Memorandum submitted by RSPB (PB 9)

 

Achieving Sustainable Development through the Planning Bill

 

The RSPB has been an active participant in debate on planning reform since the Planning Green Paper of 2001, including the passage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 through Parliament, and we are currently part of a coalition of organisations who are campaigning on the Planning Bill. Collectively, over 5 million people in the UK support us.

 

The RSPB believes that the Planning Bill needs significant amendment. One of the key changes that are needed is a strong duty to further the achievement of sustainable development. We welcome the inclusion of a duty on ministers in preparing national policy statements (clause 9), but on its own this is insufficient.

 

The duty should apply to the Infrastructure Planning Commission

 

Sustainable development is the core principle underlying the planning system. The 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future, established the twin goals of living within environmental limits and providing a just society by means of a sustainable economy, good governance and sound science. These are the five guiding principles which should underpin the decision-making process and which should apply to all public bodies in the exercise of their functions.

 

The RSPB believes that sustainable development should not only apply to the preparation of national policy statements, but also to the functions of the Commission. There are a number of reasons why this is important:

 

Some national policy statements may be too general in scope to give any confidence that projects coming forward (which are otherwise broadly compliant with the policy), will comply with the principles of sustainable development.

 

National policy statements may not, and should not, be the only material consideration in coming to a decision. New evidence may emerge, technologies may change and policy will evolve. Sustainable development principles should form the basis for the decision, not just the policy.

 

Decisions on individual projects (or recommendations by the Commission and then decision by the Secretary of State, as we prefer) are where policy bites and where sustainable development is put into practice.

 


The duty should be more robust

 

There should be statutory guidance on applying the principles of sustainable development in the preparation of national policy statements and determining individual projects. PPS1 Delivering Sustainable Development provides a partial model for what this might look like.

 

The Bill requires ministers to carry out a 'sustainability appraisal' of national policy statements (clause 5). Our experience of sustainability appraisal in the town and country planning system is that environmental concerns are often sidelined in favour of socio-economic ones. Instead, the Bill should require the use of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of all national policy statements, as is currently the case for similar statements in Scotland (under the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005). Clarifying this point on the face of the Bill would avoid possible future litigation on the need for SEA.

 

Most national policy statements are also likely to require a form of strategic assessment under the Habitats Directive, as most if not all of them will affect international wildlife sites. This will require an amendment to the Habitats Regulations, as has recently been carried out for development plans following a European Court ruling. We would like to see a Government commitment for such an amendment.

 

For individual projects, applying a sustainable development duty is in practice likely to include tools such as Environmental Impact Assessment, assessment under the Habitats Regulations, sustainability checklists and assessment of carbon impacts.

 

Crucially, both national policy statements and projects should be clear about how they will contribute to wider socio-environmental objectives, e.g. climate change mitigation and Biodiversity Action Plan delivery.

 

The duty should be monitored and scrutinised

 

A duty for sustainable development would provide an important environmental safeguard, but to be most effective there also needs to be robust monitoring and annual reporting, which could be incorporated within the Commission's annual performance report (Bill, Schedule 1 clause 16).

 

January 2008