It's been a busy week for Chancellor George Osborne. Today, he unveiled plans today for “sweeping new changes” to planning laws (see page 43 onwards here), to deliver the homes the country needs. This includes a new “zonal” system, which will give automatic planning permission on all suitable brownfield sites, removing “unnecessary” delays to development.
I feel for planners. The system has been subjected to perpetual reform over the past decade and my sense is that everyone is crying out for stability.
As I’ve commented before, the RSPB accepts that there is a pressing need for a significant number of new homes in England. From nature’s perspective, the issue is where they are built (avoiding sensitive wildlife sites) and how they are built (homes which are great for nature as well as people).
Today’s announcement raises concerns about both the where and the how.
Let's start with the 'where'.
In principle, the redevelopment of brownfield land is a good thing. In practice, it depends on a number of factors. It’s not such a great idea if the site is stuck in the middle of the countryside, far from public transport or other amenities, or if it’s subject to flood risk, or if it’s valuable for wildlife.
Regular readers of this blog will know that the RSPB has been campaigning against a large housing development at Lodge Hill in Kent (see here and below) , which is also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its nightingale population, as well as its grassland interest. The developer claims that the site, which is former MoD land, is mostly brownfield, whereas in reality a large proportion of the site is greenfield and is of high biodiversity value. Fortunately the planning application has been “called in” by the Secretary of State and a public inquiry is due to be held (although we still await a date).
Lodge Hill epitomises the danger of thinking that all brownfield land is suitable for development. Helpfully, Wildlife and Countryside Link has recently published guidance on brownfield land of high environmental value (see here), which should be useful for all planners and developers thinking of future uses for brownfield land. Organisations such as Buglife, CPRE, the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts all back this guidance.
What about how the homes will be built? Tucked away in the Chancellor’s announcement is a real sting in the tail...
“The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards...”
In other words, we can say goodbye to the long-standing target that by 2016, all new homes should be zero carbon. This is extremely disappointing; a result of an unjustified obsession with deregulation and focus on housing numbers at the expense of the health of the planet, not to mention energy-efficient homes with low running costs.
We understand that the Chancellor’s plan will be enacted through a Housing Bill, which will include plans for a statutory brownfield register. It is essential that the bill excludes land of high environmental value, and any development requiring either Environmental Impact Assessment or Habitats Regulations Assessment, from the brownfield register.
There must also be an opportunity for the public to be involved in deciding what gets on to the register, because the public often knows the value of sites better than anyone else.
Finally, I can’t talk about housing with reminding you of our partnership with Barratt Developments (see here), and particularly our work with them at Kingsbrook, Aylesbury. It’s not a brownfield site, but by working together we hope to create a new community where nature isn’t just tacked on to the edge but is woven into the very fabric of the development for the benefit of people and nature alike.
So the future is on hold while the Conservative party plays out its twin obsessions - the leadership and Europe. The Conservatives profess to want to 'shrink' the state (whilst holding on to all the power, of course !)so surely there is a need for a new approach ? Rather than constantly complaining - which the last 5 years has shown to have minimal impact - surely the challenge is to do what no mainstream political party in England has even tried - to present a compelling vision of a positive future. More and more building blocks are already in place - ranging from Kingsbrook to the Natural Capital Committee report, and there are, as Kingsbrook demonstrates people worth talking to other than Government - especially business which may - rightly - see hard cash benefits from creating better environments for people to live in. We should be talking more about the actors in these dramas - Land Securities, for example, in the case of Lodge Hill, rather than solely focussing on a disinterested Government.
Sorry to say this is just one more case, of so many cases of Mr Osborne acting in total disregard for the environment. The abolition of both the zero carbon scheme and the increase in energy efficiency standards, is simply shameful.
Additionally, Mr Osborne must know that many of the best nature reserves are located brownfiels sites and that there is potential for many more especcially when most farm land, these days, is so intensively cultivated that is just a desert for wildlife.
While I regard Mr Osborne as simply being "beyond the pale" in respect of the evironment and nature, I am sure nevertheless the RSPB and other conservation organisation acting in coordination,will maintain and increase the pressure on this Government and Tory MPs, for a much better deal for nature than the woeful one is currently receiving from them.
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