Sustainable Development in the Localism Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Department for Communities and Local Government

I ntroduction

1. The Department’s approach to sustainable development is shaped by an ambition to lead a radical shift in power from Westminster to local people , to enable them to take control of the issues that affect their lives , as set out in our Business Plan published in November 2010. T he Department aims to make localism and the Big Society part of everyday life by decentralising power as far as possible; reinvigorating local accountability, democracy and participation; increasing transparency; meeting people’s housing aspirations; and giving communities a stronger role in planning.

2. Delivering these priorities will contribute to sustainable development in several ways :

- Local people are best placed to understand how to pursue sustainable development locally. Empowering local people and communities will enable them to respond confidently to the challenges of sustainable deve lopment as well as other issues;

- The planning reforms being introduced will give local people and communities far more ability to shape the places in which they live, in particular through new neighbourhood planning powers and a new designation to protect green areas of particular importance to local people ;

- A community right to bid for property of local value which is proposed for sale wi ll provide new opportunities to take over and manage facilities in ways that contribute to the social, economic and environmental health of the locality;

- Action on transparency will enable local people to hold public bodies to account on what they are doing to promote sustainability in the area .

3. The Localism Bill is central to achieving this vision . It contains a series of proposals with the potential to achieve a substantial and lasting shift in power away from central government and towards local people; a shift that should enable and encourage a step-change in action to secure sustainable development.

4. At the strategic level, the Bill provides for a ‘duty to co-operate’ in relation to planning for sustainable development: local planning authorities and other public bodies will be required to work together on the issues that require a degree of cross-boundary coordination, such as new infrastructure, flood mitigation and responding to the needs of the natural environment in a changing climate.

Sustainable development and the ‘presumption in favour’

5 . The Coalition: Our Programme for Government (May 2010) contains a commitment to introducing a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system. This echoes a proposal in the Conservative Party’s paper ‘Open Source Planning’ prior to the election, which presented the presumption as a means of facilitating appropriate new development.

6. The broad form of presumption suggested in Open Source Planning would require legislation, but Ministers took an early decision to introduce the presumption through policy instead. This reflects a number of considerations:

- The existing legal requirement for planning applications and appeals to be determined in accordance with adopted development plans "unless material considerations indicate otherwise" provides a balance between certainty and a necessary degree of flexibility in planning decisions;

- National planning policies are a powerful, and relatively flexible, means of sending signals about the way the system should operate, and provide scope to emphasise the sustainable development considerations that should infuse plans as well as individual planning decisions;

- In particular, the intention to produce a single National Planning Policy Framework creates an opportunity to integrate the presumption with wider messages about the pursuit of sustainable development through planning.

7. The Department’s Business Plan reflects this intention, committing to "introduce as part of the national planning framework a strong presumption in favour of sustainable development". The National Planning Policy Framework will also be the vehicle through which the environmental, social and economic components of sustainable development will be set out to inform plan-making and planning decisions. Thus, what the National Planning Policy Framework says about the weight to be given to each of these aspects of sustainable development could effectively be the mechanism by which sustainable development is defined for the purposes of the presumption.

8. A policy-based presumption could potentially do a number of things, including:

- Emphasising the positive role that plans should play in promoting sustainable development (and, through those plans, fostering appropriate forms of development);

- Making clear the important role that the sustainable development principles in national policy (the National Planning Policy Framework) should play in considering proposals, where the development plan is out of date/not relevant.

9. Suggestions on the content of the National Planning Policy Framework were invited in December last year, and are required by the end of this month. The intention is then to issue a draft document for consultation this summer, and a final version by the end of April 2012.

10. Policies in the National Planning Policy Framework will supplement and support the existing legislative requirements for securing sustainable development through the planning system, which include:

- The requirement for local authority development plans to be subject to a process of ‘sustainability appraisal’ (incorporating a strategic environmental assessment, as required under EU law);

- The additional requirements for those producing local authority plans to do so with a view to achieving sustainable development, and to include policies that contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change;

- The requirement for an environmental impact assessment for certain types of proposal, particularly in the case of large-scale development.

Wider measures

11. The measures in the Localism Bill, existing statutory requirements and the suite of policies in the National Planning Policy Framework should deliver an imaginative and proactive planning system: one through which communities take the lead in pursuing sustainable development without ‘one size fits all’ rules that stifle innovative attempts to tackle the challenges that we face.

12. This is of course part of a much wider picture. Steps are being taken across government to promote sustainable development and address climate change, and fulfil the ambition to be ‘the greenest Government ever’. These include:

- The Natural Environment White Paper this Spring, which will include proposals to give communities more power to protect and manage the natural environment;

- The Energy Bill, designed to tackle barriers to investment in energy efficiency, enhance energy security and enable investment in low carbon energy supplies;

- Work to explore innovative ways to deliver environmental benefits. For instance, the Government has published a discussion paper on how biodiversity credits might be used to offset the impacts of development on biodiversity.

13. The Government is also committed to ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development, so that it is central to the way in which it makes policy across all departments, and also the way in which it operates its estate and purchases goods and services. Strong and transparent leadership on sustainable development at the national level will complement efforts to empower communities in delivering sustainable development on the ground. The Localism Bill provides the tools and the incentives through which that local empowerment can happen.

11 February 2011