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16/11/2020

Is the planning function delivering sustainable development?

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Green homes / iStock-1019996228

Planning embraced the concept of sustainable development early, writes Dave Ayre, but its promise of delivery may have been over-ambitious. Will the planning white paper make a difference?

Planning was one of the first local government functions to fully embrace the principles of sustainable development. After the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992, the mantra in many planning teams was “think global, act local”. Initiatives were designed to mobilise local governments from around the world to work together to deliver global sustainable development by the year 2000.

This proved to be overly ambitious. However, a long-standing legacy of the summit has been the mainstreaming of sustainability into the planning system. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states clearly that the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. It sets three overarching sustainability objectives for the planning system to achieve:

  • To help build a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that there is sufficient land to support growth and the provision of infrastructure; 
  • To ensure a sufficient number and range of homes can be provided in a well-designed and safe built environment; and
  • To protect and enhance the natural, built and historic environment, including mitigating and adapting to climate change and moving to a low carbon economy. 

Although the NPPF contains strong policy on climate change, delivery on the ground through local plans has been relatively poor. Local plans in England are not dealing with CO2 reduction effectively, nor are they consistently delivering the adaptation actions necessary.

"Although the NPPF contains strong policy on climate change, delivery on the ground through local plans has been relatively poor"

So, why is the planning system failing to keep up with the movement that has influenced many councils and the UK Parliament to declare a climate emergency? Despite being a clear objective in the NPPF, could this have been drowned out by the need to address the housing crisis, an economy struggling to recover from the banking crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Planning as a driver of innovative climate policy is not helped by the current rules on permitted development, which allow offices and shops to be converted into homes. This is without any intervention by the planning service to set conditions on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. Planning also received heavy criticism from the Prime Minister in the recent Planning for the future white paper. He places the blame for historically low levels of house building squarely on the planning system. This is despite research by Shelter and the House Builders Federation which shows that 40 per cent of homes granted planning permission in England go unbuilt.

But what does the white paper say about planning and sustainability in general? While it recognises the centrality of the system to many aspects of sustainability, its main focus is on streamlining the planning system and making it more transparent to encourage housebuilding.

What the white paper does set out is an aspiration for the planning system to support efforts to combat climate change and maximise environmental benefits. It commits to ensuring the NPPF targets those areas where a reformed system can most effectively address climate change and facilitate environmental improvements. More specifically it proposes:

  • To facilitate ambitious improvements in the energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver the commitment to net-zero by 2050;
  • A greater focus on ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places’ within the NPPF; 
  • To introduce a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities, that speeds up the process while protecting and enhancing England’s ecosystems;
  • Locally prepared design guidance and codes to set the rules for the design of new developments based on community involvement. The codes should have real ‘bite’, making them more binding on planning decisions. 
  • Establishing a new body to support the delivery of design codes in every part of the country;
  • Ensuring that each local planning authority has a chief officer for design and place-making, to ensure local capacity and capability to raise design standards and the quality of development. 

The white paper has been met with mixed reviews from the sector and no doubt the devil will be in the detail. Will the proposals be able to both streamline the system and provide local planning authorities with the levers of control to make a real difference to communities on the ground? Will the proposed new Infrastructure Levy raise just as much funding for eco-friendly affordable homes and infrastructure as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 regime?

"The Royal Town Planning Institute and the Town and Country Planning Association see spatial planning as central to the transition to a low-carbon society, engaging communities and enabling environmentally friendly choices in everything from energy to transport"

There are a growing number of planning authorities who can demonstrate innovation and best practice, some of which will be showcased at Sustainability 2020, CIPFA’s upcoming property conference.

Membership organisations are also coming together to meet the sustainability challenge. The Royal Town Planning Institute and the Town and Country Planning Association see spatial planning as central to the transition to a low-carbon society, engaging communities and enabling environmentally friendly choices in everything from energy to transport. Their report, Rising to the Climate Crisis - A Guide for Local Authorities on Planning for Climate Change, aims to help planning authorities navigate the sometimes conflicting legislative landscape and fully integrate climate action into Local Plans and develop management practices.

Perhaps the most important question of all will be how these national and local moving parts come together to take the opportunity to provide a more joined-up service - one that genuinely encourages innovative new approaches to the development of low carbon places and sets the UK on the path to a more sustainable future.

Dave Ayre is property networks manager for CIPFA (the Charterefd institute of Public Finance and Accountancy)

Photo | iStock

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