementation of the SDGs has so far been insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all … Engagement of government departments will be central to the success of domestic implementation, which itself has an impact on making progress on the goals globally.[2]

The HoC Environmental Audit Committee has pointed out that a voice at the top of government speaking for the long-term aspirations embodied in the SDGs is vitally necessary.[3] The government white paper was an opportunity to demonstrate that leadership. Many of the issues identified in the white paper could have been framed in the context of the SDGs. The three pillars could have been used as the basis for demonstrating how the SDGs could have been achieved. It could have included a commitment to produce guidance for local planning authorities on how to produce their own voluntary local reviews on the implementation of SDGs as the European Commission has done. Such local reviews, the Commission says, are:

“… a fundamental instrument to monitor progresses and sustain the transformative and inclusive action of local actors towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in general, and competitive sustainability in particular.[4]

The Handbook provides helpful examples of official and experimental indicators useful in establishing an effective SDG local monitoring system. Such guidance could provide a framework for local authorities in England to evaluate the outcomes of planning in the context of the SDGs at a local level. As the RTPI points out in its response to the white paper: ‘Measuring outcomes against the Sustainable Development Goals could also help ensure a balance of social, economic and environmental outcomes are being achieved.’[5]

The implementation of SDGs in England has been hindered by a general ambivalence to them, domestically, and the perspective that they are primarily for developing countries. This has led to a lack of awareness of the existence and relevance of SDGs. An absence of an identifiable regional governance framework coupled with an ambivalent approach to their introduction has further retarded their adoption in England. Devolution has led to a divergence in planning practice across the UK. In comparison, the approach outside of England has been much more proactive. For example, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 provides stronger governance for the long term in Wales. The Act enshrined Wales’ historical commitment to sustainable development and lays out seven well-being goals for a more sustainable Wales.[6]

This type of clear, strong leadership is fundamental to implementing the SDGs. In a number of cases individual authorities are taking up the opportunity to mainstream the SDGs. As the Local Government Association (LGA) has said:

“Councils need to understand the SDGs and think through how they might be applied in the local area. They then need to map their own high-level plans, policies and strategies against the 17 goals and accompanying targets, making choices about which are more relevant to them. Councils can then choose to adopt SDGs and the targets, or their own local versions of them, and consider amending or redrawing their plans to close any identified gaps …[7]

The white paper would have been an opportune time to provide strategic leadership to all local authorities. With every opportunity to promote their adoption that is missed, it makes mainstreaming the SDGs that much more difficult. As the government considers the responses to the consultation it leaves the question unanswered - planning reform in England - what really is the end goal?


[1] House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 1491 (10 January 2019), p.p. 3-4

[2] House of Commons International Development Committee, (2016), UK implementation of the sustainable development goals, first report of session 2016–17, HC 103, House of Commons: London, p. 34.

[3] House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, (2017), Sustainable Development Goals in the UK, 26 HC 596 of session 2016–17, London, p. 3 and 31.

[4] European Commission, European Handbook for SDG Voluntary Local Reviews, (Luxembourg, 2020):



[7] Local Government Association, UN Sustainable Development Goals: A Guide for Councils, July 2020.


Peter Geraghty

Peter is an experienced practitioner having worked across all sectors - private, public and voluntary.  He is a Fellow of the RTPI with over 30 years' experience working in the fields of planning and development.  He is Chair of the Planning Officers’ Society’s Development Management Network, a former RTPI President and former Chair of the RTPI’s International Committee.


Back to top