Former president of the RTPI Peter Geraghty highlights that some local authorities are considering how to include the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) in their plans, despite a lack of clear and coherent guidance nationally.
The importance of urban planning is recognised internationally by the Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and came into force on 1 January 2016. A few months later, in October 2016, the New Urban Agenda (NUA) – a roadmap to support countries achieve the SDGs – was unanimously adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III).
Many countries, regions and cities are looking at how SDGs can be implemented both nationally and locally. However, five years on, implementation in the UK has been patchy. In England, there is still little or no traction in the implementation of SDGs. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is a prime example of the absence of the SDGs in key planning policy. The NPPF was originally published by the Department of Communities and Local Government in March 2012, consolidating over 1,300 pages of guidance from two dozen previously issued documents (including Planning Policy Statements and Planning Policy Guidance Notes) for use in England. It was much heralded at the time as setting the future direction for national planning policy. Following a public consultation exercise, a revised NPPF was published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on 24 July 2018. This was subsequently amended in February 2019. The new NPPF represented an important opportunity to implement the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Framework could have facilitated the urban paradigm shift in England envisaged by the New Urban Agenda (NUA); instead, as Pritchard points out, it continues to be largely a ‘process and procedures manual for local planning authorities’ with weak links to wider government policy. This, in my opinion, represents a major own-goal by missing the opportunity to demonstrate the leadership to take forward the NUA and implement SDGs in England.
Clear, strong leadership is fundamental to implementing the NUA. As the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee points out, a voice at the top of government speaking for the long-term aspirations embodied in the SDGs is vitally necessary. Government needs to empower local authorities to fulfil the important role in meeting the challenge of implementing the NUA and delivering the SDGs. The revisions to the NPPF provided an important opportunity to set out clear expectations and the approach as to how that could be achieved.
In an article for the Town and Country Planning Association I explore these issues in more detail and demonstrate how the NPPF could be mapped to the SDGs.
As the organisation United Cities and Local Government points out:
All of the SDGs have targets that are directly or indirectly related to the daily work of local and regional governments. Local governments should not be seen as mere implementers of the agenda. Local governments are policy makers, catalysts of change and the level of government best-placed to link the global goals with local communities.
There are a number of local authorities beginning to act as catalysts of change in implementing the SDGs, some of which are in the sphere of plan-making. For example, in London, the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Forum has prepared the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Plan 2017 – 2037 which refers specifically to the SDGs and how they contribute to development in the neighbourhood area.
In another example, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council in Essex is currently preparing a draft Local Plan. The new Plan will provide the planning framework for Southend to 2036, beyond the current plan period of 2021. It is currently at the Issues and Options stage of the formal plan-making process. As part of that stage, the draft plan, includes sections on how different policies or issues contribute to the SDGs. The draft plan seeks to incorporate the delivery of these goals through the plan-making process and to engage the local community and stake-holders on how that might be achieved.
Salford City Council is using its Local Plan to drive equality issues. Chapter 5 of the Revised Draft Local Plan for Salford, a fairer city (January 2019) identifies the importance of the SDGs in achieving a fairer Salford. The plan states that ‘delivering a fairer Salford is central to everything that the Local Plan is seeking to accomplish.’
York is another city placing sustainability at the heart of its future actions. One Planet York is a growing network of organisations working to make York a more sustainable, resilient and collaborative 'One Planet' city. This includes creating a city which has a thriving local economy, strong communities and a sustainable way of life; a city where our residents are healthy, happy and prosperous.
To help raise awareness and provide support to planners in local government the Royal Town Planning Institute is developing a Learn Module to support practitioners. It is no coincidence that the inclusion of SDG11 to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” in Transforming our World is, in large part, the fruit of the hard-fought campaign by local governments, and community interests. SDG11 marks a major step forward in the recognition of the transformative power of urbanisation for development, and of the role of city leaders and planners in achieving and managing global change locally.
In the absence of a clear and coherent approach nationally it is likely that local authorities (and the planners working in them) will continue to take the lead in seeking to deliver the SDGs and achieve the goal of Sustainable Development.
 A. Pritchard, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again’, Journal of the Town and Country Planning Association, vol. 87, no. 4, (April, 2018), p. 159.
 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Sustainable Development Goals in the UK, HC 596, 26 April 2017, p.3 and 31.
 “The NPPF 2019 – a new urban agenda or a disappointing own goal?”, Journal of the Town and Country Planning Association, vol. 88, no. 9, (September, 2019), p.p. 354-366.
 United Cities and Local Government, The Sustainable Development Goals – what local government needs to know, (October 2015).
Peter Geraghty FRTPI
Head of Planning and Transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
Peter Geraghty FRTPI is Director of Planning and Transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. He was Chair of the RTPI Board of Trustees in 2012, President of the RTPI 2013 to 2014, and former Chair of the RTPI's International Committee. He is currently the RTPI representative to the Commonwealth Association of Planners. The view expressed are his own.