Is the definition of ‘sustainable development’ contained in the document appropriate?
Development plans are required to must be drawn up with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development by law (section 39 2004 Act). Oddly this function does not apply to development management decisions and all other decisions under the planning acts.
Successive government have stated that defining it should be a matter of policy rather than law. The key issue is whether the definition is meaningful.
Firstly the government has not been consistent in its definitions. The official definition is from the UK (not just English) Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future. Which remains in force, and at least merits a footnote in the NPPF. Neither mentioned is the coalition government’s Statement ‘Mainstreaming Sustainable Development’ Again unless DCLG wants to plough a different furrow on Sustainable Development than DEFRA their should be at least a footnote mention. Finally there is the older definition from Brundtland used in the NPPF. What this means is that the government now has three different definitions of sustainable development – very confusing. The issue of the Brundtland definition is that by itself it is uncontentious, it is simply a requirement not to be unsustainable, but to be meaningful in policy terms you need to add flesh to the bones and have a policy framework which is positive about the sustainable actions required..
The NPPF approach to sustainable development is weak and in effect seeks to define it out of existence so that development = sustainable development.
The definition in para. 9 of the NPPF seeks to redefine the Brundtland definition by referring only to ‘basic’ needs. This implies that widening inequality is acceptable if ‘basic needs’ only are met. Wheras in fact the Brundtland Report refers to the key concept of ‘’needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given. All references to lessening social inequalities and ensuring ‘Social progess which recognizes the needs of everyone’ (from the SDS) have been excised. Indeed by contrast the NPPF gives overwhelming priority to the wealthiest who are able to carry out the most development.
The NPPF definition goes on in para.10 to define what sustainable development means for planning – the so called 3ps. If you break down the logic of this troika you find that it comes down to:
- economic growth is sustainable
- growth meeting housing and social needs is sustainable
- except where it damages protected environments or producing too much CO2.
So in effect development=sustainable development, when neither on protected land nor producing too much CO2.
Reading the NPPF as a whole, which you have to do, it is clear that protected land only makes up a very small part of England, and controls on car-orientated development in rural areas are weakened. Therefore in many cases the NPPF is simply saying development=sustainable development.
This is an impoverished and narrow view which almost defines sustainable development out of existence. Para. 11 refers to the need for three principles being pursued in an integrated way – but if the principles themselves are slanted so will the ‘integrated’ approach.
This is what Johnathan Porritt has called:
“SD-abuse”: the deliberate misuse of the concept of sustainable development by Ministers and civil servants to obscure the real meaning of their words… I could not find one single reference to the notion of environmental limits. Not one. Lots of warm words about the importance of the environment, but nothing of real use in defining what appropriate or inappropriate development might mean in practice. “
Whilst Tom Burke of the Green Alliance has stated
“What the Government actually means by ‘Sustainable Development’ is the tired old Treasury mantra of ‘Sustained Growth’: that is, growth that goes on forever. It definitely does not mean growth that recognises environmental risks and constraints.”
The definition could be greatly improved if it recognized environmental limits. Indeed examples elsewhere in the UK and the Commonwealth commonly do this.
I would urge the Committee to examine definition and policy on the application of the principle of sustainable development used in Quebec, New Zealand and Wales.
For example the New Zealand Resource Management Act includes the concept of environmental limits and this wording is reflected in the proposed definition put forward by Wildlife Link. The Quebec Sustainable Development Act builds on the Brundtland definition and includes the concepts ‘an ongoing process to improve the living conditions of the present generation that does not compromise the ability of future generations to do so and that ensures a harmonious integration of the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development.’
This is not rocket science and with it, it is possible to meld these well tested legal definitions together in a form of words that might be acceptable to both ministers and environmental stakeholders. I suggest combining the Brundtland, Canadian and New Zealand definitions as follows:
“an ongoing process to improve the living conditions of the present generation that does not compromise the ability of future generations to do so, and that ensures, as far as possible, a harmonious integration of the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development within the limits set by the environment and technology.”
What matters though is how this translates into planning decisions. I would advice the committee to take evidence from Clive Bates the Director General for Sustainable Futures of the Welsh Government. The Welsh approach is based on the concept of environmental well-being. This derives from UN/WHO work and considerable research. The principle is that the health and well-being of people will not be sustained if the wellbeing of ecosystems, natural capital, and social, human and economic capital. This concept is critical to the first UK National Ecosystems Assessment carried out by DEFRA. Yet the NPPF nowhere refers to this, the health of ecosystems, or the wellbeing of society. It is clearly a lack of joined up government.
This is the single greatest weakness of the NPPF. A presumption in favour of sustainable development badly defined and poorly operationalised, as here, is simply a presumption in favour of development without limits – unsustainable development.