RSPB England Senior Policy Officer, Carl Bunnage, reflects on what has gone wrong with England’s planning system, why it is contributing to nature’s decline, and whether there is a better way ... 

We live on a small and congested island, with lots of competition for how we use land. Is it to be used for growing our food, building our homes on, providing places where we can relax and play, or for the roads and railways that we depend upon? What about the other myriad species that call our island their home too? Where does the natural world - upon which our survival depends - fit in and how can we ensure that there is space for life in all forms?

 It is the land-use planning system’s role to try to balance all of these competing demands. There has been a long history of planning in this country, with the modern system emerging in the immediate years following World War 2. In many ways it has served us well. It has protected some of the most special places for wildlife, but it has been subject to a series of changes over the years that have bit-by-bit moved it in the wrong direction. Whilst the planning system has increasingly become a tool to support the building of new developments, nature has been in freefall. 15% of species are now at risk of extinction and over half of our precious wildlife species are in decline. Clearly the balance is not right.

Critically though, it is not the fault of planning in itself, but the failure to plan properly.

In its new report ‘Losing What We Love’ the RSPB shows graphically what has gone wrong. The Westminster Government has committed to ambitious goals for nature recovery in the UK and has pledged to protect 30% of the UK’s land for nature by 2030. If these aims are to be achieved in England, we are going to need a better planning system. Currently just 8% of England’s land area is designated for the protection of nature. Of this area less than half is in good condition with wildlife being squeezed into increasingly smaller and smaller pockets of the country.

Our report shows how changes to planning rules for proposals of every size have increasingly stacked the odds against nature. We show how some of our most special homes for wildlife are coming under threat of development and destruction when they should have been protected from the outset. We also highlight how major development projects including HS2 are being green-lighted and delivered in ways that are bad for our amazing wildlife.

But we know that it doesn’t have to be like this. In fact it can’t continue like this if we are going to have any hope of reversing the catastrophic decline of nature – the very nature that is so important to our economy, health and long term survival in the face of the climate emergency.

The good news is that there are some positive examples of where the planning system has helped to create nature-friendly places whilst also providing the homes, workplaces and other services that we all need. The Kingswood housing development being built now at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire through Barratt Developments working in partnership with the RSPB is a shining example highlighted in our report.

And there is more reason for hope. The new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has paused proposals for further changes to the planning system that could have been even more damaging for wildlife while he carefully reviews them. This provides a real opportunity to re-balance the planning system in a way that delivers what society needs whilst also getting better outcomes for nature. In short, a planning system that is fit for the nature and climate emergency that we are in.

Our report not only highlights what has gone wrong with the planning system, but also offers positive solutions towards putting things right. This is the critical decade in which to save nature.

It is not too late if we accept that we have a problem with our planning system and act now - for the sake of all things trying to get by on our crowded little island.

To download and read the report, click on the link here ... 

Losing what we love report Feb 2022.pdf