“Sustainability” as a Doily

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There are words, such as those that we use to apply to marginalised groups, which keep on falling out of use and being replaced, as we shun the stigmatised word rather than changing the stigma which it evokes. Thus “sex worker” superseded “prostitute” which superseded “whore”.

Then there are words which, because they carry positive connotations, are applied within a gradually expanding range. This is quite literally true of the names of desirable parts of any town: it would be fun to map, over time, the gradually expanding territory which estate agents call “Gosforth” in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example.

The same seems to be true of “sustainable development” and “sustainability”. These terms should be resistant to redefinition precisely because they have been so publicly and precisely defined. The most commonly-quoted definition is that taken from the 1987 “Brundtland Report” – the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Much has been written since then about exactly how “sustainable development” could be brought about. For many years there has been a general acceptance that “needs” should encompass social, economic and environmental needs – that is, that sustainable development should balance the requirements of social welfare, environmental protection and economic prosperity.

That doesn’t seem to be what the UK Government meant when, in 2012, they announced in the National Planning Policy Framework that henceforth there would be a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” where local plans were out of date. The small print made it clear that “sustainability” meant nothing in that context:

“The presumption in favour of sustainable development (paragraph 14) does not apply where development requiring appropriate assessment under the Birds or Habitats Directives is being considered, planned or determined.”

Assessment under the Birds or Habitats Directives is only necessary if a proposal might impact upon the most vulnerable and valuable wildlife sites – those protected at European level (for now, anyway). Such development could not possibly be sustainable – it would fail to meet environmental needs – and therefore there would be no need to exclude it from the “presumption” if the word “sustainable” was intended to mean anything.

The recent Housing White Paper states that, from 2018, if enough new dwellings are not built in a given local authority area, the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” will apply. Lest there should be any doubt as to whether “sustainable” means anything here, the consultation question makes it clear what is proposed: “the list of policies which the Government regards as providing reasons to restrict development is limited” to those relating only to specially protected sites. Again, development on these sites could not be sustainable. Again, the assumption seems to be that development anywhere else is sustainable, however poorly-designed, hungry of resources and energy, or dependent upon the private car.

Why does this matter? After all, words change meaning all the time, and we get used to it. Most older people who grew up understanding that “gay” meant cheerful have stopped complaining about the fact that nobody uses it in that sense any more.

Well, in the specific case of the NPPF and Housing White Paper, the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” simply takes power away from local government and gives it to the housebuilders who have failed to address the housing crisis so far, because, of course, they like high house prices. In effect, if the housebuilders fail to build enough dwellings, then the local authority will lose its right to reject proposals they might bring forward in future, however poor they are. In fact, developers could effectively hold an LPA to ransom: in situations where policies on good design and affordable housing, say, would normally be required, they could potentially argue that if permission were refused, it would cause the LPA to fall below the required level of housing delivery, so that, if a developer were subsequently to put forward an even worse development, there would be little that could be done to resist it.

More generally, it matters because we need to consider sustainability, now more than ever, and we can’t allow it to become a meaningless term.

Carrying out a sustainability appraisal is a lengthy and detailed task. You have to look at the positive and negative consequences of a project across many different fields. If this project goes ahead, will it mean more air pollution, in construction or in use? Will it destroy a habitat or landscape? Conversely, will it make society fairer?

And, just as importantly, it looks at how the project could be changed to address the balance of positive and negative consequences. Can we reduce the carbon footprint of this development, or make a better contribution to landscape and townscape, by better design? Can we make it easier for people to walk and cycle? Can we incorporate habitats within it? Would it be a perfectly acceptable project if it weren’t in this particular location?

A presumption in favour of sustainable development would be great, if it meant what it said. It would provide a massive incentive for developers to improve the environmental performance and social benefits of their proposals, knowing that, if they could demonstrate sustainability, they could not be refused. It would lead to the development of better and more sophisticated tools for quantifying and comparing environmental, economic and social costs and benefits. It would help us, nationally, to reduce our CO2 emissions and air pollutants, generate better, more attractive and more socially-just towns and cities, and protect our natural environment. Planners would have an absolute mandate to reject damaging development – but an absolute obligation to seek to make it innocuous.

“Sustainable development” is a useful, technical term, and the idea of a “presumption in favour” of it should be a laudable one. In fact, it should really be the primary aim of all national and local government departments involved in town and country planning. Governments should seek to ensure that there is a nationally-accepted standard by which the sustainability of a given proposal can be assessed, and local authorities should be empowered to require development proposals to live up to it. Instead, the current government is using the word “sustainable” as nothing but decoration – as a doily on which to present a really pretty unsustainable, and undemocratic, course of action.

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