Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission - Environmental Audit Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England

INTRODUCTION

1.  We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the need to embed sustainable development across Government. As a leading environmental charity, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has worked to promote and protect the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural England by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resources since 1926. In order to achieve our aims and for the Government to be the "greenest Government ever" we recognise the need for cross-governmental support for environmental issues, including sustainable development.

2.  CPRE does not have detailed comments on the specific themes identified by the Committee. We hope that this general submission on the issue will, however, still be of interest to Committee members.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

3.  In making recommendations to the Government about the need to embed sustainable development across Government CPRE proposes that the Committee considers the following key points:

  1. The land use planning system is a key tool for achieving sustainable development. If the Government is to achieve its goal of being the "greenest Government ever" its proposed planning reforms, including the commitments to create a "presumption in favour of sustainable development" and a national planning framework, will need to ensure that environmental, social and economic issues are effectively integrated as part of the decision-making process.
  2. Proposals for Local Enterprise Partnerships are currently skewed towards securing economic growth, without sufficient consideration of environmental and social impacts. This suggests that more needs to be done to ensure that sustainable development is central to the work of all Government departments.

CROSS GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

4.  Following the Government's decision to withdraw funding for the Sustainable Development Commission it will be more important than ever that sustainable development runs through the priorities of all Government departments. The press release, issued on 22 July 2010, announcing the withdrawal of funding quotes the Rt Hon Caroline Spelman as saying "times have changed since many of these bodies were set up and much of what they do is now everyday Government business". We agree that sustainable development should be everyday business, but we are concerned that this is not reflected in recent Government announcements.

5.  We are pleased that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is preparing a Natural Environment White Paper and the principles of sustainable development should clearly underpin this work. It is interesting to note, however, that the last environment White Paper, This Common Inheritance, was presented to Parliament in 1990 by the Secretaries of State for Environment, Trade and Industry, Health, Education and Science, Transport, Energy, Employment, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. CPRE believes that there needs to be similar support from across Government for the new Natural Environment White Paper and the proposed planning reforms, both of which we see as central to achieving sustainable development.

THE ROLE OF THE PLANNING SYSTEM IN ACHIEVING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

6.  CPRE believes that the land use planning system is a vital tool for environmental protection. Its role is to integrate environmental, social and economic factors and mediate between local and national interests to facilitate development in the wider public interest. The planning system should not be concerned solely with delivering economic growth, with insufficient consideration being given to the longer term environmental or social impacts.

Presumption in favour of sustainable development

7.  We recognise that Coalition Programme committed the Government to creating a "presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system". This commitment is contained within the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs section of the document, while the wider planning reforms are set out under the Communities and Local Government section. We welcome the implication that the two departments will work together to take this commitment forward.

8.  There is a need for clarification, however, as to how this proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development will work in practice. The Conservative Party's Open Source Planning Green Paper (February 2010) sets out more detail on the proposed presumption stating that it will "give the planning system an inbuilt bias towards the creation of appropriate new houses, offices, schools, shops and other development". Without greater clarity about what might be a workable definition of sustainable development, there is a danger that if a local plan does not explicitly rule it out then development will be allowed to proceed regardless of the wider consequences.

9.  While CPRE supports placing more emphasis on local plans we are concerned that on the same page of the Green Paper it states that the Conservative's "believe that the country needs to see a major upswing in development and construction as soon as possible, and [they] will enact policies to make it happen". It is increasingly clear that areas in the South East and East of England have already surpassed environmental limits in relation to water resources, an "upswing" in development in those areas is unlikely to be considered sustainable.

National planning framework

10.  The Government has also committed to developing a "simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities". This will set a framework within which local authorities will work with communities to develop local plan policies. While we recognise that the Government will not want the framework to be overly prescriptive, this is an important opportunity to embed the principles of sustainable development within the planning system. As part of this, CPRE would like to see the inclusion of policies setting out the need for land to be used efficiently, including giving priority to urban regeneration and the protection of productive soil and valuable farmland. It should also include setting out a sequential, "brownfield first" approach for all kinds of development.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

11.  Finally, CPRE believes the Committee should consider the role of the emerging Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in relation to sustainable development. The letter from the Secretaries of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Communities and Local Government, dated 29 June, suggests that the Partnerships could replace existing Regional Development Agencies and provide strategic leadership on economic growth within their area. We understand that by the 6 September the Government had received 56 proposals for Partnerships and these are currently being considered.

12.  The letter goes on to state that in order to "create the right environment for business and growth in their areas" Partnership's may tackle issues "such as planning and housing, local transport and infrastructure priorities, employment and enterprise and the transition to the low carbon economy." While CPRE welcomed the revocation of the top-down housing targets within the Regional Spatial Strategies, we believe there is a continuing need for some form of strategic planning which embraces the need to promote sustainable development. It is clear that the Government believes that LEPs should undertake a strategic role in future. We are concerned, therefore, that their overriding focus is economic growth.

13.  We recognise that the Government's primary aim is to reduce the economic deficit and that economic development will be an important goal for strategic planning. Environmental and social factors should, however, also be taken into account to ensure that the overall approach is sustainable, protects the environment and delivers a better quality of life for communities. If we are to succeed in embedding sustainable development across Government, this is a clearly an area of policy that will need to be reconsidered.

18 October 2010


 
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