There's no such thing as sustainable development

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 15 September 2011 in Diary
Ministers should be frank with us about what they really mean when they talk about planning, says Nik Darlington

The author of Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne, said that planning is something you do before you do something else, so that when you do something else it isn’t all mixed up.

We should all try to live our lives by these honest, Pooh Bear hermeneutics.  If you don’t plan, you plan to fail, and all the rest of it.

Yet at the moment the government appears to be doing its planning and still ending up with something that is ‘all mixed up’. To paraphrase the education secretary, we have ninisters talking out of both sides of their mouth at once.

In one corner, you have interests of the Treasury and bread and butter Tory right, represented by the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the local government secretary, Eric Pickles, who earlier this month wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times defending the planning reforms as “key to our economic recovery”.

In another corner, the more cordial decentralisation and planning minister, Greg Clark, representing the ‘big society’-slash-localism agenda (cordial not as in kind but as in the drink, which needs diluting before it becomes palatable). The Telegraph, which is leading a campaign against the planning reforms, calls Clark “thoughtful and mild-mannered”, though try telling that to the National Trust, whose leadership and four million members the minister accused of “nihilistic selfishness”.

Try to reconcile the two-headed Hydra of coalition planning policy and eventually you hit a brick wall (NB: coming to a green and pleasant meadow near you). Namely, how can you have a presumption in favour of development and still give local people a fair chance to oppose it? More often than not, the greater resourced developers lobby will out-finance and outlast tin-pot tiny neighbourhood forum. And that’s just where local plans are in place. Haven’t got one of those? Good luck with that presumption.

What exactly is “sustainable” development anyway?  As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in July, “the only sustainable meadow is a meadow [and] sustainable development is a contradiction in terms... It means development”.

There is no such thing as a priori sustainable development. Development has to prove itself as sustainable over time and over a number of factors. Sustaining a growing population is one such factor, but on top of that are aesthetics, utility, environmental impact and heritage value.

Another incompatible condition is the fact that Britain desperately needs more housing (we are building less houses now than at any time since 1924) yet we are a nation that overwhelming wants to keep ourselves, as Blake penned, ‘green and pleasant’. We will gladly pay for this preservation too. The three major political parties can barely muster half a million members between them, yet the combined membership of the National Trust, RSPB, CPRE and Woodland Trust is almost five million strong.

We have a new planning system purporting to do two things at once: boost national economic growth and give power to local communities.  History tells us that we can both develop and preserve, that much is true. For instance, some of our most magnificent architecture is in ‘new towns’, such as Bath. No one complains these days about the defacement of the Lansdown plateau with row upon row of Georgian terraces, but they do about the New Brutalist destruction of Bath’s city centre in the 1960s.

Design is as important as function and social impact as important as economic output. That is why cleverly drawn up development on urban brownfield sites is usually better than sprawling outwards on greenfield sites, which ‘donuts’ towns and communities.

However, it is also the case that rural areas need new housing, or else Britain’s matchless countryside will seal itself off from anyone without a deposit literally the size of a house. That, regrettably, means building on green open spaces.

So planning is riddled with contradictions: it is, it has been, and it always will be in a small island nation with too many people, many of whom rightly want to keep it a sceptr’d isle not a septic one.

The government needs to be honest with people and truly, genuinely, forthrightly localist in its planning reforms. Accept the ultimate flexibility of local decision-making. Force developers to utilise land banks they already hold but likewise get people to accept the realities of our housing crisis without branding anyone who disagrees a nimby at best and a Trotskyite at worse. Tell people that a presumption in favour of development means exactly that, not some cuddly notion of sustainability that everyone knows is about as cuddly as a breezeblock.

And above all, accept that in many places, local communities will presume to the contrary. That, I’m afraid, is how localism works. If ministers don’t really mean it, they should stop talking about it. At the moment, the message isn’t exactly the wrong one, it is just that there are too many of them and together they don’t make sense. It is, as AA Milne warned, ‘all mixed up’. In short, the government is making a right royal piglet’s ear of it all.

Tags: Eric Pickles, George Osborne, National Trust, Planning reforms, Sustainable development

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