At the heart of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework is the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. But what exactly do they mean? There really should be no argument about this. The official definition runs as follows:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Developing this further, a sustainable development has to meet three requirements which boil down to:
- it must not damage the environment for future generations
- it must meet present social needs (be politically possible)
- it must be practicable (in other words it does not need money, technology or resources that don’t exist or can’t be found)
The Reigate & Banstead Borough Council “Core Strategy: Further Amendments Dec 2012” starts section 7.1 with this opening statement:
“The Council is committed to ensuring that development will create places and spaces that are well designed and meet the needs of today and tomorrow, but not at the expense of the future.”
This is fine but the document continues as follows:
“7.1 Sustainable development
7.1.1 Underpinning this Core Strategy is a commitment by the Council to ensure that future development in the borough is achieved in a sustainable way – that it delivers prosperous and self-reliant communities whilst ensuring that the borough remains attractive, accessible and well-maintained.”
This well meaning but rather wooly statement is very different, with no mention of the environment or future generations at all. Is this a deliberate watering down, or just careless wording? I suggest this is something that needs to be addressed at the enquiry into the Core Strategy.
Perhaps the real problem for anyone writing a document based on sustainable development is that, in the real world, sustainable development is simply not possible. The three requirements for sustainable development will often conflict. You are then forced to compromise between the three requirements: environmental, social, economic. The clearest example I can think of is the continued burning of fossil fuels. Requirement 1 would require us to stop burning immediately, as the greenhouse gas concentration is already too high. This is certainly practicable (meets requirement 3), but as it would rapidly kill most of the world’s population, it’s out of the question (fails requirement 2).
So in practice we have to accept that in many cases ‘sustainable’ actually means ‘as sustainable as possible’. Green minded people have to address and overcome requirements 2 and 3 and not just concentrate on 1. Decision makers have to take more notice of requirement 1 and not just think of the needs of the present.