In the context of the recent debate over the NPPF I have wondered just how one ought to reconcile the government’s proposed policy emphasis for the spatial planning system with existing (indeed ongoing) commitments to the management of landscapes under the European Landscape convention (ELC).
The ELC is a Council of Europe treaty that was signed in Florence in 2000 and came into force in England in 2007. Most of the principles of the convention are adequately followed by current policy, but the government are still pursuing a strategy for full implementation which is due to be completed in 2013.
The Convention provides a very useful way to holistically describe the relationships that people have with their surroundings and the way meaning is derived from them. From this alone it should be clear how appropriate this vision is to describe the goals of the planning system:
Landscape as defined in the ELC is without doubt one of the most significant terms used to describe the value embodied in the places that we live. It is a significant concept as it incorporates all aspects of the built and natural environment, takes account of the character of an area, its landmarks and its cultural make-up, including the people that live there and their ways of life – however, it is not a static idea, landscapes are constantly evolving, and require management and planning, as well as protection.
However, the use of landscape as a concept employed within the NPPF does little to evoke the same image of the value of existing places and does not successfully describe the government’s commitment to ‘achieve sustainable development based on a balanced and harmonious relationship between the social needs, economic activity and the environment’ (ELC 2000).
It is perhaps because the ELC falls within the legislative portfolio of DEFRA rather than the DCLG (which would perhaps now be a more logical home for it) that the Convention has been all but overlooked throughout the process of drafting and debating the NPPF.
This is a shame, for even as Natural England and English Heritage under DEFRA are pursuing a programme to ensure UK adherence to the philosophy of the ELC and promote it to the public, the National Trust, CPRE and other critics of the NPPF are crying out for just such a commitment from DCLG.
How is it that we should interpret this apparent lack of coherence between government departments in respect to two apparently different ethical approaches to the management of landscapes? Can critics of the NPPF’s perceived unbalance in favour of developers take comfort in the government’s position on the ELC and its continued role in protecting landscapes through intelligent and balanced management, or must we assume that the ELC will be buried beneath the current drive for economic recovery and development efficiency despite costs to the cultural and natural environments?
Natural England (the main partner NGO assisting with the implementation of the ELC) did raise concerns over the lack of an adequate linking of definitions and emphases between the NPPF and ELC in its very low profile consultation response (available here), however with little or no media attention on the European legislative commitments of government, it seems that this is not an area that will receive any great attention until after the publication of the final text of the NPPF in March.