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Legal definition of sustainability ruled out

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The government has been accused of “paying lip service” to protecting the environment after refusing to define in law what ‘sustainable development’ means.

Joan Walley MP (Lab), chair of the environmental audit committee, said her committee had been “fobbed off” after ministers refused to act on one of its key recommendations.

Changes proposed in the localism bill will introduce a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, meaning that councils default answer to planning applications should be ‘yes’.

In a report in March, the committee called for the bill to include a definition of the term ‘sustainable development’ and for it to include “the five recognised principles of sustainable development”.

However, in its response to the report, published on Monday, the government said the measures would not be necessary as the new National Planning Policy Framework would outline “the key principles that should underpin every aspect of planning”, making a legal definition unnecessary.

This response was met with scorn by Ms Walley.

“If there’s going to be a presumption in favour of sustainable development, it has to be properly defined – that’s what the committee recommended,” she said. “Unfortunately ministers seem to be fobbing us off with their response.

“Instead of offering vague and woolly assurances that the countryside is not at risk from these new rules, they should define what they mean by sustainable development in law – and put people’s concerns to rest. Until we see an adequate definition of sustainable development, the suspicion will remain that the government is simply paying lip service to protecting the environment.”

Meanwhile, David Symons, director at global environmental consultancy WSP Environment & Energy, said not providing a definition would serve to complicate, rather than simplify the planning system.

“Without a clear definition, different planning authorities will interpret sustainable development differently,” he said. “ Some will focus just on what is proposed, others will focus on the design while still others might focus on the impact of the building process itself.  Planners and developers alike will be uncertain about what is required.”

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