Wednesday is the first anniversary of the National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF. The draft was subject of much controversy, and even though the final version was much improved, it’s clearly open season for debate about its impact, especially about the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Does the presumption mean a developers’ free-for-all or the death of localism or both? Here’s what the Daily Telegraph and the CPRE have been saying recently.

The debate has focussed on the future of greenfields around settlements, particularly where up-to-date local plans are not yet in place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments, but make a few observations here before thinking about what the NPPF means for nature.

  • Despite some transitional arrangements, the NPPF came into force a year ago. The Daily Telegraph overstates this point. As Planning Officers Society Malcolm Sharp has said, “We are not going to be falling off a cliff at the end of the month.”
  • The presumption does not apply to sites protected by national designations such as Green Belt, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Natura 2000 sites, SSSIs and so on. The debate is therefore mostly around undesignated sites (the important distinction between ‘greenfield’ and ‘Green Belt’).
  • CPRE makes some good points about the impacts of not having a strong ‘brownfield first’ policy, and tests of viability which are based on short-term economic considerations.
  • Everyone agrees we need some Government guidance on how councils should work together under the ‘duty to cooperate’.

I’m sure this debate will run, but I’d like to highlight some of the new NPPF policies which aren’t getting the headlines, but which are really still important, particularly for nature.

So here are four completely new things about the NPPF:

  • Local planning authorities now have to take a strategic approach to biodiversity and green infrastructure
  • They should also have a positive strategy to promote energy from renewable and low carbon sources
  • There should be no new sites or extensions to existing sites for peat extraction
  • There’s also a new Local Green Space designation

What do we know about what’s happening one year on? I have to admit it’s still early days, and we don’t know a huge lot yet. My evidence is mostly anecdotal at this stage.

Firstly a reminder that there’s a global biodiversity crisis. The UK failed to meet the 2010 target, now we have more demanding 2020 target which includes restoring ecosystem services.

NPPF policies are an important tool for achieving the new target. In terms of protecting existing biodiversity, they should have similar weight to the previous policies. There are two tests of saving special places right in front of us. A decision on whether to allow airport expansion at Lydd, Dungeness, is expected shortly. Another key case is also in Kent – as Martin Harper has blogged, Natural England has recently designated a SSSI for nightingales (among other things) on a former MoD site which is also a proposed allocation for 5,000 homes in the Medway core strategy. You can read more about the case here and the importance of the site in our CEO Mike Clarke's blog here.

Secondly, landscape-scale conservation - taking a strategic approach to biodiversity and green infrastructure networks. It’s a central plank of the Natural Environment White Paper, and is the reason why Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) are included in the NPPF. There’s some evidence that the NPPF message is being picked up in draft minerals plan, such as Worcestershire, Essex and Thurrock (both of which include part of the Greater Thames Marshes NIA).

And finally, peat. We welcome the Secretary of State’s decision last year to refuse peat extraction at Chat Moss, Cheshire. It was an important test case, which cited the loss of a carbon sink as a reason for refusal, and clarified that extensions refer to time extensions too, not just an extended site.

I haven’t even touched on renewables, local green space, flood risk and many other important environmental issues, but my main message is - NPPF one year one: it’s still early days, we need to get local plans in place, and we need to scrutinise them not just on the controversial housing proposals but across the board, to ensure we’ve got a sound basis for a healthy natural environment.