Places Vs Landscapes & Abusing Definition of Sustainability.

As the campaigns surrounding the recent publication of the draft NPPF in the UK are gearing up and with the ongoing work by the forestry panel to determine the future of UK forestry, one fact has raised its head between all those with a relevant voice, particularly between those pro and anti NPPF. The definitions and meanings of words within the NPPF and in use by those who need to understand it alter dramatically.

This is a massive flaw of the draft NPPF, in the efforts to create simplicity it has in fact created more confusion and thus more complexity, which means it will cost more to the taxpayer.

And despite a period of several years where we have seen publication after publication of material from central and local government, quangos and NGOs, we seem to have no material available to allow us to move forward in enabling diplomacy between all those with a relevant voice.

The government departments have become too distant from one another over issues the rest of us know and assume to be interconnected, the result of them having to deal with the myriad of branches involved in the management of landscapes and environmental issues. Those within the myriad have chosen to use varying definitions and more often use ‘buzzwords’ which can be misunderstood outside the narrow boundaries of a particular profession, which whilst closely related to other branches of the management of landscape or environmental sectors have been isolated for so long that their very language has evolved.

Because of this, we can read the draft NPPF and quickly decipher where the influence in the writing of the document came from and this influence is far removed from those in the landscape / environmental & countryside sector. Subsequent to the publication many including government ministers have quickly assigned that those in opposition to the draft NPPF are to the ‘left’ in political terms, which is sheer nonsense.

 Places Vs Landscapes

When I first heard of ‘Place’ in landscape design terms, it was via a German ‘Urbaniste’ in Paris who asked me ‘what is a place designer?’ after she had heard of a UK practitioner calling themselves as such. The German urbaniste felt they were missing a wonderful new concept for progressive sustainable urban design, she wasn’t. On reading the literature on place and placemaking I initially felt that this was the coming together of landscape and home, but the more I read, it seemed little more than the twisting of words to avoid using ‘landscape’. But why do this? Is it to push aside ‘old school’ professionals and practitioners? Is it to provide a new strand of thinking and thus introduce a new industry in an already crowded sector? Or is it a way of providing a platform, parallel to the ideals held by those in landscape and environmental sectors but more digestible for the increasing amount of people and businesses who wish to jump on the bandwagon without radically changing their ways. Is Placemaking more palatable to those in the mainstream financial sector in the UK? It seems to be, as it removes associated connotations with ‘Landscape’, which is regularly at odds with quick profit development and in all the text I have read so far place making refers to increased house prices and schemes which can create profit by way of enforced charges against those that actually desire to follow a sustainable lifestyle.

It is the ‘place makers’ who have gained the ear of those writing the draft NPPF as they can demonstrate wealth creation through the twisting of sustainable ideals. Place makers are developers.

The European Landscape Convention, states that each party must undertake:

 a) to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity;

b) to establish and implement landscape policies aimed at landscape protection, management and planning through the adoption of the specific measures (set out in Article 6);

c) to establish procedures for the participation of the general public, local and regional authorities, and other parties with an interest in the definition and implementation of the landscape policies mentioned in paragraph b above;

d) to integrate landscape into its regional and town planning policies and in its cultural, environmental, agricultural, social and economic policies, as well as in any other policies with possible direct or indirect impact on landscape.

Does the NPPF therefore break the law? The omission of text referring to landscape and thus ignoring the European Landscape Convention, (ratified in the UK in 2006 and which could have aided progression of the NPPF and those who have to implement it) is worrying. In a political and media climate where anything ‘European’ is subject to scathing attacks and seen to be a threat to UK sovereignty it is understandable to avoid referral to the ELC but it is also unforgiveable and possibly illegal.

 Sustainability must be defined.

The word sustainable has been liberally dosed within the text of the NPPF. Despite using the Brundtland definition, Greg Clarks’ personal rhetoric and the text within the NPPF using ‘sustainable’ when referring to the continuation of using finite resources, we know that the literal definition provided by Brundtland is irrelevant. Sustainable has been a much abused word. I remember sitting in a conference in Cornwall about sustainable tourism, which is an oxymoron. Perhaps because I come from a forestry background where sustainable management is relatively easy and is certainly well defined, I am too quick to judge other industries that wish to progress with more environmentally, ecologically and socially ethical practice. But had they used a different term, their efforts would be less open to attack and certainly more relevant. ‘Low Impact’ is perhaps what they need to use. Although bizarrely this term is used more by those closer to achieving full sustainability than any others, because they believe that true sustainability can only be gained if absolutely all use of finite goods and energy are is stopped.

Yesterday Si Jakeman, of the ‘Great Big Earth Dig Project’ wrote an article for SOW – ‘What Does Sustainability Mean to Me?’  His interpretation of sustainability probably matches with the majority of people. However he states:

‘’Businesses are slowly coming on board with sustainability, but do they truly understand why they need to? Or are they only using it as green wash? Does a new level of Sustainability need to emerge, one of DEEP SUSTAINABILITY?’’ 

Unfortunately I have to agree with him, there now needs to be a different definitions of sustainability and with regards ‘sustainable development’ (where different levels of sustainable exist via ‘The Code for Sustainable Homes’) will it be allowed presumption in favour of, even if it only gained CSH level 1?

Andrew Lainton goes much further in the examination of the use of sustainable with regards the NPPF and concludes:

‘’This is the single greatest weakness of the NPPF. A presumption in favour of sustainable development badly defined and poorly operationalised, as here, is simply a presumption in favour of development without limits – unsustainable development.’’

It is easy to leave all judgements down to the local authorities and planners and thus it is up to them to further define sustainability, but this will surely result in high costs and a long period of time where development is either halted or made more costly awaiting the establishment of precedents by common law.

In the rush to simplify and publish the NPPF the government have forgotten to supply vital reference. The lack of referral material thus negates any practical usefulness for the NPPF. As well as placing before the electorate a consultation which appears to be in breach of the Governments own ‘Code of Practice on Consultation’:

 ‘1.2 It is important that consultation takes place when the Government is ready to put sufficient information into the public domain to enable an effective and informed dialogue on the issues being consulted on. But equally, there is no point in consulting when everything is already settled. The consultation exercise should be scheduled as early as possible in the project plan as these factors allow.’

The fact is that the NPPFs’ vagueness does not help either the developer or those opposed to it. And if anyone assumes that the NPPF allows for fast tracking development and thus creating economic growth they are sadly neglecting the power of local communities who can and will fight against development proposals due to flimsiness of the NPPF. Any organisation or individual putting their head above the parapet at the moment and praising the need to progress with sustainable development have to clarify what they believe is sustainable development otherwise what they say is useless.

Even sadder is that if the NPPF truly embraced Sustainable development as per Brundtland with presumption in favour of development which absolutely adheres to the non use of finite resources it would have allowed for extraordinary growth and the birth of new industries. Instead as with the oil and chemical industries a continual rise in subsidies will be required to try and stimulate growth in a sector that has already reached maturity.

The only people and sector which could possibly gain from the NPPF as it stands at the moment are property lawyers and chartered surveyors, no wonder RICS are so enthusiastic about it.

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3 Comments

Filed under Forests, Natural Heritage, Trees and Woodlands

3 responses to “Places Vs Landscapes & Abusing Definition of Sustainability.

  1. The Council of Europe’s European Landscape Convention is not binding as the Council of Europe has no legal powers over the UK. In fact, the Convention leaves it up to individual Governments to choose the means to implement the Convention, suggesting that they should fit in as comfortably as possible with the country’s own traditions.

    The Convention asks Governments to:
    “recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity”
    I am worried by this. It encourages Governments to give primacy to cultural landscapes in protected area strategies, promoting the UK national park approach as the panacea and undermining efforts to protect landscapes in a more natural and wild state. National Parks in the UK are not protected for their wildlife value – far from it as there is little restriction on the farming use of the land other than regulations about change or development of man-made physical structures.

  2. It is my understanding that unless the UK withdraws from the commitments of the ELC it is binding, (as with the Human Rights legal instruments by way of the Council of Europe) and applies ”to all landscapes, towns and villages, as well as open countryside; the coast and inland areas; and ordinary or even degraded landscapes, as well as those that are afforded protection”.

    England can thus far be accused of ignoring the ELC in terms of the landscapes that matter, surely a result of having chosen to produce landscape character assesments via a quango rather than as with most other signatory states by promoting those in landscape to do so themselves. This is perhaps why the ELC is readily associated with ‘protected niche’ landscapes in the UK rather than being a platform for a true bottom up approach in the landscapes where people dominate, either in the past or present.

    Therefore England can already be accused of failing to honour the text of the convention which includes – ‘Official landscape activities can no longer be allowed to be an exclusive field of study or action monopolised by specialist scientific and technical bodies.’ & ‘Every citizen has a share in the landscape and in the duty of looking after it, and the well-being of landscapes is closely linked to the level of public awareness. Campaigns for informing and educating the public, elected representatives and associations about the value of present and future landscapes should be organised in this perspective.’

    In the draft NPPF the lack of referral of the ELC is a worry, the ELC states ‘systematically accommodate landscape into the country’s spatial and town-planning policies, its cultural, environmental, agricultural, social and economic policies, and any other policy sector, which may have direct or indirect impact on the landscape, such as transport. The point of this provision is that landscape is not a question to be treated as a specialist field of public affairs. Landscape can be affected for good or ill by action in many sectors. Hence the need for governments to ensure that landscape objectives are taken into account in all relevant sectors of public life.’

    Effectively unless the government can prove that the NPPF contains ‘stricter provisions of other instruments that treat landscape even more favourably.’ than the legal instrument that is the ELC it is in breach of the ELC text.

    In theory and as I witness in France, the bottom up approach encouraged by the ELC should not create any harm to semi natural habitats, as contained within English National Parks, but we all know that the last vestiges of semi natural or areas of outstanding beauty are by default increasingly not only the playground of the rich and powerful, but also seen as high property investment areas. As such the local voice may not be saying what one would expect in such locations.

  3. Arthur Robertson

    Having read a number of blogs and articles surrounding the issue of the draft NPPF and coming from a development background I have to say that I agree totally in that the NPPF which has been dressed and sent out for consultation is not fit for purpose. This was a golden opportunity to rise above our devolved immediate neighbours instead the NPPF is lacking and if adopted will result in more problems and costly ones at that. I am shocked at the way some of the associations for home buidling and development have decided to front a bare teethed attack on those who have realised its flaws and in being so bumptious with the aid of government is further weakening both any future for the NPPF as well as their own positions which do not tie in with what I hear from the majority of colleagues within the building trade. Truth is thay we have struggled to get a straight answer about sustainability for a long time now, we see money or policies thrown out there which do nothing but keep a large network of hangers on in salary, from those who create so called sustainable products which are too costly to use through to crowds of governmental people who enjoy the power but do not understand the realities, we are treated as stupid at all times. I can take anyone to sites where the local community and the planners have identified a real need for housing as well as the desired locations mapped out but there is always some problem made by another party or an added cost that means that the investment would not be a good one. As I have heard so often the NPPF is a missed opportunity and illustrates the general problem with a government who do not give themselves the time to develop what good ideas and in doing so revert the whole sector affected back to 0.

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