National policy and its role in a greener, more sustainable future

Infrastructure shapes both the human and natural worlds. It’s the backbone and foundation on which communities and nations are built: the energy that powers our businesses, the clean water pumped into our homes, and the road and rail networks that allow us to travel with ease. Thoughtful, ethical and sustainable infrastructure has the ability to improve our quality of life, creating new places and ways in which to live and work.

Nonetheless, infrastructure on a national scale cannot, and should not, proliferate unchecked. Its development involves critical considerations, from the communities it serves, to its impacts and effects – both in the short and longer-terms, to the material and methods used, to maintenance, and much more besides. Policy, regulation, expertise and comprehensive planning and risk management all play an important role, particularly in negating, and even reversing, the impacts of climate change.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises and outlines “the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity and human societies” in its Summary for Policymakers report. It calls for the assessment of climate change impacts and risks, as well as adaptation, set against “concurrently unfolding non-climatic trends” such as rapid urbanisation, land and ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss and unsustainable consumption of natural resources. So, how can a nation develop responsibly and sustainably? What factors must be taken into consideration when mapping industrial strategy? Who has the power to make decisions on this scale?

What is national policy?

National policies are statements that contain principles and broad courses of action taken by national governments regarding specific objectives.

Their main purpose is to define and guide decision-making efforts to achieve a desired outcome through government policy and plans – in a bid to ensure any decisions have an aggregate positive impact on a national level. For example, a government may wish to improve biodiversity by considering future land use, or lower emissions and improve air quality by developing its public transport networks, or tightly govern waste management in a bid to support a healthier ecosystem. National policy should:

  • establish a planning system and framework for development
  • protect and preserve natural resources
  • shed light on the environmental impact assessment of planned projects
  • ensure regulatory standards are adhered to
  • avoid any adverse impacts on an environmental or social level

In the UK, national policy must relate to climate change efforts – both in mitigation and adaptation. As well as explaining the reasoning behind their proposed outcomes, policies must explain how they:

  • factor into sustainable development
  • integrate with existing policies
  • account for safety and technology issues
  • address any adverse impacts
  • detail actual and projected capacity and demand. 

Where necessary, policies should also pinpoint specific locations affected in order to create a guideline and roadmap that can support future investment and planning decisions.

Planning Act 2008

The UK Infrastructure Planning Commission was borne out of the Planning Act 2008. As well as making provisions for the Commission’s functions, it contains guidelines and thresholds for the authorisation and development of infrastructure. The Act also governs town and country planning and is designed to “make provision about the imposition of a Community Infrastructure Levy.”

UK national policy statements (NPS)

In the UK, there are 12 NPS relating to different areas of nationally significant infrastructure projects and their future development. NPS must be formed from a democratic process – consisting of public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny – before it can become designated policy. In this way, any examining authorities can make recommendations to the Secretary of State.

The NPS, by category, are:

  • Energy: Overarching Energy; Fossil Fuels; Renewable Energy; Oil and Gas Supply and Storage (produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
  • Transport: Ports; National Networks; Airports (produced by the Department for Transport)
  • Water, waste water and waste: Hazardous Waste; Waste Water; Water Resources (produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

Any significant development of infrastructure throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must adhere to the NPS.

What is the difference between national policy and local policy?

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) underpins the UK’s environmental, social and economic planning policies, and covers topics including:

  • business
  • environment
  • economic development
  • transport
  • housing.

The NPPF must inform any planning applications and decisions relating to local and neighbourhood plans; where plans and developments have taken its rules into account, developments can be approved without delay. A local planning authority (LPA) makes the ultimate decision in deciding to grant or refuse planning permission – such as building and development work – in a given area. Local authorities also create a development plan; this occurs every six years and details planning policies and use of areas by local authorities. For example, a plan might contain aspects such as upgrading of amenities, improvements to roads or regeneration and renewal of unused or obsolete areas. Planning applications in the local area are then cross-referenced with the plan, with permission generally granted only if the plans are in line with the development plan.

The UK government publishes planning practice guidance on the website to support individuals and organisations with their interpretation and adherence to the NPPF. There are various categories – many of which relate to ensuring a greener, sustainable future – including:

  • air quality
  • climate change
  • effective use of land
  • environmental impact assessment
  • flood risk and coastal change
  • green belt
  • land stability
  • natural environment
  • renewable and low-carbon energy
  • strategic environmental assessment
  • tree preservation orders and trees in conservation areas
  • waste.

Shape the future of public service provision and public administration

If in-depth understanding of national and local policy could benefit your workplace, choose the University of York’s online Master of Public Administration programme.

Develop the skills to analyse and navigate complex public management issues, and lead the way in making a positive impact on both public life and public service provision. Designed for leaders across public, non-profit and third-sector organisations, your studies will draw on service development and enhancement – with a focus on sustainability – across networks and partnerships. You’ll study the public process, the organisational and human context of public service delivery, and the wider social, political and economic environment through which public service demands and constraints are shaped.