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Delivering sustainable development - is the white paper onto something?

By Steve Lees, independent planning consultant

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.

Once again, the planning profession and the public are the subject of another review by a government that is clearly unhappy with the way the current system is working. The essays published by the Policy Exchange earlier in the year signalled the shape of things to come. Now we are a taking part in game of Top Trumps as varying interests seek to inform and shape any changes the government decides to make. Buried in the 63 pages of the white paper are some encouraging signs that should be supported, while there is also much to be concerned about.

It would be a worthwhile exercise for all those involved in planning to take a moment or two to reflect on its purpose. This, in my view, is often pushed to one side in the pursuit of achieving some rather dubious housing targets, with the day-to-day pressures of implementing the current system limiting the time for a proper look at what needs to done.  For those who need a refresh on what that purpose is, paragraph seven of the NPPF is as good a place to start as any, as is the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

Achieving sustainable development should be at the top of everyone’s to do list but in my experience, that is not necessarily the case. The continuing decline in the quality of the natural environment and the rising demand for natural resources to sustain modern living raises the question of how effective the application of the current planning system is in meeting its purpose. Maybe the government’s proposal, buried in para 1.16, for a single sustainability test is potentially a real game-changer?

In this piece I am going to highlight two areas where I think the white paper is onto something: improving the tools we use and the how we plan.

The preparation of a Sustainability Appraisal (SA) is much maligned - remember the Local Plans Expert Group report? However, I see it as key tool in the shaping of our environment and, with the benefit of experience, we should be able to devise a more manageable and helpful process which informs plan making. Its value could be enhanced by reducing the extent of subjective judgements through the use of a consistent methodology for assessing key measurable indicators. Once a local plan is in place its policies and proposals should, by definition, deliver sustainable development. By the same measure development that is in conflict with the plan would not be considered sustainable.  The proposed shift to a more code–based approach could have benefits for the SA process.

The lack of confidence in the planning system is a real issue, particularly for the public who struggle to understand the outputs of the planning system. It is a strange affair that, notwithstanding section 38(6), the consideration of an application can take on a life of its own and permissions are granted that fall short of satisfying all the policies of the local plan as a result of some mysterious balancing act. Applicants are frustrated by what they perceive to be a trip-wire exercise which may be more by accident than design in a world where resources are stretched and experience is thin on the ground. No wonder there is a queue outside the Secretary of State’s door with tales of woe which only encourages change to be promoted.

There is a key role for the profession to up its game in terms of the quality of the work produced and in refining and improving its skills base. I would make a plea for a more positive approach to life-long learning rather than hope not to get the call to provide one’s CPD record. The white paper has some positive words about resources and skills which should be acknowledged and welcomed.

The Institute is drafting its response to the government’s proposals and we should all take time out to inform it of our views. It is also engaged in promoting the role of planners through its Plan The World We Need Campaign and again I would encourage all to visit the web site and get involved.


Steve Lees

Having spent more than 30 years as a local authority planner, Steve Lees MRTPI, is now an independent planning consultant, advising a range of clients.; He is currently an external examiner for a planning school and is an active  member in the affairs of the Institute.


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