Yesterday, the UK Government launched their Planning for the future White Paper, outlining dramatic reform of England’s planning system. Make no mistake: this was a big moment for your wildlife and the places for nature that matter to all of us...
The planning system plays an important role in protecting and even restoring species and habitats. With the nature and climate emergencies looming large, yesterday’s proposals needed to provide us with clarity on how the government’s ambition to “build, build, build” is compatible with meeting national and international commitments for nature’s recovery and climate stability.
Instead, the proposals raise more questions than they answer. Below, we’ve set out our assessment of how the White Paper proposals stack up against five key tests for nature:
1) Do they ensure protection of our most important places for nature?
Yes, but with real concern of weakening coming down the line. The paper proposes that all land be allocated into one of three zones: Growth; Renewal; and Protected. Areas that are currently protected for environmental or cultural reasons would fall into ‘Protected’ zones – this should include our internationally, nationally and locally important places for nature like Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and Local Wildlife Sites.
However, in the ‘Protected’ zones, developers could still apply for planning permission, so there’s absolutely no strengthening of protections. And a “separate and more detailed consultation” on streamlining critical environmental assessments is due in the autumn (more on this below…) which could well undermine the protection of protected sites and species in future.
2) Do they ensure natural-green space near people’s homes, wherever they live?
Sort of. The proposals make the right noises but are light on detail. Everyone deserves everyday access to the health and wellbeing benefits from natural green space wherever we live and whoever we are, yet the current pandemic has highlighted the inequality in such access (1).
There are encouraging statements about the future planning system delivering parks and green spaces within new developments, but with little concrete detail. The commitment to develop “a national framework of green infrastructure standards” (p56) is welcome, but this must set improved, mandatory standards for accessible natural green spaces.
The proposal to move to a new flat-rate system for developers contributing funds to infrastructure raises concerns. Any future system must provide for community green space, wildlife and other community needs including social and affordable housing.
3) Do they enable the creation of new wildlife-rich spaces, to help nature recover?
Here we have significant concerns. First, the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan contains ambitious targets to create more space for nature, and yet there is nothing in the White Paper to suggest how these will be accommodated within the proposed zoning approach.
The Environment Bill currently before Parliament sets out new requirements and tools to help us reach these targets and create more space for nature, such as biodiversity net gain and Local Nature Recovery Strategies. Yet the proposals in the White Paper potentially exempt huge swathes of development types from having to deliver net gain. For example, biodiversity net gain doesn’t apply to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) nor development permitted under Development Orders, the scope of which could be extended under these proposals. And with planning permission automatic in Growth and Renewal areas, this could create yet another loophole where developers don’t need to deliver for nature. We all lose out if that’s the case.
4) Do they ensure that wildlife is safe wherever it is found?
This is probably the most concerning area of the proposals. After years of under-investment in baseline data collection, we simply don’t know where all of our most vulnerable wildlife is, and finding it often depends on checks and assessments through the current planning application process. It was these essential checks which Boris Johnson attacked in his ‘newt-counting delays’ comment recently.
The laws that set out these checks and balances often come under attack for causing delays. Yet review after review has shown that this is simply not the case (2). Instead, delays lie in how these laws have been implemented, including the lack of available ecological data, inadequate resource and expertise in local authorities, and poorly designed proposals.
By stripping away the planning application process in ‘Growth’ and ‘Renewal’ areas, it is unclear how wildlife within those areas affected by site-specific developments will be identified and protected in a future system. Put simply, we could destroy vital wildlife before we even know it is there. And there’s no going back from that.
To compound that concern, the White Paper states that a separate consultation on consolidating environmental assessments (3) will follow in the autumn. All too often, ‘consolidating’ is code for weakening of protections; something nature can ill-afford right now. Indeed, we need to be doing the opposite. Whilst the commitment that “any new system will need to ensure that we take advantage of opportunities for environmental improvements while also meeting our domestic and international obligations for environmental protection” (p58) is welcome – the devil will be in the detail of the separate consultation this autumn.
In any case, major investment in the ecological data underpinning these decisions, and the expertise in local planning authorities to interpret it, will be vital.
5) Do they ensure decision-making is transparent, with public participation and that decisions are taken by a democratically accountable body or person?
The proposed new system reduces public consultation in some areas. This is a concern. The current planning system has two key phases of public consultation built in: as Local Plans are drawn up; and when planning applications are submitted. The White Paper proposes using digital means to increase engagement and transparency at the plan-making stage, but in ‘Growth’ and ‘Renewal’ zones, outline planning permission will be automatically given, removing public scrutiny at this stage. Plans would still be developed by local planning authorities therefore retaining democratic accountability, and the ability to shape local design codes is positive, but there are question-marks about how all members of the community can be involved in detailed designs.
For this to work, communities and individuals of all ages and backgrounds will need to be actively engaged in plan-making in new and meaningful ways. Barriers to engagement must be removed, and we need to see much more about how communications would change to make sure community participation is truly representative.
Where does all this leave us?
The reforms contain real risks for nature and communities. We need clarity from government about how these dramatic proposals could be consistent with nature’s recovery (an issue that the White Paper completely fails to address). Given that over 8 out of 10 people want to see more accessible nature-rich areas in England (1), we will need your help to make nature’s voice heard.
The proposals are open to public consultation for 12 weeks until 29 October, and we will be asking our supporters to include their voice in that over the coming months. If you want to be part of our fight to make these planning reforms work for nature, you can sign up as a Campaign Champion which will mean you’ll be the first to hear about next steps.
(1) Taken from the RSPB's recent 'Recovering Together' report
(2) See for example: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/report-of-the-habitats-and-wild-birds-directives-implementation-review and https://www.biodiversityinplanning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/RTI-November-2018-Report-FINAL.pdf
(3) Including Strategic Environmental Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment and Sustainability Appraisal
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