Defra will start a conversation about the content of its 25 year plan for nature on 14 October.  The day before, a coalition of NGOs will launch a ten-point plan to restore nature in England (and separate plans for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales).  These serve as the civil society challenge to governments across the UK about their role in responding to the State of Nature report which we published in 2013. 

I don’t want to give too much away other than to say that a key theme in our country plans will be to ensure national ambition is matched by arrangements locally to make it easy for people to protect and enhance nature.

Before 2010, planning for nature in England happened at a regional level with spatial strategies designed to demonstrate how to reconcile competing demands for development and protection of natural assets.  A huge amount of effort was invested in mapping current and potential habitat for wetlands, heathland and other habitats while also ensuring that necessary new infrastructure went ahead without compromising the natural environment.  Those with economic interests sat down with those with social and environmental concerns and deals were done.

That was, at least, the theory. 

As we all know, the regional tiers of government were abolished and the coalition government placed a renewed focus on local authorities.  Since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in March 2012 (see here) a series of obligations have been imposed on local authorities to make things better for nature.  These were expressed in paragraphs 113-114 and 117-119 and include commitments to...

...minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing ‘net gains’ in biodiversity where possible

...contributing to the Government’s commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity

...planning, mapping and establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures.  

The NPPF has been in operation for three and half years now. Together with The Wildlife Trusts, we were keen to find out how local authorities in England are implementing its biodiversity policies through their local plans.

We commissioned an independent consultant, The Planning and Environment Studio, to review 30 local plans adopted since the introduction of the NPPF. Yesterday, we launched the research findings.

Image courtesy of London Wildlife Trust

There are some positive examples of local planning authorities doing the right thing. For example, the Broadland, Norwich and South Norfolk Joint Core Strategy aims to promote a strategic approach to planning for biodiversity. It recognises the potential for new development to positively contribute to enhancing the environmental network, and it maps core biodiversity areas and buffer zones extending and linking fragmented habitats.

Gravesham’s core strategy takes a precautionary approach to effects on European Sites and requires developers to provide or contribute to mitigation measures for the recreation needs arising from their developments.

But many local plans miss the opportunity to set out a positive vision of what they might do for the natural environment in their area – less than a third of Core Strategies present a clear strategic approach to planning for biodiversity. This is hugely disappointing - Defra’s 25 year plan for nature will not be successful if local plans continue to underperform.

There is lots of good practice and we want local planning authorities to learn from each other.  We know that it takes time, requires some effort to get people together and mobilise information, but the motivation must be to deliver sustainable development that benefits people and wildlife.

Through our report we’ve proposed a set of recommendations.  We’ve highlighted what we think nature needs to ensure that local authorities deliver a coherent ecological network in every part of England.

Nature needs...

...robust implementation of the NPPF

  • The NPPF is good – it just needs to be implemented!
  • DCLG and Defra, working with statutory agencies and the Planning Inspectorate, should encourage and support local planning authorities to ensure the effective implementation of the NPPF through the biodiversity policies in their local plans.

...a place-based, strategic vision for the protection and restoration of biodiversity, which:

  • Embeds a positive vision for the protection and restoration of biodiversity
  • Includes specific and comprehensive ecological network and biodiversity maps to inform plan-users and properly guide development decisions.
  • Sets out specific policies and actions to strengthen and/or create ecological networks
  • Recognises the hierarchy of site protection designations, from sites of international and European importance to sites of national and local importance.

...improved access to ecological expertise and information

  • All Local Planning Authorities should ensure they have access to good ecological expertise and up-to date information to enable them to plan and manage nature-positive development and infrastructure
  • The capacity of Local Nature Partnerships, Defra agencies and Local Environmental Record Centres should be strengthened
  • Defra should reaffirm its commitment to the continuation of LNPs and continue to work with partners to ensure their effectiveness
  • Existing conservation delivery bodies should be empowered to be independent champions for nature, with the capacity to do their job. Natural England should advise central and local government on how to achieve a net gain for nature and be able to challenge it in the instances when economic interests threaten nature.

Nature conservation, like anything in life, needs good planning and we think that much more needs to be done at a local level to improve the current system.

I look forward to hearing the response from central and local government to our report.  In the meantime, how do you think we can improve planning for nature?

It would be great to hear your views.