Sustainable development is at the heart of the reformed planning system. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 put it there and PPS1 has given it greater meaning.
Like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock, sustainability will run through local development frameworks (LDFs) at every stage. The government's long-term programme for transforming planning policy guidance notes into slimmer, fit-for-purpose policy statements offers a further opportunity to build the latest sustainable development policies into our planning legislation.
Why then is there such urgency about debates over the role of the planning system in responding to climate change and delivering sustainable development?
Why are people not filled with greater optimism about the prospects for achieving sustainable development outcomes following the deployment of national, regional and local policy and process?
The answer may lie in what could be a yawning gap between knowing what the right policies may be at national, regional and local levels on specific elements of sustainable development and the ability to actually implement them. Without capability and resources, the political reality is that the implementation of sustainable development policies will be patchy.
The chief concern must lie at local level. Many authorities face a lack of technical expertise to back up nationally advocated policies. Fairly simple and well-established measures such as sustainable urban drainage systems or passive solar design are easy enough to write into policy, but they need to be managed through the development control and implementation stages. The technical abilities and staff resources needed to make this happen are often missing.
Many measures have revenue implications by imposing an ongoing management role for local authorities. The pressure is on from government for authorities to make decisions quickly and complex ideas are likely to hold up this process. The public remains unconvinced by the merits of some sustainable measures. In these circumstances, the political importance of sustainability in development has not been fully developed.
Some authorities demonstrate excellence in areas of sustainable development practice, building on their own planning policies. The challenge is to spread this to all authorities and to all aspects of their activities, embedding it in councils so that more staff and politicians act as champions for greening our communities. The challenge could not be greater.
Much of the pressure comes from Europe. More than 70 per cent of our environmental legislation originates from the EU. Some of it poses huge challenges about how to tackle sustainable development effectively. The water framework directive is a case in point. The need to join up our approaches to the management of resources and the activities that impact on water quality cries out for a more strategic approach to environmental management.
Clearly, broad approaches at regional level can be developed, but there is a real need for something similar at the local level. Yet we have already seen that at present the capability to do so is limited. Until recently this agenda has not been on the local political radar.
This is where the Local Government Association's (LGA) Greening Communities campaign may help the planning system and the development of a more corporate approach to sustainable environmental management. The campaign, which promotes four broad ambitions (see panel), is about establishing a local leadership role in managing our environment, its natural resources and the delivery of sustainable development.
Last month, the association launched a resource pack for local authorities and encouraged them to establish member champions. It also produced vision documents on specific aspects of the environmental challenge including climate change. Key tasks will be to make a stronger case for greater environmental services funding in the 2007 spending review and delivering an improved performance framework.
The reputation of authorities and the spatial planning system will be greatly enhanced if local government can take on a leadership role in effectively managing environments to achieve sustainable development.
This could reduce the need for big-stick regulation and expensive infrastructure solutions through a more intelligent approach to key challenges such as flood risk, run-off, energy needs, habitat protection and water quality.
Wider benefits to landscape and recreation can also result from an integrated approach to managing our natural resources. The planning system can provide an effective framework in which this can occur, but it will only succeed if it is properly resourced, supported with the right skills and backed by local leaders.
Lee Searles is programme manager responsible for planning, housing and sustainable communities at the Local Government Association.
GREENING COMMUNITIES: LGA OBJECTIVES FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION
- Greening Communities aims to equip councils with good practice and encourage them to do more through the support of member and officer champions. The aim is to create councils that lead by example and encourage their partners to change their actions. This is crucial because action to secure more sustainable development is beneficial to us all, not just the authority and its land-use plan.
- The campaign makes a case for an environmental equivalent of the Planning Advisory Service to act as a single entry point to good practice advice, guidance and support on managing the environment. This responds to the issue that much good practice rests with a few key individuals. More systematic access to information and support is needed. At national level, advice, support, initiatives and funding are fragmented and unco-ordinated.
- The campaign aims to establish a more coherent performance framework that recognises local authorities' unique position in leading environmental improvement. Current environmental performance indicators do not effectively tackle the role of environmental services. There is an opportunity to redress this in the revision of comprehensive performance assessments.
- The campaign seeks the evidence needed to achieve a step-change in the finances available for environmental services. Such services sit in a very broad local authority government grant funding block that has been perceived to have been repeatedly underfunded in spending rounds.