05. 08. 2011

Sustainable Development

Throughout its existence, the Sustainable Development Commission was kept busy tracking down what we 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.  It was a common occurrence.  Treasury was by far the worst offender.

SD-abuse of this kind has led a lot of people to reject the concept of sustainable development out of hand.  Writing in the Guardian last week, the National Trust’s Chairman, Simon Jenkins, vented his spleen accordingly:

“The word sustainable should never appear in an Act of Parliament.  It is a weasel word, an adjective not qualifying a noun, but lightly dusting it with vague political approval.  Sustainability is the sort of Blairism that gave us downsizing for sacking, and humanitarian intervention for war.  The only sustainable meadow is a meadow.  Sustainable development is a contradiction in terms.  It means development.”

He’s wrong, of course, as he so often is on sustainability issues.  It’s perfectly possible to define what is meant by “sustainability”, in order to avoid such SD-abuse, and that’s exactly what the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy did – starting with the all-important notion of “working within environmental limits”.

But he’s absolutely right to point out that this Coalition Government is intent on more comprehensively abusing the idea of sustainable development than Labour Ministers ever dreamed of.  This has been apparent from the start, was amply confirmed  in the Localism Bill and has now reached new, even more abusive heights in the recently published Draft National Planning Policy Framework.

You wouldn’t know if from the honeyed words in Greg Clark’s Foreword.  Indeed, you might imagine that our Minister for Planning is positively enraptured by sustainable development.  But it is he who has now redefined sustainable development by declaring that there will be a new “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, and that “decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is “yes”, except when this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework”.

The aforementioned Framework then totally fails to spell out what these principles are!  For instance, I may have missed it, but 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.  As Tom Burke put in in his blog for the Green Alliance:

“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.”

Thankfully, Clark and his even more growthist Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, have been rumbled.  In stark contrast with what happened with the Government’s sell-off of the entire Public Forest Estate (where most of the NGOs just rolled over to have their tummies tickled), this time they’ve decided to get stuck in.  Both the National Trust and CPRE are leading from the front: 

“The new framework will make the countryside and local character much less safe from damaging and unnecessary development.  If it is not amended, there will be battles against new development across the country that will make the public revolt against the sale of the Forests look like a tea party.”  (Shaun Spiers, CPRE Chief Executive)

“This finally sounds the death knell to the principle established in the 1940s that the planning system should be used to protect what is special in the landscape, creating a tool to promote economic growth in its stead.” (Fiona Reynolds, Director-General, National Trust)

And that’s exactly the point.  This Government is growth obsessed.  It’s in pursuit of growth at any cost, and has no hesitation in setting aside decades of broadly successful planning practice (there is no evidence that Planning Committees are a major barrier to economic development in the UK) in order to create a new developers’ charter. 

It’s only a draft Framework at the moment.  Still all to play for.  And now that the NGOs have woken up to this Government’s true intent, it could get really interesting.

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01. 06. 2012

An environmentally ideal plant that is shut down due to bankruptcy is obviously less sustainable than one that is maintainable by the community, even if it is somewhat less effective from an environmental standpoint. However, this view depends on whether one determines that it is the development in which the plant exists which should be sustainable. Thanks.


03. 03. 2012
Joe K

It seems pointless to even try to communicate with someone who should be engaging with the public but evidently can't be bothered.

If you should change your mind...


27. 08. 2011
Joe K

I'm know I'm grinding an axe on this, but since you *are* the patron of Fair Shares, last I heard anyway, and since you have described that 'LETS' style scheme as the 'the cavalry arriving in the nick of time', would you care to explain just how you've assisted in encouraging sustainable development by promoting your charity? Because it actually comes across as more of a dirty little secret..?

13. 08. 2011
Andrew Lainton

You are right nowhere does it mention the notion of limits

Ive done a detailed analysis on my blog of the earlier )practitioners) draft and given some international examples of best practice


A particularly good example is the current welsh assembly,


which is incorporating the thinking on how ecosystem services link to wellbeing.

13. 08. 2011
Bob Reid

Without doubt the new CONDEM establishment is trying to drive a coach and horses through 20 years of emerging environmental wisdom for very dubiouys reasons, while masquerading as Linda Schnell. However, some in the environmental movement (including the NTS and CPRE) have hardly helped matters with their casual misanthropy which has often placed very middle class values, e.g. about countryside, before real sustainable development and its requirements for social inclusion. Amenity is just as much a weasel word as sustainable.
And ironically, looked at with a New Economics Forum hat on, the inclusion of financial sustainability in the CONDEM thinking offers very interesting new perspectives. This includes the opportunity to attach financial/debt paradigms to the environmental issues before us.

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