Economic growth = sustainability…?

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for some weeks and have been doing my usual thing of not getting around to it for one reason or another, then just accumulating loads of bits of information, resulting in a longer than necessary post!

The problem with this subject is that there are so many strands which relate to it. Keeping it concise is slightly difficult. But, the two things which i’ll focus on are sustainable economic growth and sustainability in town planning – cue a major interest blackout! : )

I don’t believe economic growth is sustainable and that the doctrine of sustainable growth basically amounts to a total rejection of logic, which ignores reality on many levels.

Growth cannot be sustained indefinitely because we live on a planet with finite space and resources. The people, or customers, who are meant to drive this indefinite growth also have finite resources. The only way for one country or company to grow is to take over business or resources from existing countries or companies.

What is termed growth from the point of view of one group, is termed recession by another. The only thing which could be termed as sustainable is the increase in birth control rates, or maybe the reduction in the use of fossil fuels, or the sharp reduction in the use of any number of other finite resources.Growing is not sustainable, unless of course there was another Earth which happened to appear close enough to our own planet, which we could use to sustain our own voracious appetite for resources.

Into what is our economy growing and how can that be sustained indefinitely?

How many planets worth of resources do we feel we need to consume before we realise this is total nonsense?

A concept which sustains the richest and most privileged people on earth, while at the same time suppressing the 90% of the world’s poor population.

An example of a recent Government document which involves this issue is the release of the Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which aims to condense and simplify many thousands of pages of existing policy in to a 65 page document, meaning greater accessibility by the general public.

Surprisingly, various media groups have picked up on this and are taking the implications of the document seriously. The contents of the draft policy framework will affect all new development in England, therefore it will affect every person who lives in this country.

Both Monbiot and Damian Carrington from the Guardian have delved into this murky subject, as have others from leading papers.

The central and most hotly disputed element of the new framework involves the use of the word ‘sustainable’. This latest policy introduces the concept of ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. What’s wrong with that?

– The document doesn’t define what sustainable development actually is

– Saying that a development should be granted planning permission if it is sustainable (while not defining the term) overlooks all other aspects of design and impacts on existing developments

– The NPPF applies as the only policy document which can be used to determine an application, IF the local development plan (Local Plan) is considered out of date (70% of Local Plans are in this category).

In the absence of an up to date local development plan, a developer will be able to get anything through if they can argue that their plans are sustainable.

I was talking with a colleague at work a few weeks ago about this and how subjective the word ‘sustainable’ is, with so many different interpretations. Once you get past the literal dictionary definition and start trying to apply the principle, the problems start.

Just looking at the first section of the NPPF is worrying…

13. The Government is committed to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support sustainable economic growth. A positive planning system is essential because, without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved. Planning must operate to encourage growth and not act as an impediment. (p.4 NPPF)

‘Without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved’. Ok, such a serious statement would surely need a fair bit of justification? Apparently not.

Sir Peter Hall, writing in the Planning magazine (Issue 1915, 12/08/11), points out that…

‘In the absence of an up to date and consistent plan, planning applications should be determined in accord with this framework, including its presumption on favour of sustainable development’

‘So a lack of a plan means a thumbs up for development. That’s new, but it simply says that lazy or incompetent – or, if you prefer, overworked and understaffed – local planning authorities, or those using inaction to stall development, are stymied.’

It’s the lack of an up-to-date local plan which is the worrying bit. Most local councils do not have one and it has to be within 5 years of being published to be counted as such.

p.6 of Planning Magazine – article by Jamie Carpenter and Susanna Gillman: ‘Only 30% of councils have adopted local plans, according to figures released last month by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).’

So, it’s not just about the wording of the new Framework, but more to do with what impact that will have.

Two main issues that will determine how all new development in this country will be dealt with includes the high level of local authorities who will be open to the full impact of the NPPF, and the major uncertainty over the terminology of ‘sustainable development’.



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