Sustainable development is no longer a popular catch phrase used by environmental activists. It is now a matter of policy and planning at the highest levels in the UK and other countries. The Regional Spatial Strategy is a large-scale attempt by the UK to address both the environmental impact of human living in the UK and the spatial needs of its various regions. In 2005 Planning Policy Statement 1 was released by the UK government, and in 2006 the Southwest RDA released its response to the government’s Regional Spatial Strategy.
In Planning Policy Statement 1, the government recognizes that several issues are required to maintain positive spatial planning for the country. It recognizes the importance of environmental protection, social progress which includes peoples’ needs and a careful use of the country’s natural resources. In other words – harmony and balance between people and nature. The policy paper uses terms such as “sustainable development”, “inclusive design”, and a distinct need to preserve England’s unique historical countryside. One of the key principles in this policy statement is the recognition of global climate change and England’s role in helping to address both its causes and the possible impact. There is the recognition that national, regional and local authorities and bodies must work together in order to be successful in sustainable planning. The report also places responsibilities on local communities to be involved with the process, which suggests that consumer input will be considered important. The report is a rather high-minded document which is often indicative of policy statements. Yet, as with many statements of this kind, it is less about creating a document that states what the government is committed to and what constitutes sustainable design, than it is about what action the government actually takes.
Still, the document provides an extremely positive foundation for regional planning and sets a positive tone for the future of sustainable development in England. In order to facilitate regional development, the Local Development Framework was created by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004. The Local Development Framework can then address issues such as conservation areas, the countryside (and its protection), heritage sites, city centres, green policies, villages and neighbourhoods and a broad range of issues that affect planning at the local level. The purpose of this part of the strategy is to divide up responsibility but also allow for local input rather than imposing ideas at the national or regional levels. Since the use of space is a very personal thing, it is necessary to allow for communities and neighbourhoods to have significant input into the transformation of their communities for sustainable development.
England is a country with hundreds of buildings that are centuries old. Needless to say, sustainable development wasn’t on the minds of their builders, but it is now our responsibility. In order to preserve and protect England’s unique historical heritage, local authorities will have to assess ways of designing plans that do not in any way endanger these sites. At the same time, however, the future of design and development will have to be considered.
Additional issues which are covered in the RSS but must be deal with at the local level are issues related to environmental impact, sometimes referred to in popular culture as ‘green issues’. These include air and water quality, transportation, recycling, waste reduction and the development of sustainable or eco-housing. A 2008 report by the Department for Communities and Local Government: London (2008) lays out the fact that monitoring based on twenty indicators will serve as a framework for how well the RSS and the Local Development Framework are working together. Each category has its own sub-categories such biomass which breaks down into: plant biomass, animal biomass, municipal and solid waste, landfill gas and more. This level of detail suggests that the Local Development Framework takes this initiative very seriously and each neighbourhood, community, town, city and region will be accountable for a much higher level of dedication and commitment to sustainable development.
According to the website Planning Help the local development framework will replace local plans and unitary development plans. This is to facilitate the restoration and protection of towns and countryside in rural England.
A detailed analysis of the RSS is provided by a website entitled, ‘enabling projects’. Their critique is a rather positive one as they suggest that the new strategy is not just a series of policies and programs, but a “paradigm shift”. They believe that sustainable development is the core principle behind the entire strategy. This would suggest that England is taking regional planning in an entirely new direction. It is not simply about redesigning space and accommodating people, but recognizing that people and their creations have a profound impact on the environment which we must get into check now. It is a recognition that reversing the damage of global climate change is within our grasp if we take significant steps to make the necessary changes in how we use space.
However, an environment group, Friends of the Earth (FOE, 2006), have some strong criticisms for the RSS. They note that there is a great deal of accountability expected at the regional and local levels, but they state some very specific concerns about this.
We are concerned that there is lack of information about the regional planning process, with many communities in the regions completely unaware of the review of RSS. We also strongly object to the exclusive ‘invitation only’ model of testing regional policy. We believe there should be a right to be heard at examinations in public[…] (“Regional Spatial Strategy 2006, p.4).
A major concern of FOE is that both the national strategy and the Local Development Framework are far too focused on short-term initiatives rather than long-term goals. At the outset of their document (2006) they state the following considerations must be primary: living within our environmental limits, maintaining people’s health and well being, social cohesion, social inclusion, a sense of justice, economic growth and people who impose social and environmental costs should pay for them. Friends of the Earth also criticize the RSS for its policy on climate change. They consider it to be reactive rather than proactive. In other words, they want to deal with the symptoms and not the cause. In particular, they would like to see a far more aggressive set of actions recommended on reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Friends of the Earth also believe that RSS should adopt a separate action for clime change given that it is the most serious environmental problem that we face. They criticize the current strategy for being far too lenient. The organization believes the RSS needs to modify its goal as low to zero carbon emissions. According to FOE, another goal for RSS must be explicit targets for the generation of renewable energy. There should also be restrictions on any building or development which can damage the environment or which increases carbon emissions. Another significant area where FOE believes that the RSS can be far more aggressive is around the issue of transportation. Modern society’s reliance on private car ownership is one of the greatest contributing factors to high levels of carbon emissions. Friends of the Earth believe that England must take a far tougher stand in order to reduce carbon emissions from all forms of transportation. This would include the development of public transportation facilities to reduce or eliminate the need for a private car. It also means creating alternative fuels for air travel.
CASE STUDY: DARTMOOR NATIONAL PARK
Dartmoor National Park, one of England’s national wonders is in danger due to climate change and other forms of environmental damage.
Key habitats on Dartmoor include moor and heath, woodland and hedgebanks, blanket bog,rivers and streams. These habitats can be vulnerable to damage for example through agricultural change, development, pollution, and climate change (“State of the Park Report- Sense of Place” 2008, p.1).
The Dartmoor National Park Management Plan 2007-2012 is the key set of strategies outlined to protect and preserve this national treasure. The plan reflects the ability to use the RSS and the Local Development Framework to outline a plan using sustainable development as the core principle while working at the local level. The National Park Authority which manages the park will produce an annual report to determine if the goals of this very ambitious plan are being met.
The State of the Park report identifies Dartmoor as being one of the most tranquil places in the country; a place where people can still find absolute quiet and stillness. Yet, this is in danger due to the increasing amount of traffic, road lights and other intrusions of modern life. It may be that in our desire to see those most beautiful places, we actually endanger them merely by visiting them. The implication of this aspect of the report is that visiting a natural wonder such as Dartmoor must be reconsidered. There must be new strategies designed for actually visiting the park so that the act of visitation does not impose even more harm on the park.
There has been success in protecting Dartmoor as a result of this local management plan. Over 66% of targets have been reached in the plan to preserve and protect the wildlife and habitats of Dartmoor. This suggests that plans which use sustainability as a core principle can work not only in theory but in practicality. Yet, there are still gains to be made. One of the most difficult areas to protect are plans and animals, especially small, endangered species. This task requires a great deal of money and is often labour-intensive. There must be an even stronger commitment to ensure that species currently at risk do not become extinct.
As with many local places in England, Dartmoor has its own unique culture. With that come traditions and events that are important to the people who live there. It is essential that any management plan in effect considers the importance of Dartmoor’s unique cultural heritage. People who live in Dartmoor have also learned and preserved important traditional skills such as thatching and hedgelaying, many of which go back centuries and represent an important part of England’s history.
Dartmoor also happens to be an important centre of archaeological remains. The Dartmoor National Park Management Plan recognizes this. Prehistoric stone rows in Dartmoor are a testament to its archaeological importance and there may have been settlements in the area going as far back as 400 B.C. This marks the region as not only important to England but to the entire world as it contains some of the remnants of our earliest human settlements. The management plan will also provide an annual assessment of the 2,750 buildings in Dartmoor since over 100 of them were determined to be at risk in 2007.
Regional Spatial Strategy is a very determined and ambitious plan for England. While there is some concern that some of the policies and/or guidelines do not go far enough with respect to environmental protection, it is an enormous and positive beginning. If other countries would follow England’s example there would likely be more definitive progress in fighting global warming and other serious environmental issues. There is no such entity as a perfect plan but this particular one identifies England as taking an enormous step forward in the fight to create a more sustainable future not just for Britain but for the world. When a country as influential as England marks sustainable development as one of its core principles for the future, it provides inspiration for the rest of the European Union and certainly other countries in the world. Under President George W. Bush, there has been much concern that he has ignored the environment and the serious damage the human carbon footprint creates. The RSS will hopefully inspire America’s new president and other world leaders to take similar steps. While it is not a perfect plan, it is an excellent step forward.