Sustainable Development in the Localism Bill - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the RSPB

The RSPB is part of the Greenest Planning Ever coalition, a campaign by Wildlife and Countryside Link and partners on the Localism Bill.

We welcome the decision of the Environmental Audit Committee to examine the Localism Bill and sustainable development.

This note provides an overview of our views on sustainable development in the Localism Bill and related amendments that we are supporting. It also summarises our initial thinking on the content of the National Planning Policy Framework and the relationship of this key planning policy document to provisions in the Localism Bill.


Part 5 of the Localism Bill is a significant landmark in the Coalition Government's planning reform agenda. The Bill should:

  • Not include the "presumption in favour" of sustainable development, so as not to undermine the plan-led system; it should be set out instead in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
  • Ensure that sustainable development, delivered within environmental limits, remains the purpose of planning, including neighbourhood planning. This needs to be set out on the face of the Bill and further elaborated in the NPPF.
  • Provide a statutory basis for the NPPF.
  • Introduce new and effective arrangements for strategic planning across local authority boundaries, which deliver for the environment.


A "presumption in favour of sustainable development" was proposed in the Conservative's Open Source Planning Green Paper, and is not included in the Localism Bill. The "presumption in favour" is a policy instrument designed to act as an incentive to development, and some stakeholders are calling for it to be included on the face of the Bill. However, the RSPB does not support its inclusion in the Bill, because this would undermine the plan-led system as set out in section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Its wording and operation is a matter which should be considered in the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (see below).

From an environmental perspective, the key issues about the "presumption in favour" are:

  • The plan-led system allows proper strategic environmental assessment of the impacts of development, as well as giving communities the best opportunity to shape the future of their area.
  • Any policy must not create a licence for environmental damage, and must be applied in the context of the need to live within environmental limits.
  • Reference to sustainable development in the presumption in favour must not give rise to confusion about the overall purpose of the planning system (see below).


The Localism Bill offers an opportunity to examine how strong and effective the existing sustainable development duty is, as applied to planning. The purpose of planning, as set out in section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, is to "contribute to the achievement of sustainable development". According the UK Sustainable Development Strategy, and indeed other national and international conceptions of sustainable development, this means bringing about genuine improvements in environmental and social wellbeing for both present and future generations, including by building a strong, stable and prosperous economy. As it has been put, it means "not cheating on our children". Across the UK, governments share the principle that we must live within environmental limits locally and globally. Planning is an essential tool for managing the use of our natural resources and for minimising the impacts of development on the environment.

Unlike the "presumption in favour", this sustainable development purpose is more a goal or objective which expresses what the planning system as a whole is intended to achieve. Rather than a "presumption in favour", the sustainable development purpose of the planning system as a whole should be included on the face of the Bill. Although it is not sufficient in itself to ensure that planning delivers sustainable development, its legislative basis sends a strong signal to plan-makers that plans should be framed with this goal in mind. Further elaboration on the meaning of sustainable development is currently provided in national planning policy (PPS1), and the NPPF should play a similar role in future.

The Localism Bill thus presents the opportunity to ensure the following changes are put in place:

  • The legislative purpose of sustainable development should be applied to all types of development plans, including neighbourhood plans (along with the allied climate change and design duties). A general requirement for the neighbourhood plan to conform to the key principles of the local plan, as proposed, is inadequate.
  • the existing sustainable development purpose should be strengthened, as it is currently defined in weak terms as merely "contributing to the achievement" of sustainable development.
  • Key principles of sustainable development should be defined on the face of the Bill and further elaborated in the NPPF.
  • The legislative purpose should be extended to development management, to ensure in particular that carbon and biodiversity impacts are properly accounted for.

Amendments to the Bill have been tabled to this effect. (New Clause 3 Purpose of Planning, New Clause 4 Sustainable Development and Amendment 132, tabled by Barbara Keeley, Alison Seabeck and Jack Dromey).


The Coalition Government has proposed a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England. This does not form part of the Localism Bill, but is an essential part of the package of planning reform. A strong national vision is essential to guard against the danger that localism becomes merely parochialism.

The Government has committed to introducing a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the NPPF. As noted above, the RSPB believes that this must not undermine the plan-led system. Although we accept the importance of building a strong, stable and prosperous economy, this must not be at the expenses of the environment. The NPPF should clearly set out the Government's aspirations on a range of environmental issues, particularly the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change and the need to protect and restore biodiversity in order to achieve our international commitments.

Given the potential importance of the NPPF for sustainable development, climate change and the natural environment, the RSPB commissioned Collingwood Environmental Planning (CEP) to investigate national planning frameworks in other countries,[1] review the available literature and interview relevant experts in order to make recommendations to the RSPB.

The resulting report[2] helpfully establishes the central role that an NPPF could play in catalysing effective landscape-scale conservation (anticipated to be a priority of the Natural Environment White Paper) and in delivering a resilient ecological network. For example, the NPPF could be the core focus for a strategic framework for landscape-scale conservation from Government, within which local government, civil society organisations and other partners can deliver across England.

The report also highlights the danger of an NPPF that does not have the natural environment at its heart, drawing on experiences from other countries. Where plans have been economically driven without careful consideration of the natural environment, they consistently overlook the value (both monetary and otherwise) of the natural environment. With the Natural Environment White Paper likely to recognise the importance of valuing the natural environment across government's decision-making, it is clear that the NPPF will play an important role in achieving this.

The report allows us to identify the key elements of a successful NPPF:

  • Spatial, but not site specific. This would allow recognition of the key components of England's ecological network, and prioritisation of landscape-scale areas for restoration.
  • Built on a robust reaffirmation of sustainable development. This must recognise environmental limits, steered by the precautionary principle where necessary.
  • Developed through debate and participation. The process underpinning the NPPF must be transparent and participative, with provision for regular review.
  • Protect and enhance the natural environment. The NPPF must provide adequate policy protection to the natural environment, and strongly encourage local authorities to work with others to identify key components of their local ecological network.
  • Informed by Strategic Environmental Assessment. This would facilitate the consideration of different spatial options or scenarios and stakeholder participation in strategic dialogue.
  • A statutory basis in the Localism Bill. This would help to clarify its relationship with other plans and policies, particularly with national policy statements (NPS) (although NPS apply primarily to major infrastructure, they may be a material consideration in the town and country planning system, particularly for smaller energy projects).

Amendments to the Bill have been tabled to provide a statutory basis for the NPPF, and to require consultation, Parliamentary scrutiny and regular review. (New Clause 7 National Planning Policy Framework, tabled by Barbara Keeley, Alison Seabeck and Jack Dromey).


Strategic planning is essential to deliver sustainable development. There is a range of environmental issues where local authorities need to plan strategically and develop joint solutions to issues that are too big in scale or timeframes to be resolved within a single local planning authority area. These include biodiversity protection and conservation, climate change mitigation (eg deployment of renewable energy infrastructure), climate change adaptation (eg coastal flooding), and waste management.

To replace the system of regional planning, the Government proposes a duty to cooperate between local planning authorities and other prescribed bodies (as yet undefined), in clause 90 of the Localism Bill. But the duty is narrower than what was originally expected to be a general duty for local authorities to cooperate with each other. It mostly entails exchanging information and views when preparing plans. We are concerned that, defined as it is, it will not lead to local authorities proactively seeking cooperation to address cross-boundary issues. The duty to cooperate must be strengthened in the Bill.

The Government has proposed a package of incentives to complement the duty to cooperate. But to date, the incentives put forward, such as the New Homes Bonus and localising the Community Infrastructure Levy, are general lacking for key environmental issues.

The Localism Bill provides for statutory guidance on the duty to cooperate to be brought forward at a later date. This needs to outline the (cross-boundary) issues with which the duty to cooperate should deal and the incentives for them to do so. It should also spell out the consequences of non cooperation. To be effective at enabling strategic planning, the duty needs to be supplemented by a range of key mechanisms, most of which are currently lacking or are too weak. These include:

  • Sound evidence base—To be robust and strategic, plans and strategies must be developed using a sound evidence base, which assesses the state of the environment as well as that of the local economy. While evidence will need to be "owned" and kept up to date by appropriate groups, information previously gathered from the regions should be kept in one accessible place.
  • Formal arrangements to enable genuine and meaningful public participation in decisions and promote collaborative planning.
  • Robust monitoring arrangements.

Amendments to the Bill have been tabled which would address some of these points (amendments 195-205 and New Clause 9 Joint Planning Documents, tabled by David Ward).

15 February 2011

1   Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia (states of Victoria and the Northern Territories) and Taiwan. Back

2   A Natural Planning Framework: Putting the natural environment at the heart of the National Planning Framework for England. Collingwood Environmental Planning, 2011. Back

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Prepared 22 March 2011