2040 Vision: Can the Government’s New Development Framework Help to Deliver a Sustainable Future for Wales?

In August, the Welsh Government published its 72-page National Development Framework (NDF) document for consultation. Billed as a framework that ‘sets the direction’ for national planning and development policy for the next 20 years, the draft NDF has already been the subject of debate with stakeholders and communities up and down the country and the current consultation is due to run until 1 November.

At the heart of the National Development Framework is ‘sustainability’ – for many, this is about making sure the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

Since the 1700s, our planning system has set about the task of weighing up the benefits of a particular project or proposal; today that may mean jobs, inward investment, better homes or improved journey times; against the potential harm or impact on the environment, communities or future generations. This process is rarely performed in a political vacuum, and without persuasive or emotive arguments coming in from opposing sides.

The opposing forces of economic and environmental sustainability recently clashed on one of the biggest decisions and most contentious planning decisions that has been made in Wales for years. The decision to reject the £1.6bn M4 relief road – a scheme originally proposed in the early 1990s – was always going to create a backlash and drew fierce criticism from business groups such as the CBI and South Wales Chamber of Commerce, while Friends of the Earth described it as “great news for Wales and the planet.”

Although cost was cited as a key factor, the M4 decision was seen by many as a clear indication that future decisions by the Welsh Government, as well as other public bodies in Wales, will increasingly be taken through the prism of one of the Welsh Assembly’s flagship policies – the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

The 2015 Act calls on decision makers to consider seven ‘wellbeing goals’ – including prosperity, resilience, equality and global responsibility. The difficulty comes when opposing forces both argue their favoured option represents a better outcome for future generations – as in the case of the relief road.

Which brings us back to the National Development Framework. Much like coaches talking about refereeing decisions at the Rugby World Cup, developers will say that all they’re looking for is consistency. The NDF talks about ‘sustaining and developing a vibrant economy’ and aligns its three regions with the regions in the Welsh Government’s Economic Action Plan.

It puts a premium on decarbonisation and ‘developing resilient ecosystems’, while championing renewable energy and sustainable travel. There’s a focus on stimulating growth in existing urban areas, while protecting jobs and services in rural communities. It isn’t about predicting how Wales is going to grow but does require those responsible for creating local and strategic (regional) development plans to consider the impact of their plans on the health and well-being of their local communities – and to involve them wherever possible.

The whole process of creating a National Development Framework has been inclusive. Special ‘easy-read’ and ‘young persons’ versions of the framework materials have been produced and at least a dozen face-to-face consultation events are being held across the country. It seeks not only to engage stakeholders from the planning and development industry but also educate and empower the general public – after all, among us are the future generations whose wellbeing the framework is designed to protect.

Experts from the world of planning and development will debate the implications of the NDF at a major conference in Cardiff next month, organised by our sister company, Waterfront. Once published, the framework will be reviewed every five years, allowing it to reflect key developments in politics, economics, technology and the environment. However, it’s clear that anyone bringing forward new developments in Wales will need to get to grips with the NDF and ensure their schemes are in keeping with the vision it sets out, promoting bio-diversity and equality and maximising the seven wellbeing goals.

On 29 April 2019, the Welsh Government declared a climate change emergency. On the 4 June it tore up its own proposals for a new M4 relief road. In 2020, it will publish its first National Development Framework, which will inform planning decisions for the next 20 years. The development landscape is changing and the challenge for businesses is working out how they are going to adapt.

Successfully Planning for Infrastructure in Wales is being held in Cardiff on 24 October. For further information, please visit Waterfront Conference Company.

Angharad Neagle is chief executive of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered communications consultancy.