Election fever is upon us.  In a week's time, we will have a new Government and may face further political uncertainty and flux.  But some things are certain – we know we are in the midst of a climate and nature emergency and we need urgent action.  As I blogged recently, the State of Nature 2019 report shows that the decline in nature continues unabated.  Time is running out to secure nature’s recovery and it is essential that the new Government’s plans are proportionate to this challenge. 

 In the context of the planning system, this means questioning how we can deliver the homes the country needs without irreversible damage to nature.   It means ensuring our most special places for nature remain protected but also committing to delivering more for nature through development.   

It means legislating to avoid impacts in the first place and to ensure that that all developments deliver an overall gain for nature.  Such a mechanism could be transformative, contributing to a joined-up network of new habitats that support our existing special places and providing new nature reserves and green spaces so people can access nature.  It would mean improving the quality of where people live and in turn, significantly improving peoples’ quality of life – homes would be set within rolling parkland and children would be able to play safely in the woods.  England would be a green and pleasant land again…  

Whilst the principle of development doing more for nature sounds simple, there are some key tenets that must underpin any new system:    

  • Ensure the system sits within and is additional to our existing nature protection framework.  Importantly there must be a commitment to maintaining our existing environmental standards which have a critical role to play in protecting and enhancing nature.    
  • Enshrine the new system in law.  This ensures all developers are subject to the same requirements and everyone is delivering to the same standard.  
  • Set an ambitious level of gain for nature (at least 20% with scope to go further).  This recognises the inherent difficulties in creating new habitats but also demonstrates we are serious about protecting and restoring nature.  
  • Ensure new habitats created or enhanced are permanently secured through a robust legal agreement that sets out clear responsibilities for implementation and monitoring and management.  We need to redraw the nature map in England and recognise that just as people need forever homes so does wildlife.  
  • The system must apply to all but the most minor of developments (for example, small-scale extensions to existing homes), so all developments deliver gains for nature – including housing, industry and retail, transport, energy, water, and nationally significant infrastructure projects.  If the system is peppered with development exceptions and loopholes, then it will fail to deliver for nature.  The planning system has seen a creeping expansion of permitted development rights which allow some types of development to proceed without the need to make a planning application.   This is concerning.  Permitted development rights should be rolled back to further limit development exceptions.     
  • Any new system should not apply to internationally and nationally protected wildlife sites and irreplaceable habitats.  Protected sites have their own obligations and requirements which must be met in full by any development likely to have impact.  By their very nature, irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodlands and blanket bogs cannot be recreated and so should not be part of any new system. 
  • The system must be capable of accounting for the different types of impacts on nature – direct, indirect, cumulative etc and be additional to protected species requirements.   
  • There must be a real renewed focus on strategic spatial planning nationally and sub-nationally so new development and gains for nature are genuinely plan-led.  This should include a plan for England which sets out a spatial vision for habitats and species.     
  • Improved access to independent ecologists and strategic spatial planners is essential.  This will ensure that ecological issues are understood, and the mitigation hierarchy is properly applied.  It will also mean that gains can be directed in line with conservation priorities and where access to nature is most needed.   

Providing gains for nature will not only support wildlife but also provide wider ecosystem benefits – the flooding in Yorkshire has highlighted the dangers of our changing climate and the need for a system change.  Restoring nature can reinstate natural flood management solutions, shore up carbon stores and help improve water quality.  Bringing natural greenspace and sustainable drainage systems into and around developments can help absorb heat during the hottest months and avoid flash flooding by storing water until floodwaters have receded.  And by urgently legislating so all new homes meet the highest sustainability standards (e.g. zero carbon) and are climate-resilient we can reduce emissions, reduce our water use and help reduce climate impacts on people and nature. 

If all this sounds like motherhood and apple pie well it is!  The public gets it – indeed this has been billed as the Climate Election – we just need the commitment from Government to drive this forward.    

To find out more about how you can help nature during this General Election, look here.