Sustainability Appraisals: A Need for Change?

Earlier this year the Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG) proposed that the Sustainability Appraisal process be reduced to a single report that assess the submitted plan.

The LPEG was established by the Government to look at improving the efficiency and efficacy of local plan making. At present, Sustainability Appraisal runs in parallel to the Local Plan-making process from initial evidence gathering, through multiple iterations and rounds of consultation, to the final plan submission. Its purpose is to inform the decision making process on environmental, social and economic sustainability. While the Local Authority is not obliged to take forward the most sustainable option, where they don’t, they are required to account for that decision.

With any significant change to policy, there are those in favour and the naysayers. So what are people in the know saying about this?

In evidence given to the LPEG by the RSPB it was said that Sustainability Appraisals “must continue to be used to appraise plan options as an iterative part of the plan making process”.

Evidence from The Community Voice on Planning, a national alliance of local groups promoting sustainable development, said that reducing the sustainability appraisal process would “reduce the sustainability of the planning process”.

The LPEG argue that sustainability appraisals have become “an industry in their own right” that can be “self-serving” and “capable of being adapted to any outcome”. If that really is the case then without doubt, there is a problem that needs addressing.

But what is that problem? And is it addressed or exacerbated by reducing the Sustainability Appraisal process? Does the problem lie within the process itself or the way it is being applied? Perhaps both.

If the LPEG are right in their assessment of the function iterative Sustainability Appraisals are playing in practice, then it seems likely that the appraisal process does need to change. But if you simply reduce Sustainability Appraisal down to a single assessment just prior to submission, isn’t there a risk that a Local Plan will incorporate even fewer sustainability considerations?

There is no doubt that there’s a growing need to drive up the impact of sustainability in development planning. But perhaps there is a solution that promotes win-win outcomes for plan-making and sustainability alike?

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