Should we redefine the objectives of sustainable development following COP26 and COVID-19?
I recently purchased my son a playmat for his newly acquired toy cars. As a Planner, it immediately struck me that the mat showed a car-dominated environment with little room for pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorised users. Perfect for his fleet of cars, but it got me thinking …
COP26 and COVID-19 have brought the issues of sustainability and well-being into sharp focus for the property industry, particularly for us planners.
Delivering ‘sustainable development’ has always been at the heart of the planning system in one form or another, but it was formalised in 2012 when the National Planning Policy Framework defined its objectives. For those really interested, paragraph 8 of the NPPF defines three overarching objectives - social, economic and environmental – so that opportunities can be taken to secure net gains.
More recently the focus has increased on the social side of sustainability – notably on health and well-being. This is having a significant impact on how we think about planning applications and new and emerging guidance can have implications on what a developer might need to consider when submitting a planning application or promoting sites.
The approach in Cambridgeshire
South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council have combined to prepare a new Local Plan, published for consultation in draft form shortly after COP-26. The key focus for this Plan is to direct development to sustainable locations, in this case, places you do not need to drive to, to help reduce carbon emissions from transport. In reality, this means most of the development has been directed to the Cambridge and what is known as the ‘southern cluster’ – sites to the south of Cambridge near to many of the District’s science parks. This is the concept of sustainability being crystallised into draft allocations in a very distinct form.
The emerging Plan makes virtually no allocations for residential or employment development in the villages. Whilst supporting the rural economy and local services and facilities can be a key component of sustainable development, the councils’ interpretation of the concept prioritises reductions in private car use over most other factors.
Health and well-being
More than ever, planners and politicians are alive to the importance of health and well-being. Planning applications are being scrutinised to determine whether it promotes these elements of ‘social sustainability’ – particularly those determined at planning committee.
But this is where the current generations of Local Plans have not yet caught up. It may come as a surprise that many councils do not have specified standards for the design and delivery of private gardens or public open space. Policies often leave planners and members to decide whether these areas are appropriate and well-designed, and having an element of subjectivity in these matters is rarely helpful. Best not to get any planner started on the need to design “beautiful places”, which was recently introduced to the NPPF.
Officers and members are right to expect development that delivers social wellbeing, but how to do it needs to be articulated. The Government expects councils to boost the supply and delivery of homes and without well-defined criteria for design, this supply can suffer, and planning applications will take longer to determine.
Social, political and economic factors – increasingly global – have challenged the planning system. These matters are always one step ahead of Local Plans and policies, which take years to prepare. Nevertheless, councils need to clearly state what they expect to see from development in planning policy and guidance when taking forward new plans. Some councils are on it some are lagging behind. Some are pragmatic, others make you want to tear your hair out. Let’s hope that the Greater Cambridge Local Plan and other new generations of plans hear the cry of “social sustainability” and take steps to articulate through policy exactly what is expected of developers when seeking to deliver their own interpretation of sustainable development.