It’s World Environment Day. So that’s a good thing for planners surely? We’re all here to protect and improve the environment. We all came into this profession to do this and this is what we do. Easy.
Well maybe not all that easy. Planners are committed to sustainable development - development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
So that somewhat complicates things. Clearly sustainable development involves meeting human needs, and as the most powerful beings in the environment, that might lead to some difficult choices regarding the position of other species and habitats. Especially where you get a rather large number of humans fairly close together as in the United Kingdom. And especially where those humans have by global standards a high standard of living which uses lots of resources.
The skills of planners
So this is where planners’ skills really come in. Our role is to support politicians in making difficult choices around the interplay between humans and the (rest of the) environment. And as part of doing so, making sure that a number of key requirements are met.
First among these is ensuring the effective involvement of the public. While the public do in fact regularly elect politicians, so that they are indirectly involved in decisions, we still believe that a direct approach is necessary because of the level of detail involved in planning proposals.
Then there is evidence. This is especially valuable in the environmental sphere. It can include evidence regarding species and habitats, and it increasingly must involve evidence regarding how to adapt to and reduce climate change. The kinds of homes and ways of movement ('mobility') we will need to have in future will need to be different from those at present. Planners’ skills lie in gathering and weighing up and presenting evidence necessary to make good choices about the future.
The UK Government is taking an Environment Bill through Parliament. Part of its role is to enable England to operate in the environmental sphere having left the European Union. It enshrines important principles regarding the environment inherited from the EU and sets up an Office of Environmental Protection to watch over the government in its policy making.
The RTPI has kept a close eye on environmental matters and how they interact with planning since the EU referendum. Our Brexit workstream explored the potential impact of leaving the EU on the planning system. In our consultation response to the UK Government, we have said we are concerned about the potential divergence of environmental governance between the four nations of the UK. We also consider the proposed Office of Environmental Protection is insufficiently independent of the UK Government.
And at local level, on World Environment Day, we insist that better mechanisms need to be devised for local environmental delivery. The EU made a series of disconnected Directives on separate aspects of the environment over the years which led in the UK to a set of independent processes for planning air quality, rare species, important habitats, water and waste management. At local level planners find this complexity a barrier to effective delivery of environmental improvement, and also a barrier to the coordination of environmental matters with human issues such as housing and employment. And yet that is precisely the challenge of true sustainable development.
We are therefore calling for Local Environment Improvement Plans within larger areas in England to draw together all the environmental planning processes including water and waste planning.
The environmental movement emerged in the 1960s alongside the new science of ecology. The principle behind ecology is seeing an ecosystem as an interrelated whole. That has a lot to teach us about true sustainable development and is a guiding principle for environmental governance today.
Richard Blyth is Head of Policy, Practice & Research at the RTPI