Planning for new developments must support both nature and communities, says RSPB England’s Emma Marsh

Introducing a new planning system is not a simple thing to do. Planning systems are complicated things, and by their very nature they impact on everyone. There will therefore always be many different views as to how they should work, and what their priorities should be.

It’s risky for any one individual, organisation, or even a government, to think they have all the right answers. Choosing to ignore the views, concerns or suggestions of different parts of society can have damaging consequences for the system you are designing.

We need planning that restores nature while creating the communities we need.

Last year, in its ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper, the UK Government proposed the most radical changes to the planning system in England since it was introduced in 1947. The proposals have been met with concerns from many sectors, with some people branding them a ‘developers charter’.

At the same time, this is a critical year for nature and the environment. We are in a climate and nature emergency, having already lost a significant amount of biodiversity, and are at risk of losing even moreThis means we desperately need a planning system that tackles climate change head-on while also reversing nature’s decline. Oh, and it has also to provide for the homes and communities we all need. As I say, designing planning systems that are truly fit for purpose is no easy task. 

It was therefore concerning that the white paper signalled the processes for undertaking assessments of the potential environmental impacts upon nature and the environment, of both plans and development proposals, would be simplified with the aim of making them easier and quicker for developers to navigate. Such processes (those known technically as Strategic Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Assessments in particular) are vital to ensuring our amazing wildlife and the habitats it calls home are protected from any damaging effects of new developments. Environmental assessments are a central part of ensuring the right development takes place in the right way, and in the right place - a core part of any good planning system. 

While there is no doubt existing environmental assessment processes, and particularly the way in which they are implemented, could be improved, the fundamentals behind them are right and are supported by many across all sectors. It's vital that when ‘streamlining’ and ‘simplifying’ these mechanisms, they are not weakened for nature or their vital role undermined. It is also vital that local planning authorities and statutory consultees have adequate resources to be able to effectively implement them in a timely but proper way.  

Given all this, the RSPB, together with other environmental organisations, has tried to engage with the Government and take part in its work to make changes, and hopefully improvements, to environmental assessment processes. We have worked with these processes extensively for years, and have beneficial knowledge and expertise to bring to the table.  

However, despite our many requests to be involved, none were forthcoming throughout the spring and early summer, although we are grateful that the Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher, merecently with a number of environmental organisations to discuss his proposed changes to the planning system. Following the meeting, and on his direction, his department has been in touch with suggested contact details for more detailed discussions about changes to the environmental regulationsWe hope this signals a willingness for greater cooperation over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the lack of engagement to date didn’t stop us from trying to be positive players, and we sent our concerns, thoughts, and suggestions for pragmatic ways forward to the Government. Hopefully we'll soon get to hear what difference they might have made.                    

Meanwhile the Government continues to develop its plans, and from what we understand has been talking to other sectors over recent months, including the development industry. But listening to some views and interests while excluding others, risks developing policies - and a planning system - that works for some, but not for all. As I say, designing planning systems isn’t an easy thing to get right, and the Government would be wise to avoid those who brand the new proposals a developer’s charter being proved right.

We continue to want to be a positive and active contributor working alongside the Government and other organisations, including developers and the business sector, and stand-by to help create the planning system we need - one that tackles climate change and restores nature while creating and supporting the communities we all need.  

I know it’s easier to say that than it is to design a planning system which delivers it, but I really hope that the positive move by the Minister for Housing signals that the Government is now ready to open its arms to us to help it make that a reality before it’s too late.  

If you want to help us give nature a voice in these planning reforms, please sign up as a Campaign Champion.

  • I fail to understand how building on green field sites can produce a biodiversity gain. On brownfield sites I can see that improvements can be made but taking away the soil full of living organisms and a major store of carbon and replacing it with hardcore and concrete can never result in a net gain for nature (and once you factor in loss of hedgerows, field nesting and feeding birds habitat loss, disturbance to bats etc etc the case becomes even stronger). No amount of mitigation can undo the harm done and the only way to have a net ecological gain would be to create more landmass (which in itself would have a huge environmental impact). So i think we should say no to greenfield developments. There is also a very strong case that we do not have a shortage of housing stock. There are plenty of buildings but some of them are not occupied because they are bought for investment. We do, however, have a crisis of affordable housing and most housing developments do not provide very much social housing, so the result is that house prices continue to rise as the new developments inflate prices further.