In terms of my endeavours to scrutinise the Government’s performance in living up to its “Greenest Government Ever” claim, I’ve been told that I’ve been much too aggressive – and not as “balanced and objective” as I should be.
So, on the planning furore that is exploding all around us, on account of the nightmarish National Planning Policy Framework, I decided to leave all the aggression to the mighty National Trust and the doughty Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (plus all the rest), and have adopted a much more constructive approach – as you’ll see in my letter below to Greg Clarke, the Minister responsible for Planning, Cities, Localism and Screwing Sustainable Development From Here To Hell And Back.
Planning for Sustainable Development
You may remember we met a couple of times when I was Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission – and everyone thought you’d become the next Secretary of State in DECC after the Election! Bit of a disappointment there. Must be hell trying to get your head around all that tedious planning stuff.
Anyway, I thought I might just write to you about your new Planning Policy Framework.
Firstly, just in case no one else has, I want to congratulate you on making such a bold and decisive intervention. I was just thrilled to see the new “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, and to hear both you and the Chancellor of the Exchequer endlessly returning to said presumption, almost as if you meant it. This was just so heartening.
But you do seem to have got yourself into a bit of a pickle about this – and I just thought I might be able to help you after my nine years with the Sustainable Development Commission.
In that context, let me reassure you of my sincerity here. I do (genuinely) want to see hundreds of thousands of affordable new homes built and empty homes reoccupied over the next few years. I want to see the next generation of new settlements planned and delivered. I want to see millions of homes retro-fitted. I want to see new onshore windfarms consented as often as is reasonably possible. I want to see every conceivable kind of local renewable energy scheme installed as rapidly as possible, including big PV schemes as well as the rooftop stuff. I want to see new composting facilities, anaerobic digesters and state-of-the-art waste-to-energy plants rolled out all over the place. I want to see new cycle paths, priority bus lanes, and rapid transit schemes for UK cities. I want to see our canal infrastructure restored, derelict land brought back into good repair, and green spaces and green corridors hugely expanded.
In short, I want to see a lot of stuff invested in over the next decade.
(Mind you, I do wish you lot would do something about the population story that lies behind all this current pressure around housing and development. With the UK population rising from roughly 62 million today to more than 70 million by 2030, it just goes on getting harder to deal both with the backlog on housing and all that new demand).
I only mention all this because I didn’t want you to think that I was one of those NIMBYs you’re so incensed about. I too can’t be doing with people who oppose economic development of this kind – including (I’m sorry to say) your good friends George Osborne, Eric Pickles, Grant Shapps and even the saintly Andrew Stunell. And when it comes to those beautiful green fields in your own constituency, you haven’t been too keen on new housing either, as I understand it!
Anyway, back to the National Planning Policy Framework – and the extraordinary situation you now find yourself in where almost all of the UK’s leading NGOs with a passion for sustainable development are lined up against you despite this wondrous new presumption in favour of sustainable development. Have they properly understood what you have in mind?
I’m bound to say that you haven’t really helped yourself here. Although the Framework states: “Decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework”.
I (and many others) searched in vain for any explanation of what these sustainable development principles are. Did you leave them out by accident? Or did you assume, perhaps, that everybody now knows what they are so don’t need reminding?
Anyway, here’s my first bit of advice. Instead of getting so hot under the collar flinging rather childish insults at all and sundry, whipping up all your property developer chums in your defence and putting your name to utterly spurious estimates of the cost of so-called “planning delays”, why don’t you just tell us exactly what this Government means by sustainable development?
Just to be helpful, I’ve attached a diagram laying out what these principles are - according to the UK’s current Sustainable Development Strategy, which – so far as I know – has not yet been done away with by your Government. These Principles are widely held to provide the best available way of “framing” sustainable development that any government has come up with – so you can be reassured on that score.
Then it all falls into place. Just state categorically that for any proposal to comply with your “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, it will need to demonstrate how it has addressed those two overarching challenges – staying within “environmental limits” and securing “a strong, healthy and just society”.
You see, it is just a bit of a problem that there is no reference to environmental limits in the NPPF, no reference to health, no reference to social justice, and no reference to the practicalities of delivering low-carbon growth.
It seems a shame that your civil servants didn’t point any of this out to you, and I’m personally very disappointed in that the Sustainable Development Commission spent months building up their capacity on sustainable development – including that nice Richard McCarthy who’s obviously forgotten everything we taught him. And now that you’ve rather foolishly (if you don’t mind me saying!) done away with the Sustainable Development Commission, I fear you’ve got nobody inside your department to dig you out of this self-imposed fiasco.
I know it’s a bore for such a bright and busy politician as yourself, but you can’t just blab on and on about sustainable development without explaining to the rest of us what it means. Planning Committees will get very confused. Lawyers will be kept very busy and Judicial Reviews will abound – good for GDP, I know, but not good for the kind of economic development that you’re seeking.
Your “handling strategy” in all of this does seem to be even more naff than usual. It’s fine to get a bunch of developers to draft up this kind of proposal for you, but not all that smart to be seen to be doing exactly what they tell you quite so publicly. And it really hasn’t helped that you got rid of the “brownfield sites first” presumption, let alone the targets for social housing, housing density, parking numbers and so on.
Just to explain (in case you missed it when you were signing off the document that your developer friends handed over to you), the Framework does indeed indicate that pretty much any development proposal is going to have to be consented outside of the protected areas like the Green Belt and the National Parks.
Given that most of your Party’s MPs are currently best characterised as BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), it’s a bit much to expect them to become full-on BABANANSIs (Build Absolutely Anything Anywhere you can Stick It) overnight.
I do hope you can get all this sorted, Greg, and I stand ready to help in whatever way I can. Otherwise, your sterling advocacy on behalf of sustainable development will, I fear, see the very idea of sustainable development even more fundamentally trashed than it has already been over the last 15 months.
Some of my more cynical friends believe that’s what you’ve set out to do, by intent, rather than by blundering incompetence. But I really can’t bring myself to believe that. Not from one of the greenest Ministers in the Greenest Government Ever.