Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Professor David Fisk CB FRAEng FCIBSE FRIBA (Hons)


Sections 9–12 are an unexceptional restatement of principles.

Section 13–18 then essentially reverse the thrust altogether and looks likely to favour developments that in the long term could make a community unable to sustain itself.

The motivation may be based on a series of urban myths about planning and the English economies which seem difficult to align with the recent relatively better performance of economies with more, not less, restrictions in land use. Deeper malaise is not apparently to be addressed in this NPPF.


I was until 2010 the Royal Academy of Engineering Professor in Engineering for Sustainable Development at Imperial College London. I am an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers and the Royal Institution of British Architects. I was previously Chief Scientist and a policy director in the Department of Environment. I am associated with a number of bodies that have their own articulation of “sustainable development”. The views offered here are my own based on material taught by me at Imperial and are not intended to reflect in any way on these other bodies approach to this broad issue.

Sustainable Development Section 9–12

The draft NPPF quotes the Brundtland definition of sustainable development. DCLG will know that the term was not introduced by the Brundtland Commission but already appeared in its terms of reference. In the 1980s “sustainable” (as in “sustainable fisheries”, “sustainable forestry”) just meant what it said on the tin. Subsequent interminable redefinitions seem largely to curtail or redirect its meaning rather than add light. The Brundtland Report itself was a 300 page review of major global policy areas. The scope is breath taking. It not only included issues like biodiversity but issues long since shunted elsewhere like arms proliferation, over population, and sprawling megacities. They found Governments frequently patching a solution today by creating future liabilities they might not be able to meet. The Commission seems to have been onto something since the failure to meet Mephistophelian bargains has been a recurrent theme in the last 20 years in many parts of the world. They did not suppose that Governments got into the position intentionally, but rather that it was an organizational failure. Debate was either too short term, too narrowly focused or there was an expectation that, if future liabilities had to be paid, environmental capital that no one owned, or the social capital of the poor who were desperate anyway, could be used to get out of the mess. The Brundtland definition then only sets the Commission’s idea of scale – big issues over large timescales. That it might be applied to a proposal for a lap dancing club in Broadway High Street might have struck the Commission as perplexing.

Brundtalnd’s actual solution was to provide an external check and balance to process with an international legal instrument – a kind of ECHR for future generations. That got swept away in subsequent UN negotiations and what was left was the paper-thin Rio Declaration signed by 150 countries, several of them run by latterly identified odious tyrants. The Declaration was referenced once in a NIREX planning Inquiry as a legitimate expectation, but as the draft NPPF shows, has been sent to oblivion. Although sustainable development appears in the EU Treaties (though that has not apparently influenced the like of the CFP), the UK has been especially prolific with the term. Statute often requires public bodies to “take it into account”. This is actually better than nothing because English Courts delight in taking an extraordinarily narrow view of a statutory power and as a consequence these bodies have to behave exactly as Brundtland feared they might. For example it would seem that the Olympics Park Legacy Authority had a remit confined to the interests of an entity called “the taxpayer” and could not have taken into account legally the wider interests of London and in one case the economy of Haringey in particular. Indeed English regeneration schemes have an uncanny habit of creating collateral damage elsewhere in the regional economy. Is the Olympics Park a regeneration scheme or just part of the plot against Uxbridge?

The effect of these SD powers over the last two decades has otherwise not been that impressive. This is largely because Government necessarily provides the sustainable development framework for the statutory body and so in a sense marks its own homework. This is true even more so since the Sustainable Development Commission was dissolved. The problem has never been what was included in these sustainable development strategies. One UK Strategy even embraced the Obesity campaign, a world first in the sustainable development community. The problem is what is left out. For example the UK has been so coy about “population” that even in its sustainable development indicators it breaches UN guidelines and measures the economy by GDP not GDP/capita. Population and migration of course are central issues in land use planning. When sustainable development assessments have been published alongside major infrastructure proposals, as in the Third Runway or HS2, consultants have naturally felt they must be circumscribed by what Government, rather than the citizen, thinks would count. In both these examples the big Issues were left outside of the scope of the assessment. That was spotted by the SDC for the Third Runway but the SDC had effectively disappeared by the time of HS2. The Select Committee has already considered in some detail the saga of the English Eco-towns that weren’t.

Wordsmiths in DOE did re-work the “definition” to a “better quality of life for all”. This reappears in the NPPF re-amble and if it really was to be the guiding principle in English Planning the “for all” would revolutionize the system. It would have brought it much more into line with Northern European prescriptive planning and North American negotiated covenant practice. That is clearly not to be the case as the next section shows. While the pre-amble is largely unexceptional, and prospectively likely to be ineffectual, the second section is a train crash

Sustainable Development 13–18

It is hard for an external reader not to guess that this section has been shoe-horned in from Departments that neither understand the background to the Brundtland Commission, how planning actually works and what currently motivates applications in England. The first difficulty is that “development” in planning has a different gloss from “development” in the rarefied text of Brundtland. In planning, painting your front door would be a development. It is a change. Whether it is a “development” in the grander sense, even for the local community, is another issue. The hypothetical lap dancing club would be a sustainable development if it paid its bills. The collateral damage of that success would not, as the text is written, seem to be a material issue. Quite why paragraph 18 thinks that proposers will respond to an expectation to “play their part” when they have been given such a strong presumption in their favour is mysterious. The confuscation of “sustainable development” and changes in land use essentially neuters the system. Except apparently from section 16, for birds, who unlike citizens, fortunately have the protection of EU Directives for the viability of their nests. The core problem seems to be a misunderstanding of the role of land use in the economy as a whole.

Planning and the English Economy

The urban myth is that planning restrains economic growth. But the economy is a complex system and what is the economy depends a great deal on where you stand within it. Even in the construction sector the position is ambivalent. The English property developer thrives on boom and bust and selling on, but at my end of the industry which has only intellectual capital for return we look on enviously at Northern European systems that have steady if modest rates of construction and where house builders can be proud of their craft and have not been reduced to land bank collectors. The difficulty for this self-serving urban myth is that developed economies that have of late run circles around the English economy, all have planning systems more prescriptively draconian. Economies with lax planning like Ireland or US States like Florida, hit the subprime wall with a crash. Mogadishu has no planning system of any kind, but that does not make it the power house of the African economy. The presumption as written could be England’s precursor for its next asset bubble.

A second urban myth repeated recently in no less than a Financial Times Editorial is that a single objector can halt a development. In truth objectors just run out of money. As the OFT’s report on Tesco’s real estate growth has shown, a developer with a deep pocket, good legal advice and patience just has to bide their time. Hemel Hampstead apparently is not surrounded by fields but by Pension Funds. Local Authorities will be rightly concerned at burning hundreds of thousands of pounds of their rate payers’ money in appeals, when the tone of this NPPF might lead them to be advised that the Secretary of State would approve anything that has a roof on it.

In a fast moving world, planning delays could be seen as burden. But delays are about process, especially a not-fit-for purpose legal system, not the plan itself. Ironically the mix of terminology and perspectives in the NPPF promises to make the system more lawyer bound than ever. If the local plan is the only gateway to be passed, then planning lawyers presumably are already gathering to breach its drafting. The NPPF appears to imply (section 14) that if a plan is stuck in the Courts all permissions have to be granted.

Deeper Problems?

Perhaps the real difficulty is that the English have forgotten what the Planning system was for. If people work just to pay taxes so as to fund large public sector vanity projects, then maybe tax revenue generating lap dancing clubs and hypermarkets plonked anywhere are fine. But suppose people work principally so they can enjoy their home, live in communities of people they like and bring up their families in localities spared cycles of degeneration and fitful regeneration. In a nation that, especially in the South East, is beginning to look conspicuously overdeveloped, overpopulated and over tarmac-ed compared with competing centres in Mainland Europe, the draft NPPF may indeed be following the Brundtland prescription: a quick fix to a current problem that passes on an unmanageable future liability for the real heart of what drives the English economy, its people.


The Committees’ deliberations will help the Government untangle some of the problems that seem to have arisen by a Frankenstein fusion of conflicting ideas. However the Government appears to have judged that this is not the time to attend to the real underlying problems in England that cause such friction in the paper-thin planning system and divert so much money away from productive industrial capital investment into land speculation. Perhaps this is all too deep in the English psyche . A big building speculator giving evidence to another Select Committee is reported as saying:

A man who wishes to rise in the world can hardly expect to rise by following out a fair trade is necessary for him to add speculative building to it, and that must be done not on a small scale; ...for the builder makes very little profit out of the buildings themselves; he makes the principal part of the profit out of the improved ground-rents … rather than the profit of the buildings ... which ... in many instances, he scarcely looks at all.

This evidence was given 150 years ago to the Select Committee on the Bank Acts.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011