15. 09. 2011

Planning For Sustainable Development

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.


Dear Greg

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.

Best wishes

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29. 01. 2013
Stephen Miles

Unlike Mr Porritt I don't want to see cycle lanes everywhere as cycle-lanes and routes are the new tarmac (DBM or chalk dust). In the so-called eco-town of Whitehill and Bordon, site of ecological destruction in reality, consultants even stated that existing paths on a nature reserve should be straightened to make them more suitable for cycling commuters. They also wanted drainage of the nature reserve and the felling of large numbers of trees, so cyclists providing for you is just as damaging as providing for cars. Hard-surfaced cycle routes also destroy solitary bee and wasp nesting sites in poached tracks and road verges and their flowers are frequently lost. So Sustrans and CTC please keep to existing minor roads and stop destoying wildlife sites.

17. 11. 2011
Andy Williamson

After hearing news reports on Radio 4 endlessly repeating the words 'sustainable development' in the days when this was in the news - but with nobody calling anyone from the government on what they REALLY meant by this - I hastened to hear the farming programme early one morning. Somewhere in my twitter stream (@bigbuzzard) I quoted the minister who spoke there, and was asked explicitly about this. He said something along the lines of 'do nothing that harms the interests of our children abc future generations'. If only it were true that this is the mantra that all planning commitees have in front of them when deciding on applications our world might be in a much better place. I recommend the video here as an inspiring tale around exactly this issue: childrensfire.com.

03. 10. 2011
Caroline L

Congratulations on penning this masterpiece of balance and objectivity! Will you publish the response?

26. 09. 2011

Extremely patronising, and childish. Fails to accept the fac that the only thing the so-called Gods of Opposition are conteesting is a definition of sustainable development. A most irreposnsible missive.

22. 09. 2011
Michael Townsend

Superb. We need a good dose of satire at a time like this; it helps keep us sane, as well as getting the point across in a readily digestible way.

I would also like to add that the Government's move appears to be a clumsy attempt to create a 'smoke screen', perhaps to distract from the real issues that are holding back (sustainable) economic development, by blaming a so-called unwieldy and bureaucratic planning system.

As far as I recall, there was plenty of development going on before the onset of the now protracted financial crisis of 2008. No, the real issue concerns finance and the broken system that is now literally strangling all forms of good economy. It is the lack of ready access to funds (investors or would be purchasers), the risky business case, and general confidence in the economy that are holding things back.

It may not be perfect, but the planning system we have today has evolved over time to make sure we deliver sustainable development through a proper process of consultation with ALL affected stakeholders, in order to reach a balanced view of what is right overall. As well as providing a means to ensure our built environment looks and feels good, you might also describe the approach as 'democracy' in action.

So, just as worrying as the apparent use of a 'smoke screen' is here, it is also the flagrant disregard for democracy that is of concern. But that doesn't matter, so long as we keep the illusion of 'growth' going for a little longer? Or does it?

20. 09. 2011
Philip Jordan

Well done!

It needs to be repeated constantly!

& remember please that by this time next year, this HMG will have been on our behalf to Rio2

Lets hope that on behalf of us & the rest of the world, they & all other governments get their act together on sustainable development - we're sunk if they don't!

20. 09. 2011
Philip Jordan

Well done - it has to be said again & again & again!

& whilst on the subject, it's surely & similarly worth noting too that in less than 12 months it'll be Rio2!

Let's hope the Coalition can improve & make more truly sustainable their entire act - after all we all have the sheer striking & terrifyingly imperative need that our nation & the entire world population very very urgently becomes far more sustainable!

20. 09. 2011
Nick Gibbins

So glad that after your TCPA lecture that you have taken up the mantle on this issue though 'sod them' (as you said at the time) was an attractive option.

Today's news in the FT (pg.3) that government has authorised the construction of more than 6,000 homes against the wishes of elected councillors since the election, serves to demonstrate the urgency of this issue and the utterly feeble notion of localism.

19. 09. 2011

Thanks, you've really cheered me up and renewed my vigour for opposing this National Developers Charter, sorry National Planning Policy Framework. Thank goodness this isn't being proposed for Wales and Scotland. Luckily, the CON party can't get enough votes In these respective countries to force through their loony big business policies. Of note, there isn't a shortage of landbanked brownfield land or extant planning consents. There isn't a shortage of developable land, under the current planning system. The Government and their developer cronies just wan't to develope land as cheaply as possible, so they can maximise their PROFITS. They don't want those nasty anti business Local Planning Authorities forcing them to develope holistically. I work in the planning system and it's bl@@dy hard work getting developers to retain trees, let alone planting new trees as part of their landscape schemes. If it wasn't for the planning system, most developers would be building unsustainable developments. What we need is more planning policies on all things
sustainable, not less.

19. 09. 2011

Absolutely right. Sustainability means the future conservation of land, buildings, energy and other finite resources by means of fully integrated and combined land use and transport planning, always in the public interest. There should be a firm presumption in favour of any development which, on balance and after rigorous public analysis, makes a proportionate and equal addition to the local and national physical endowment as it does to the individual developer's bottom line or corporate balance sheet. The dictum of "a pound saved is a pound earned" should be heeded. Physical development of buildings is a perfectly acceptable and indeed an honourable entrepreneurial activity; the speculative hoarding and witholding of land for future profitable sale against its scarcity value, as directly created by the costly public exercise of planning control, most certainly is NOT.

19. 09. 2011
Marilyn Larden

Absolutely spot on... When I met Greg pre election at a royal geographic soc. debate .. I was almost convinced this would be a greener sensible gov. ... Just goes to show, how wrong we can be...

19. 09. 2011
Marilyn Larden

Absolutely spot on... When I met Greg pre election at a royal geographic soc. debate .. I was almost convinced this would be a greener sensible gov. ... Just goes to show, how wrong we can be...

18. 09. 2011
Matt Griffith

Ummm.. I'm sure this must have been therapeutic to write Jonathon - but not too sure it really gets us anywhere. We are not, afterall, short of therapeutic blogging on this subject.

How about fleshing out how you want to see those thousands of affordable homes built? This is a defacto introductory platitude from the CPRE and the National Trust - but they always fail to back it up with anything detailed to move the debate forward. This happens a little too often to be entirely caused by absent mindedness.

Perhaps this is something that you can help push a little within the current fractious state of planning politics?

It matters a lot - the danger is that, without addressing the housing issue, you can be written off as well off middle class 'grey-green' property owners. And something within the realms of the possible would be even better

A bit more hard work and less sarcasm needed?

Best wishes

From the PricedOut campaign group

17. 09. 2011

I was disappointed to read that you "(genuinely) want to see hundreds of thousands of affordable new homes built". When the UK population has been reduced to the level considered optimal by the charity Population Matters, what are we going to do with all the surplus houses?

17. 09. 2011
Chris Aldridge

"...the very idea of sustainable development even more fundamentally trashed than it has already been over the last 15 months.".
Surely you mean over the last 15 years, yes?


16. 09. 2011
Michael Hardware

As someone who is working with all this 'on the ground' with councils, communities, developers and consultants, I sense the frustration at the lack of detail that currently exists, but I am assured that it wil come.

There will certainly not be a u-turn, although there may well be a few tweaks.

16. 09. 2011

Words fail me to express my admiration for this tours de force.

15. 09. 2011
Green Economy Coalition


Brilliant good-humored critique. It is easy to adhere to "sustainable development" when it is only a broad empty concept. Commiting to real bold initiatives to shape a trully green economy takes a lot of political will!

15. 09. 2011
Vipul Patel


You made me laugh instead of turning red with rage!.

15. 09. 2011
Next Starfish

Not sure whether to laugh or cry really !

Right on the money of course, and I love the sarcastic humour.

Strange days indeed when JP and the Telegraph are jointly advocating a Conservative government U-turn on a policy supported by the Liberal Democrats.

It's the appalling lack of vision and squandering of opportunity to really redirect the development of the country that aggrieves me most.

I know they've said they're not in the mood for another U-turn, but surely there must be a lot of nervous backbenchers out there who can see the political iceberg heading their way on this ?

17. 09. 2011
Chris Aldridge

political iceberg? Pendulum demoacracy is the norm here don't you know. Each colour of government stores up an ideologically based disaster for the next government not of its end of the spectrum to mop up. A rather comfortable way to carry on really from various ivory towers - real (expensive but necessary) ivory you understand!
Community building and Social justice? What they??

15. 09. 2011
Pamela Guyatt

Brilliant. One only wishes that Greg Clarke would read this; but, then, he probably wouldn't understand it if he did. He certainly wouldn't take any notice of it because as everyone now knows, the purpose of the National Planning POlicy Framework is to allow his builder chums to make as much money as possible without any accountability.

15. 09. 2011
Andrew Lainton

A group of us of rewritten the NPPF to put ithose principles and have been meeting with government and the NT amongst others. Your help would be greatly appreciated


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