Sustainability in the Housing White Paper - an afterthought?

Sustainability in the Housing White Paper - an afterthought?


Author: Angus Evers

Applies to: England and Wales

The Housing White Paper contains little mention of the environmental and wider sustainability impacts of the scale of development it envisages, until the very end.

Surprisingly, it also contains some further policy proposals for onshore wind energy, which do not seem to have any direct relevance to housing.

Tucked away at the back of the Housing White Paper (White Paper) are three pages dealing with various issues relating to 'Sustainable development and the environment' in the context of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) - the meaning of 'sustainable development', climate change factors, flood risk, noise impacts on new developments and onshore wind energy. The fact that these issues are only addressed in the last three pages of the White Paper suggests that the government does not want them to stand in the way of delivering new housing, although it is of course the case that any significant new housing developments and related infrastructure will require environmental impact assessment as part of the planning process.

Sustainable development

There has been much debate over what ''sustainable development' actually means and a range of different definitions exist. The NPPF contains a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but without actually defining what it means. The government is therefore proposing to amend the NPPF to make it clear that sustainable development has 3 dimensions - economic, social and environmental - and that those dimensions, together with the core planning principles and policies contained in the NPPF, together constitute the government's view of what the term 'sustainable development' means in the context of the English planning system. While this clarification may seem welcome, it does risk creating an approach whereby sustainable development means whatever the government says it means in the NPPF, rather than any of the other generally accepted definitions for the term (such as the 'Brundtland' definition).

Climate change

The NPPF already requires local planning authorities to consider and address a range of climate change impacts such as flood risk, coastal change, and water supply and demand considerations. However, the White Paper proposes adding rising temperatures to the list of factors that local planning authorities must consider in plan-making and making it clear that local planning policies should support measures for the future resilience of communities and infrastructure to climate change. Both these changes focus on adaptation to climate change, which seems sensible given the inevitability of rising temperatures.


One of the consequences of climate change is an increased risk of flooding. Large-scale housing development is likely to exacerbate this risk unless it is managed through the application of robust policies to protect both new and existing developments from flooding. The White Paper therefore proposes amending the NPPF to clarify the application of the 'Exception Test', to tighten up the requirements for minor developments and changes of use as regards flood risk impact, and to require local plans to address cumulative flood risks resulting from the combined impacts of a number of new, but separate, developments in or affecting areas susceptible to flooding. Again, these proposals seem sensible, but it remains to be seen how they would be applied by local planning authorities under pressure to achieve higher housing delivery targets.


There have been a number of high profile cases, particularly in London, where concerns have been raised about the impact on existing uses (mainly entertainment uses) of new residential development. Although the NPPF and the Planning Practice Guidance incorporate elements of the 'agent of change' principle in relation to noise, this has not always prevented residents in new developments from complaining about noise from existing developments. The White Paper proposes amending the NPPF to emphasise that planning policies and decisions should take account of existing businesses and other organisations and, where necessary, to mitigate the impact of noise and other potential nuisances arising from existing development, but without some wider changes to the law, such as the common law and statutory nuisance regimes, it is unlikely that this issue is going to be addressed satisfactorily.

Onshore wind energy

Surprisingly, the final page of the White Paper sets out a proposal to incorporate into the NPPF the government's Written Ministerial Statement of 18 June 2015 setting out new planning considerations for onshore wind energy applications involving one or more wind turbines, without a transitional period. The government claims that this does not represent a change in policy, but it is likely that the policy will carry more weight if included in the NPPF than if set out in a Written Ministerial Statement. It is difficult to see what relevance this proposal has to housing and, looking at it cynically, it looks like the government is trying to sneak through the change in the White Paper in the hope that onshore wind developers do not notice it.


This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.