Planning Reform in England – what is the end goal?
Peter Geraghty MCIOB FCABE FRTPI FRSA FAcSS – Executive Director at Hertsmere Borough Council
The consultation period on government’s planning reform proposals is now closed. In launching those proposals the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government eulogised:
“These once in a generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country. We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.”
Given that these reforms were considered to be a once in a generation opportunity – it is of considerable surprise that there is not one single mention of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the White Paper consultation. Following the adoption of the goals the then prime minister, David Cameron, issued a clarion-call to the whole world to “inspire the world with what we want to achieve”.
Given the importance of the UN’s SDGs and the government’s commitment to achieving them, as expressed by the prime minister, it is difficult to comprehend why they weren’t mainstreamed through the proposed planning reforms. A similar ambivalence to the revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) from 2018, resulted in another golden opportunity being missed. The revisions to the NPPF and the White Paper offer the chance to raise awareness amongst planning professionals and to mainstream SDGs into planning practice. For SDG11 not to be even mentioned in the Government’s Planning White Paper, from a practitioner’s perspective, is difficult to comprehend and reinforces the view expressed recently by the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons that:
“the Government has not yet done enough to drive awareness and embed the SDGs across the UK–including within Government itself. We reiterate the recommendation made in our predecessor Committee’s 2017 report that the Government should do everything it can to support partners (government agencies, local government, civil society, business and the public) to contribute towards delivering the Goals. The Government should show leadership …” 
Since the adoption of the SDGs on the 1 January 2016, little, if anything, has been done since to mainstream them into planning practice in England. Concern has been expressed from the outset about the lack of awareness of the existence and relevance of SDGs. In 2016, the HoC International Development Committee reported:
“The Government’s response to domestic implementation of the SDGs has so far been insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all … Engagement of government departments will be central to the success of domestic implementation, which itself has an impact on making progress on the goals globally.”
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has pointed out, that a voice at the top of Government speaking for the long-term aspirations embodied in the SDGs is vitally necessary. The government White Paper was an opportunity to demonstrate that leadership. Many of the issues identified in the White Paper could have been framed in the context of the SDGs. The three pillars could have been used as the basis for demonstrating how the SDGs could have been achieved. If local democracy is to be at the heart of the planning process the SDGs and the accompanying New Urban Agenda need to be fully embraced and implemented.
17 Goals to Transform Our World
The Sustainable Development Goals are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection. More important than ever, the goals provide a critical framework for COVID-19 recovery. Read more here
If local authorities are to be ‘inspired’ to adopt the UN’s SDGs they need the Government to provide the lead and set the context for them and the New Urban Agenda. The failure to provide such context makes mainstreaming the SDGs that much more difficult. As the government considers the responses to the consultation it leaves the question unanswered – planning reform in England – what really is the end goal?
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 1491 (10 January 2019), p.p. 3-4
House of Commons International Development Committee, (2016), UK implementation of the sustainable development goals, first report of session 2016–17, HC 103, House of Commons: London, p. 34.
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, (2017), Sustainable Development Goals in the UK, 26 HC 596 of session 2016–17, London, p. 3 and 31.
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