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Planning: Sustainable development

The NPPF’s ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ has nothing to do with being green, says Christine Murray

Architects have been awaiting a more conclusive definition of the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ since the draft NPPF was published back in July. There was hope that an emphasis on green, low-carbon development would boost architects’ workload as developers sought out sustainability expertise to get projects through planning.

But in recent weeks, alarm-bells have started ringing. Further examination of the policy suggests the presumption’s S-word is a smokescreen for a policy that sanctions unfettered growth.

The NPPF states that in the absence of a local plan, the default position is ‘yes’ to any development ‘except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles’. These include, ‘protection and enhancement of our natural, built and historic environment, prudent use of natural resources and actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including moving to a low carbon economy.’

But the long-awaited presumption itself does not include any mention of low-carbon or ecological development, and instead simply calls for local planning authorities to approve ‘all individual proposals wherever possible’, as well as:

• Prepare local plans on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met, and with sufficient flexibility to respond to rapid shifts in demand or other economic changes

• Approve development proposals that accord with statutory plans without delay

• Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where policies are out of date.

The presumption goes on to say that ‘all of these policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policy objectives in the National Planning Policy Framework taken as a whole.’

So if low-carbon isn’t part of the presumption, what exactly do they mean by sustainable? As London mayor Boris Johnson said last week in response to the NPPF consultation, ‘It appears the concept relates to economic development only’.

During the NPPF debate, communities and local government minister Greg Clark said his definition of sustainable development referred to the Brundtland Commission of 1987, not, as hoped, to the definition explored in the government’s Sustainable Development Strategy, 2005. According to Brundtland, sustainability refers to a ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Clark said he abandoned the 2005 definition because: ‘Six years on, there are some respects where thinking on sustainability has progressed. For example, there is the idea that the separate pillars of the economy, the environment and the social aspects of sustainability can be traded off against the other… Our intention was to make sure that we are not stranded in our thinking when we might have a more progressive approach to sustainability.’

But the Brundtland definition is anything but progressive; at its heart is the belief that ‘sustainable development clearly requires economic growth’, whereas in the 2005 strategy document, the call for a sophisticated OnePlanet Economy suggests that the environment should come first.

In last week’s Telegraph, National Trust director-general Fiona Reynolds, who led a petition against the NPPF signed by a quarter of a million people, stressed that the current NPPF will mark a ‘return to the bad old days of planning by appeal and soulless out-of-town developments.’

The influential Environmental Audit Committee voiced similar concerns in a letter to the prime minister dated 9 November, demanding that ‘the final version [of the NPPF] will have to make it clearer that the drive for economic growth does not trump other sustainability requirements,’ signed by committee chair Joan Walley MP.

The Brundtland Commission may contain some nice sentiment about preserving natural resources for our children’s children, but none of the current low-carbon thinking on what makes a development truly sustainable, and certainly nothing a planning authority could use as teeth against low-quality greenbelt development.

Clark may call this presumption sustainable; it is anything but. Worse still, it fails to deliver what architects were hoping for – a presumption that gave preferential treatment to quality, low-carbon design and masterplanning, making them essential to the development stream.

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