White paper offers opportunity to square sustainability and growth

Protection of the natural environment can be a key driver in economic recovery and must form part of a wider sustainable development strategy involving government and local communities, argues David Alexander.

In 1990, the Conservative government produced the first comprehensive white paper on environmental policies. This Common Inheritance examined the challenges the country would face over the next 20 years in making future development sustainable.

The coalition is now preparing a new white paper next spring. How far will it resonate with its predecessor?

The broad issues have remained fundamentally similar. The three critical issues - development versus conservation, economic growth versus natural resources and pollution versus jeopardising economic growth - are compatible with the overarching challenges of today.

These are climate change, demographics and impacts from habitat fragmentation, inappropriate land management, environmental pollution and planning decisions.

The evidence base is stronger today and should ensure greater environmental priorities in decision-making, including within the planning system. Environment secretary Caroline Spelman considers that a vibrant natural environment is a necessity for economic recovery and sustainable long-term growth.

The real challenge is the political message and delivery mechanism. In 1990, it was about mobilising the energies of the population at large. Today, it is about shifting power from the centre to local communities, councils, businesses, consumers and civil society, to put the value of the natural environment at the heart of policy-making.

However, it is important that government retains the key role of guiding and shaping society to make the most of informed environmental priorities. Handing controls which benefit the natural environment to local people could be less effective and more fragmented than continuing to work in partnership.

Regulation, training and necessary bureaucratic processes can be handled more effectively by experienced local authorities, leaving local people to channel their energies into delivery on the ground. The key will be in achieving implementation in the context of reducing the deficit, ensuring economic recovery and lessening regulatory burdens.

Since 1990, the regulatory approach has served the UK well in environmental protection. It has been particularly effective in protecting "the best of the best" through site and landscape designations. In future the system may look towards "creative conservation" by restoring habitats and co-ordinating relationships between them.

While the new discussion paper recognises the value of soils, there is no mention of the Construction Code of Practice for the Sustainable Use of Soils on Construction Sites or the specific soils toolkit for planners, both of which have been supported by the RTPI.

Pressures on the natural environment will continue because of climate change, population increase and other demographic changes, economic growth, social and lifestyle trends and technological change. While any response must be sustainable in protecting and enhancing ecosystem services, there is no mention of the future for the current UK sustainable development strategy or how the environment white paper will relate to it.

The planning system, together with effective regulation, must continue its important role in conserving the natural environment and ensuring that key principles put forward by RSPB and its partners have a strong influence. These are:

- Reconnecting more people with the natural environment and securing existing assets.

- Focusing available resources on enhancement and restoration.

- Involving local people.

- Developing a spatial vision for future landscapes and biodiversity.

- Aiming for long-term benefits.

The white paper must be evolutionary in analysing achievements over the past 20 years and avoid putting them at risk from the spending review, building on their strengths and opportunities. One thing remains certain - the natural environment will continue to influence quality of life, health and well-being.

David Alexander is leader of the RTPI environmental planning and protection network's biodiversity and countryside management group and a member of the RTPI North West regional activities committee. The views expressed here are personal.

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