2012 budget - could planning reforms threaten the environment?

Cambourne, Cambridgeshire. Image: Brian EvershamCambourne, Cambridgeshire. Image: Brian Eversham

Changing the planning system to favour business could be bad for wildlife – and for people, says Dr David Counsell.

Proposed changes to the planning system in England, intended to make planning more business-friendly and remove constraints on economic development, have generated widespread concern within the environmental sector.  The countryside, including thousands of Local Wildlife Sites which rely on the planning system for protection, could be at greater risk than at any time in the last 70 years.

The planning system is also the principal means of protection for the UK’s 40,000 Local Wildlife Sites

The planning system in the UK was established by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 as a response to sprawling urban development during the 1930s and the need for post-war reconstruction.  It consists of two main elements: the development plan, which shows where future development should take place; and development control, to ensure proposals comply with the plan.  Since 1947, and despite much criticism of planners, the system has largely contained urban development within prescribed limits.

Those who know the southern Irish countryside, peppered with single houses and unfinished “ghost estates”, can imagine what might have happened otherwise.  The systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are different only in detail to that in England, and have been successful in a similar way.

In all UK planning systems, designated landscapes – National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Green Belts around our major urban areas – have been subject to particularly stringent planning controls.  The planning system is also the principal means of protection for the UK’s 40,000 Local Wildlife Sites.  These play a critical conservation role by providing wildlife refuges, protecting threatened species and habitats, and acting as links and corridors between nationally designated sites.  In essence, a strong planning system is a central part of democratic society.

No-one would claim it is perfect, but the current system does enable people to have a say in how their neighbourhoods are developed.  It provides a means for resolving conflicting views and disputes, and it helps to ensure we have access to green space.

Whilst the main elements from 1947 remain, the detail has changed. In the 1990s the New Labour Government introduced regional-scale plans and made sustainable development a core objective of the planning system.  More recently Gordon Brown’s Government introduced new arrangements for planning major infrastructure such as roads, railways and airports.  The Coalition Government is also keen to change the system.  One of its first tasks was to signal the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies – problematic at a time when The Wildlife Trusts, and indeed the Government’s own Nature White Paper, are promoting landscape-scale conservation which invariably crosses local authority boundaries.

The abolition will be brought into effect through the Localism Bill which is also intended to give local people and businesses more control over what happens where they live.  The Coalition Government has also distilled hundreds of pages of planning guidance down to a single, 52-page draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  Some of it we support – for example it signals an end to peat extraction in England – but what concerns The Wildlife Trusts and other environmental NGOs is the imperative for planning to support economic growth (albeit sustainable) above all else.

In essence, a strong planning system is a central part of democratic society.

I guess few of us would object in principle to sustainable development; it’s a very laudable principle.  The problem is that it has become a rather vague feel-good concept that means different things to different people.  And it has often been used to justify unsustainable development.  There is a great risk that new, less restrictive planning guidance could be used by developers to satisfy market-led demand even though it could be environmentally damaging.

The draft also relaxes planning guidance for Local Wildlife Sites which, unlike SSSIs and other nationally designated sites, lack legal protection; and its Neighbourhood Plans could create more development than is proposed in the local plan, with inadequate guidance on how to achieve this sustainably.

The NPPF is only a draft at the moment, so we might, through constructive argument, have managed to influence the final document.  However, The Wildlife Trusts remain deeply concerned that the Government is putting the economic aims of the planning system ahead of its environmental commitments.  Planning systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have constrained unsuitable development for more than 60 years.  We must avoid creating a situation where real damage is done – or we risk handing on an even more diminished natural environment for future generations.

Dr David Counsell is a chartered town planner and planning academic. He is Chair of Tees Valley Wildlife Trust.