Sustainable development is the government's avowed objective for the planning system. The four aims of PPS1 include "effective protection of the environment" and "maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment".
But how have ministers reconciled the tension between these competing aims? The environmental policy position is clear. PPG2 sets tests for determining whether development should be permitted in the green belt and PPS7 outlines guidance on types of development in the countryside.
Economic planning policy is not as straightforward. PPG4 was last revised 15 years ago. Given the importance that is placed on the economy, this is surprising. The government responded to the Barker review by promising an updated policy statement on planning for economic development, but it has issued no draft and has set no date for this.
Green belt policy scrutinised
Barker also noted that development is forced to leapfrog the green belt, increasing commuting distances to major towns and cities. She recommended a review of green belt boundaries and a more positive approach to enhancing its quality. The government has not taken these recommendations forward. The white paper proposes a review of current policy but asserts that there will be "no fundamental change".
A review of decisions exploring the balance between the need for and benefits of development against the impact on the environment suggests that considerable weight is placed on the government's pet projects. But unless there is national interest, it is virtually impossible to override countryside and green belt policies.
Two recent decisions in Bedfordshire illustrate the emphasis placed on the 2003 sustainable communities plan. In August, the secretary of state overturned an inspector's recommendation and approved a proposal for 323 dwellings in open countryside north of Bedford (DCS Number 100-049-535). The impetus was the Milton Keynes-South Midlands strategy, which identifies Bedford, Kempston and Marston Vale as locations for growth.
The secretary of state accepted that strong justification was needed for development of an unallocated site in open countryside. But she also attributed significant weight to its location, even though it lay outside the main growth area identified in the sub-regional strategy.
This seeks to direct development towards main towns to support urban renaissance, regeneration of deprived areas, land recycling and sustainable travel. One might ask what the point of adopting regional guidance is if it is going to be ignored in favour of a general growth policy.
Last month, the secretary of state overturned another inspector's recommendation and approved a Center Parcs proposal south-east of Bedford (DCS Number 100-050-099). She accepted that building over and fencing off 138ha of land would cause considerable harm to the green belt.
The site lay outside the growth area identified in the strategy, the district had little need for extra jobs and the development could increase levels of commuting. However, she placed substantial weight on the need for development in the broader growth area identified in the sustainable communities plan.
Loss of land to jobs questioned
Mid Beds District Council questioned the need to develop such a large area of green belt to meet job targets when, less than halfway through the planning period, growth already far exceeds requirements. Although the proposal has some strong sustainability credentials, a large area of green belt will be lost to provide just 18 jobs per hectare.
The Thames Gateway throws up several examples of ministerially favoured projects in the green belt, including a BP hydrogen refuelling facility at Hornchurch with "worldwide environmental benefits". Yet local economic need is rarely enough to override green belt policy.
Last year, a mixed development in the Northumberland green belt was rejected even though the brownfield site was allocated for development in the local plan (DCS Number 100-042-429). The need for employment land was deemed insufficiently important to justify the scheme.
One difficulty in predicting the outcome of such cases is that the weight attached to a consideration is often a matter of judgement. PPS4 should help, but it cannot offer answers to every balancing exercise. The bigger the project and the better it meets the government's aims, the more likely it is to be approved.
Alice Robinson is a barrister at Landmark Chambers.