THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE: What does ‘sustainable development’ really mean?

‘Sustainable development’ is described as the ‘golden thread’ running through planning policy in England. The planning system is based on the presumption that development which is sustainable should be allowed to take place. But what exactly is sustainable development? This blog explains.

Sustainable development isn’t just about protecting the environment. It is about much more than that. The National Planning Policy Framework (or simply ‘the Framework’) is the government document that sets out national planning policy and explains what types of development should be allowed. Sustainable development is at the heart of that document.

The foreword summarises what sustainable development means in planning. It says that: ‘sustainable development is about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations.’

The vast majority of the Framework – some 211 paragraphs of it – then sets out in detail exactly what this means.

As the foreword points out, there are three aspects to sustainable development, each of which are equally important:

  • Economic
  • Social
  • Environmental

Let’s explore what the Framework says about each in more detail.


The planning system should work to help support economic growth. That means it should make sure that enough land is provided in the right locations to allow the right amount of development. This isn’t limited to land for offices and industrial parks though. It also means supporting town centres and delivering enough transport infrastructure.

The Framework also recognises that new homes are important in allowing the economy to grow. That’s because the government recognises that workers need homes and if a council wants to create more jobs, it needs to provide the homes for those workers to live in.


This part of sustainable development considers the impacts of development on communities and people.

New homes are a really important part of this. For example, to help address the housing crisis, sustainable development means significantly boosting the supply of new homes. That applies to both homes for sale on the open market and affordable housing to be provided at subsidised rates.

It also means planning for good quality local services, for example, through building new schools. New developments should be well designed to encourage people to interact and help them feel safe.


The planning system also aims to protect the natural and historic environments.

Most obviously, this means considering factors like the countryside, landscape value, biodiversity and the Green Belt. Other aims include minimising the use of resources (through actions like ensuring new homes are energy efficient) and working to protect us from climate change (by, for example, considering how the risk of flooding might increase in the future).

Historic buildings and their settings are irreplaceable and the planning system should work to protect and improve them, where possible.

Why does this matter?

Any development proposal is likely to impact on these three roles of sustainable development in different ways. In some ways it may have a positive effect, but in other ways it may have a negative effect. When councils make a decision on a planning application they should weigh up the pros and cons relating to each aspect of sustainable development.

This can be a complicated exercise. For example, building new homes might have social and economic benefits, but if they are to be built on a field they can be harmful from an environmental point of view. Much of national planning policy is therefore concerned with how these benefits and harms should be balanced out. In this example, the aim to significantly boost the supply of housing means providing new homes is considered to be very important. In contrast, the loss of greenfield land is given less weight unless their is something particularly special about the site (like a Green Belt designation, its landscape value, or its value for wildlife).

One of the skills of preparing a planning application is therefore making sure that as many benefits as possible are delivered. At the same time, the application should look to avoid causing any harm, or at least try to minimise its impact.

The importance which is given to the delivery of new homes is one of the reasons why development might now be allowed on sites that were considered unsuitable in the past. The Strategic Land Group specialise in working with land owners to deliver planning permission on exactly this type of site. We do that entirely at our own cost and risk. Our return is a percentage of the value of the site when it is sold – so if we don’t succeed, it doesn’t cost you a penny.

If you know of a site where you think our approach to land promotion might be beneficial, get in touch today.

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