Comment: NPPF lacks long-term vision

20 April 2012

The long-awaited National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been well-received for its emphasis on local decision-making and urban redevelopment. But what about a cohesive, long-term vision? Asks professor Mark Gaterell, Professor of Sustainable Construction, Low Impact Buildings Centre, Coventry University.

Much of the success of the NPPF depends on how sustainable development is defined. Our UK experience suggests that, at worst, it is a rather vague notion that has something to do with the consumption of resources. Sustainable should mean energy efficient, built in the appropriate places and with access to the right levels of services which mean people want to be there over time - and this vision needs to be central to all the decision-making throughout the (re)development process.

Once we are clear this is what we're aiming for, we have to ensure developers and their contractors prove they are delivering, that the "as-built" performance of buildings actually reflects on the design spec. Too often we have been left with developments that do not deliver the required level of performance in terms of efficiencies, and do not have access to the shops, schools and other facilities and services that help communities work in the longer term.  A consistent, inclusive approach based on local decision-making offers the opportunity to address some of these issues but we must demand evidence that our buildings perform as intended.

A clear vision is needed for any shift to sustainability to be genuine. The UK continues to face a huge challenge in terms of the availability of the necessary materials, products, technologies, knowledge and skills we need to ensure our developments are genuinely 'low impact'. However, if the construction industry, architects and planners are to have the confidence to invest in new technologies, training staff or change their thinking they need a clear long-term commitment from Government that is based on a comprehensive strategy. While the much heralded Green Deal focuses on the huge challenges facing our existing stock, the nature, scope and timing of its full implementation are likely to be seen as something of a litmus test of the Government's true commitment to helping the construction industry deliver a low carbon built environment. It is therefore critical that they demonstrate that they understand the often complex challenges associated with vehicles of this type and are willing to deal with them head-on. Any such demonstration can only help engender the necessary confidence in the revised NPF.

Ultimately, in any development or re-development in the 21st century, building something that we consider to be sustainable now is only the beginning. Ensuring its long-term performance in the shadow of uncertain future conditions, its resilience, is what matters. Without ensuring the necessary adaptability and flexibility is built into our developments that would allow them to respond effectively to demographic, climatic or socio-technical changes we risk building-in obsolescence; leaving a legacy of a built environment that does not fulfil its promise and is not viable in the long term. While localised decision-making focused on sustainable development is welcome driving principle, a continuing lack of vision for resilience across the country risks our chances of delivering a truly sustainable future.

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