Planning for Sustainable Development in Britain: A Pragmatic Approach

By Batty, Susan E. | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Planning for Sustainable Development in Britain: A Pragmatic Approach


Batty, Susan E., The Town Planning Review


This paper explores concerns over apparent failures to translate the rhetoric of British policy on sustainable development into recognisable and widespread success. After looking at examples of reported problems of policy and implementation, the paper asks whether we are seeing policy failure, institutional failure or a failure of political will. The paper looks at the changing responsibilities of town planners at a time when the delivery of sustainable development is identified as central to their role. But a major point of the paper is that any analysis of policy performance must understand planning as an enduring discipline distinct from any current institutional structure, so that critiques of the current system can be disentangled from critiques of the nature of urban planning.

The rhetoric of sustainable development now pervades planning and other areas of public policy, but the academic and policy literature suggest a significant degree of frustration at the lack of results and the failure of the framework to generate a professional consensus. Does this mean that the concept itself is flawed or is there a problem of implementation? Does the lack of obvious success suggest that the institutional means being used to deliver the sustainable development project are inappropriate or that we are failing to identify and measure our achievements adequately?

It is evident that there are failures in delivering sustainable development academic and professional commentators have documented many such failures over recent years - from the problems of 'not in my backyarders' (NIMBYs) in early Local Agenda 21 (LA 21) programmes (Mittler, 2001); through the UK government's need to review its sustainable development strategy (DETR, 1999; DEFRA, 2005); the responses of the built environment professions, for example, that of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI, 2003); and an increasing number of academic and planning policy papers (Senior et al., 2004).

The delivery of sustainable development is now written directly into the newer constitutions of British government such as those of the devolved Welsh and the Greater London Assemblies. Significantly, sustainable development also appears as the 'core principle underpinning planning' in Planning Policy Statement 1 (PPS i) Central Government's primary statement of the purpose of the urban planning system (ODPM, 12005). Even more significant is the choice of subtitle for PPS 1 Delivering Sustainable Development. The focus, then, is on implementation.

We will see that this policy statement is not just a formalisation of the current concern for sustainable development in planning, but it also imposes on the urban planning system a duty to implement the Government's strategy for sustainable development (DEFRA, 2005) and to act proactively to deliver results rather than as a regulatory agency. This subtle redefinition of the planner's duty exposes, possibly more than any previous planning framework, the fundamental tensions in the 'planner's triangle' (Campbell, 1996) of social, economic and environmental facets of the control of spatial resources. British urban planning institutions do little to help resolve these tensions based as they are on a long tradition of centralised policy setting working with, and sometimes against, local professional discretion.

It has been argued before that the concept of sustainable development is contested and full of inconsistencies and that urban planning institutions are only partially adapted to satisfying its needs (Batty, 2003). Within this context, it is important to understand 'planning' as an enduring academic and research discipline distinct from the current institutional structure, so that critiques of the current system can be disentangled from critiques of the nature of urban planning.

In most of the developed world, urban planning grew up in a period of economic growth, so its institutions are appropriately designed to further the first defining principle of sustainable development - the maintenance of the historical progress in the quality of life. …

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