Just what is ‘sustainable development’?

With the National Planning Policy Framework still fresh and being ruminated over, one theme that is never far from thought is sustainable development. With the term now enshrined in planning law, what does it mean?

The NPPF document opens with this:

International and national bodies have set out broad principles of sustainable development. Resolution 42/187 of the United Nations General Assembly defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs*. The UK Sustainable Development Strategy Securing the Future set out five ‘guiding principles’ of sustainable development: living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly.

Resolution 42/187 is a reference to the report ‘Our Common Future’ produced by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. The Brundtland Commission was established in 1983 by the United Nations with the goal of uniting countries to work together in the pursuit of sustainable development. The Commission was dissolved at the end of 1987 following publication of the report.

In the Brundtland definition, there are two key concepts of sustainable development:

  • The concept of needs. The basic, essential requirements for human life, weighted toward the world’s poorest people, who should be given overriding priority,
  • The idea of limitations as imposed by current technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet both present and future needs.

The report also identifies three pillars of sustainable development – economic growth (economy), environmental protection (environment) and social equity (society).

So that’s the background. The NPPF takes this a step further with those five guiding principles:

  1. Living within the planet’s environmental limits,
  2. Ensuring a “strong, healthy and just society”,
  3. Achieving a sustainable economy,
  4. Promoting good governance,
  5. Using sound science.

Those are basically, the three pillars with firm foundations of good governance and sound science. This is further spelt out in the Framework:

…to achieve sustainable development, economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system. The planning system should play an active role in guiding development to sustainable solutions.

So far, so clear. I hoped that the framework would further explore each of these areas to provide greater clarity and provide narrower definitions that could facilitate meaningful debate. In that I was disappointed, the five principles remain bones with very little flesh on them except what we can imply from the framework. The words governance and science don’t even appear in the report again after that opening quotation.

I know I’m being unreasonable, I know that this is a framework and there’s still plenty of work to do. But currently, the answer to the question “just what is sustainable development (currently in the UK) ?” seems to be “it depends” and that is more a lawyers charter than anything else.

* I quite like the acronym ELF – Environment, Local people, Future






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