Sustainable Development in the Localism Bill - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England


1.  We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the need to ensure the Government's reform of the planning system achieves sustainable development. 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. We believe the planning system is a key tool to enable us to achieve these aims.

2.  The proposed planning reforms, including the national planning policy framework, will shape future development and the countryside. Ensuring the planning system is underpinned by the principles of sustainable development will be essential if we are to achieve the efficient and effective use of land, including the regeneration of previously developed sites and protection of the countryside from unnecessary and intrusive development.

3.  In making recommendations to the Government on how to ensure the new planning system delivers sustainable development, CPRE suggests that the Committee consider the following key points:

  • We welcome the Government's intention to get more people involved in planning but the reforms should not be underpinned solely by the need for economic growth. The purpose of the planning system is, and should continue to be, to achieve sustainable development in the public interest.
  • We would support a presumption in favour of sustainable development if it was for development that was in line with the development plan. If this is not the case we are concerned that any new presumption will undermine the current plan-led approach.
  • We believe the Localism Bill should include a brief definition of sustainable development, in line with the current Sustainable Development Strategy. This should then be fleshed out in more detail in the national planning policy framework.
  • While the Localism Bill and the national planning policy framework are central components of the planning reforms, if the system as a whole is to deliver sustainable development other mechanisms such as the New Homes Bonus and local enterprise partnerships will need to be underpinned by the same objective.


4.  The Localism Bill is part of a package of reforms to the planning system. The review of Planning Policy Statements and Guidance to develop a national planning policy framework, the creation of local enterprise partnerships and the development of incentives to encourage housing and business growth are also key components. The principles of sustainable development, which require environmental, social and economic issues to be considered in an integrated way and given equal weight, must underpin all of these components.

The role of the planning system

5.  CPRE recognises the need to revive the economy but the planning system should not be viewed simply as an economic tool. Planning should be concerned with making decisions about the use of land with a view to long term needs and the wider benefits it brings. If it is skewed toward economic growth there is a serious risk that development, that is approved because of its short term economic benefits, will have negative environmental, economic or social consequences in the longer term.

6.  In a speech on 19 January 2011 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said "perhaps one of the biggest blockades to growth over recent decades has been the planning system… The new planning system is predicated on encouraging growth". While we acknowledge that the existing system is by no means perfect, it plays an important role in mediating often conflicting views to secure necessary development in appropriate locations while ensuring we can all benefit from an attractive and well designed natural and built environment.

7.  The new planning system should be predicated on enabling necessary development which is sustainable both in terms of location and design, rather than growth in itself. This overarching objective should be set out clearly in the language the Government uses to talk about the planning system, and in the mechanisms it creates to deliver the planning reforms.

Presumption in favour of sustainable development

8.  The Coalition Agreement confirmed that the Government would create a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system. This took forward the proposals set out in the Conservative's Open Source Planning Green Paper. In the Green Paper we were concerned to see that the presumption was seen as a policy to enable a 'major upswing in development and construction'. CPRE is pleased, therefore, that such a presumption, one that would simply aim to encourage growth regardless of the environmental consequences, was not included in the Localism Bill.

9.  We understand that the presumption in favour of sustainable development will be taken forward as a key part of the national planning policy statement. In order to ensure the presumption does not undermine the plan-led approach we believe it should be constructed as a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is in line with the development plan. The development plan would include local and neighbourhood plans, where these exist. If the presumption is to promote development, regardless of the policies of the development plan, this would make community involvement in the local planning system and future neighbourhood plans largely irrelevant.

10.  CPRE did not support a further proposal in the Green Paper that if no plan is in place by a set deadline there should be a straightforward presumption in favour of development. Given the legal meaning attached to a presumption, this is likely to lead to considerable pressure for development which is likely to be unsustainable. We would not, therefore, support its inclusion in the national planning policy framework. Such a policy would undermine the plan-led system as well as the need to promote development that is sustainable.

11.  Moreover, the development of local plans, and the support they will need to give community groups developing neighbourhood plans, will be resource intensive for local authorities. It is essential that they are given the time and capacity to involve local communities fully in a collaborative process to develop local plans. The focus should be on engaging communities and getting plans right, rather than rushing to get plans in place, regardless of their quality or relevance.

Improvements to the Localism Bill

12.  The statutory purpose of planning, as currently set out in section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (as amended) is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Our understanding is that the Localism Bill does not alter that provision. Schedule 9 of the Bill amends section 38 of the 2004 Act to make neighbourhood plans part of the development plan. It does not, however, amend section 39 to make the sustainable development duty apply to any person or body exercising a function in relation to neighbourhood planning. We believe, therefore, the Localism Bill should be amended to ensure that neighbourhood plans are developed with the objective of contributing to sustainable development.

13.  We also note that the duty to cooperate in clause 90 of the Bill is in relation to planning for sustainable development. As stated above, sustainable development is not, however, defined on the face of the Bill. We believe this needs to be addressed. We recognise that the Government intends to define the term in the national planning policy framework. A draft of the framework has not yet been published. But rather than leaving the interpretation of the term to the policy framework we believe part 5 of the Bill should include a definition of sustainable development. This would relate both to section 39 of the 2004 Act and clause 90 of the Localism Bill. We believe a simple definition would give greater weight to the importance of sustainable development in the planning system. A more detailed definition, which expands on the definition in the Bill, could then be set out in the national planning policy framework.

14.  We would suggest that the Environmental Audit Committee may be well placed to develop a definition of sustainable development that could be included in the Bill. We would support the inclusion of something along the lines of "managing the use, development, and protection of land and natural resources in a way, or at a rate, which protects the long-term health of the environment, maintains biodiversity and landscape character, and enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural well being while sustaining the potential of future generations to meet their own needs".

New Homes Bonus

15.  To ensure sustainable development underpins the wider planning system we believe changes also need to be made to the proposed New Homes Bonus. We recognise that the Government sees the introduction of incentives as an important mechanism for encouraging the development of new housing. In order to ensure the Bonus encourages and rewards sustainable development we recommend that the scheme only rewards housing that is delivered in line with the development plan.

16.  In preparing neighbourhood and local plans consideration will need to be given to the local evidence base, including housing need, and the national planning policy framework, which will include the need for plans to deliver sustainable development. If the New Homes Bonus is not restricted to rewarding the development of housing that is set out in the development plan it might incentivise cash-strapped local authorities to permit development that undermines the plan-led approach, including policies in neighbourhood plans, as well as sustainable development principles.

Role of local enterprise partnerships

17.  On 19 January 2011 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Givernment said the Government was 'putting the decisions on growth in the hands of the people who know and understand their own natural economic area - through local enterprise partnerships'. While we support the need for cross boundary working between local authorities on a number of issues, including environmental matters, we are concerned about the creation of local enterprise partnerships for a number of reasons.

18.  In relation to the scope of this inquiry we are concerned that local enterprise partnerships, with an economically focused remit, are likely to undermine the achievement of sustainable development. While their role, and how they undertake it, may well need to vary between areas it is essential that their shared purpose is to deliver sustainable economic growth. While they did not always fulfil their responsibilities in this regard the former Regional Development Agencies were subject to a statutory duty to contribute to sustainable development. A similar, though stronger provision, should apply to local economic partnerships. If this is not the case, these business-led partnerships are likely to develop strategies for economic growth with little or no regard for the environmental or social implications. If these strategies then influence decisions on planning applications or development plan policies CPRE fears the system will be unnacceptably skewed towards economic interests alone.


19.  We welcome the Government's intention to get more people involved in planning and the broad aspirations of the package of planning reforms. In taking these forward we urge the Government to be clear that the purpose of the planning system is, and should continue to be, to achieve sustainable development in the wider public interest. The principles of sustainable development should, therefore, underpin the Localism Bill, the national planning policy framework and a number of other mechanisms which are being developed, including the New Homes Bonus and local enterprise partnerships.

10 February 2011

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