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Richard Blyth: Unlocking sustainable development through planning

The Royal Town Planning Institute’s Head of Policy, Practice and Research reflects on a busy week and changing context for sustainable development.

We have heard a lot about “net zero” from the Government this last week. And just to recap: net zero what? Net zero carbon. This is because we are in an accelerating climate crisis and this Government has pledged that by 2050 this country will not be adding more (net) carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But there’s another crisis: the nature crisis. The UK is frequently described as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. And we’ve all heard about sewage in rivers and on the coastline.

What did the last week mean for planning and planners?

On Tuesday the RTPI submitted a response (with reference to England) to the UK Government’s proposed changes to the Nationally-Significant Infrastructure planning regime (you know, the one from 2008 that would fast track infrastructure). We welcomed many of the proposed changes to the regime. However we also stressed that :

  • New National Policy Statements should be updated at least every 5 years, with National Policy Statements and the National Infrastructure Strategy providing a clear spatial planning framework for infrastructure.
  • Resourcing the Planning Inspectorate needs to become a greater focus of the Government’s capacity and capability strategy for planning.
  • Government should explore options for more participatory approaches to community engagement, creating a more level playing field between applicants and communities and reducing the delays and costs associated with local opposition.

Wednesday saw the Prime Minister announced changes to the UK’s climate change plan. In a speech covering what seemed like the whole range of the UK Government’s climate policy, new planning policies were not that much to the fore. However he did indicate an intention to produce a “spatial plan for electricity infrastructure”. We await further details of that. But I am hoping it means a National Policy Statement with a map in it as we called for only the day before. We not only need NPS to be up to date, but we need them to be more specific. This would then address the problems the Planning Act 2008 was intended to address, and make the process of determining applications for Development Consent Orders easier.

I was privileged to  be invited to give evidence this year at the House of Lords Built Environment Committee during its inquiry into environmental regulations. On Thursday the Committee published its report. I was pleased to see reference to our concerns about the large number of separate plans for the environment we have inherited from the European Union. This means making progress on environmental improvement, and coordinating that with spatial plans, is difficult.

The planning system in England is being put under great pressure to deliver the objectives of the Environment Act, and we do not feel that it is ready to do so, as our ongoing survey on biodiversity net gain indicates. The Lords Committee calls for the need for shared services in local government, something we have championed through Planning Agencies. And for delays to the introduction of new processes in the environment sphere until proper upskilling and preparation takes place.

The Committee also called for National Policy Statements to be kept up to date. This shows that there may be two crises, but in practice the solutions to both are intertwined. Treating both climate and nature as rather different projects within central government, or indeed in local government, is not the best way forward.

What should the future look like for sustainable development?

This week, the RTPI also published a more forward-looking campaign that showcases the discussions we’ve been having with political parties across the UK as part of our work and our emerging thinking ahead of the next general election.

Climate is an important aspiration of our asks for the next UK Government. Our ‘PLANIFESTO’ offers specific suggestions for how we can support faster decarbonisation and better protect nature through planning. Climate is also a thread running throughout our approach to the major themes of concern to the public and politicians like housing, devolution, health and the economy. Do take a look here:   

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