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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:41 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat 12:41 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, while respecting what planning has achieved over the last 50 years, there is no doubt that it can still be improved: to encourage local people to get involved in the decisions that affect their lives; to reduce delays; and, indeed, to deliver the sustainable development that we all know we need. As such, the Government's attempts to reform the planning system should be welcomed, and I understand the rationale for cutting the plethora of guidance and regulations down to a manageable size, into this new national planning policy framework.

A readable document for committed but time-poor councillors at the sharp end of planning decisions up and down the country seems no bad thing. However, in slimming things down, policies get lost and confusion can-and indeed has-been created. I believe the Government when they say this is a genuine consultation because I have found Ministers receptive to listening to the real concerns over a number of policies that I and others have raised, and for that I am grateful.

Today I would like to concentrate on two overarching issues. The first is the clarity of intent. It is to be welcomed that the national planning policy framework defines the first principle of planning as helping to "achieve sustainable development". However, the current document is insufficiently clear or coherent in its articulation of what sustainable development is. The reference to Brundtland in paragraph 9 is effectively marooned because the document does not outline any detailed mechanism for its implementation. Part of the reason for this must be our belief in localism-something we Liberal Democrats share with our coalition partners-and that means giving local councils the power to articulate their vision of sustainable development for their area through genuinely sovereign local development plans. However, the lack of any strategic vision means that we will be the only country in northern Europe not to articulate a spatial strategy.

In the absence of such a clear vision from the Government articulating what might or might not be appropriate in spatial planning terms, it is imperative that the definition of sustainable development is clear from the outset about the expected route of travel. If we do not do this, we risk failing to meet the multiple challenges facing us over the next 20 years and beyond: the challenges of a rising population, the need to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the transition to a low-carbon economy. Therefore, it is imperative to revise the draft national planning policy framework to incorporate upfront the definition of sustainable development that is currently used in the UK sustainable development strategy, as has been previously mentioned by Members on the other Benches. Its five widely accepted principles provide a common framework for sustainable development and establish the twin goals of living within environmental limits and providing a just society by means of good governance, social science and a sustainable economy.

Secondly, I would like to comment on the language of the document-or rather, as I see it, its poverty of expression. In the national debate about the future of planning, there is insufficient conformity in the language about what sustainable development means. Throughout this document, and indeed in ministerial statements and comments, the language of sustainable development too often morphs into references to the importance of sustainable economic growth. This lack of conformity leads to a sense that economic imperatives are not equal but superior to social and environmental imperatives.

One notable example is in paragraph 13, the first paragraph under the heading "The presumption in favour of sustainable development". Its focus on sustainable economic growth, arguing that,

"without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved", is reinforced with a demand that,

"significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth".

This sends out an unequal message about the relative importance of economic growth in delivering the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The language of the document needs to be tightened up throughout to indicate that, while economic growth is vital, it does not equate to this Government's understanding of what sustainable development is.

Recognising that economic growth is vital should not make us fearful of articulating what is special and precious about our landscape. However, gone from this document is the statement of the importance of protecting the countryside for its own sake, leaving a sense that what matters is only what can be counted or how much something contributes to GDP. Of course our natural environment has an economic value. The recent UK national ecosystem assessment found that ecosystem services and the natural environment are worth billions of pounds to the UK economy, and hundreds of thousands of jobs are supported by the natural environment through industries such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, conservation and tourism. Tourists flock to see the majesty of the Highlands and the Lake District, to wonder at the rugged coastline of Cornwall, to travel through the patchwork quilt of Devon fields or indeed the wooded coombes of my native Surrey.

The rallying cry in my local church the other week was, "Beauty is to the spirit what food is to the body". I am reminded of that as I pause to consider that our country is more than a geographical mass. It is a place where humans interact with nature, where cities reflect our shared history and where our culture and our sense of who we are is often expressed through our sense of place. It should be no crime to want to articulate what makes this country-particularly our countryside-so special. We should not be afraid to say that what makes it special is worth protecting and enhancing so that we can hand on a country to our children that can enrich their lives as surely as it has ours.