Wildlife-rich areas at risk under new planning framework

Tuesday 26th July 2011

Wildlife-rich areas in England equivalent to four and a half times the area of Greater London1 could be at greater risk under the new planning system, according to The Wildlife Trusts.

The Government has now published an overhaul of the planning system in a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which sets out ‘national priorities and rules’ within a more simple system which ‘safeguards the environment while meeting the need for sustainable growth’.

However, The Wildlife Trusts warn that any dilution of recognition, value and protection of Local Sites will have dire long-term consequences for local communities and wildlife. And will scupper Government’s ambition to be ‘the first…to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited.’

The Wildlife Trusts’ new survey of Local Sites – equating to nearly four per cent of England’s land area - indicates that under the existing planning system more than 170 Local Sites were lost to, or damaged by, development in the last 12 months. However, under the new planning system, many more may be threatened.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“We declared our concerns ahead of the NPPF publication and we remain deeply concerned that the Government is putting the economic aims of the planning system ahead of its environmental commitments.  The loss of 0.05% of an important habitat from a site may be seen as a marginal loss by some but when this happens hundreds of times a year around England, the cumulative impact becomes significant.

“The restoration of the natural environment is important to our economic recovery and quality of life.  The Wildlife Trusts are working to create a larger network of more, bigger and better wildlife sites in the wider countryside to aid this restoration and recovery of the natural environment.  The Government recognised this approach in the Natural Environment White Paper, published in June.  However, the strong pro-economic growth focus raises serious concerns for us that the ongoing restoration of the natural environment, critical for its future recovery, could be hindered."

Collectively, Local Sites play a critical conservation role by providing wildlife refuges, acting as stepping stones, corridors and buffer zones to link and protect nationally, and internationally, designated sites. Together with statutory protected areas, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), they support locally, and often nationally, threatened species and habitats.  In some counties, the proportion of Local Sites or a particular habitat covered by Local Sites exceeds that of nationally protected areas2.  As with The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscape schemes, they will be an integral component of Nature Improvement Areas (NIA).

Local Wildlife Sites represent the minimum habitat in need of protection in order to maintain current levels of wildlife.  However, unlike SSSIs, they are not a statutory designation.  The only form of protection afforded to Local Sites, of which there are currently more than 40,000, has been through the planning system.  It is crucial, therefore, that their role in national planning policy is recognised and not diluted.

Paul Wilkinson continued:

“Direction needs to come from national Government to ensure protection in policy at the local level. This is particularly important because, unlike our nationally and internationally designated sites, there are no other statutory duties requiring Local Sites’ safeguard.”

Notes for editors:

The Wildlife Trusts’ Local Wildlife Sites survey
1 There are at least 41,174 Local Sites in England which cover an area of at least 711,201.13 hectares; equating to an area 4.5 times the area of Greater London, assuming Greater London is 1,572km2.

The number of Local Sites lost or damaged to development activities in England between Jan–Dec 2010 was 172.5.  Of these, 25.5 were lost completely, 117 damaged and 31 unspecified as to whether damaged or lost.

Local Wildlife Site systems select all sites which meet the criteria, whereas SSSIs are a representative sample of sites which meet the national standard.  Consequently many sites of SSSI quality are not designated and instead are selected as Local Sites.  For some counties, Local Sites represent some of the best sites for biodiversity and provide important links to other core areas.

In Wiltshire, 75% of broadleaved, mixed and yew woodland is found in Local Sites, compared with just 10% in SSSIs.  In Nottinghamshire SSSIs cover 1.5% of the county compared with Local Sites which cover 10%.

Previous planning policy (PPS9)
PPS9 was the former national planning policy guidance for biological and geological conservation.  It described Local Sites as having ‘a fundamental role to play in meeting overall national biodiversity targets; contributing to the quality of life and the well-being of the community; and in supporting research and education.’

The subsection on Local Sites stated: ‘Criteria-based policies should be established in local development documents against which proposals for any development on, or affecting, such sites will be judged. These policies should be distinguished from those applied to nationally important sites.'

Local Sites: Guidance on their identification, selection and management
(Defra, 2006)
‘At the heart of this guidance is the principle that whilst Local Sites may also provide other benefits, they contain features of substantive nature conservation value and that the purpose of selection is to provide recognition of this value and to help conserve those features by affording the sites an appropriate degree of protection.
• Local Sites networks provide a comprehensive rather than representative suite of sites
• Local sites provide wildlife refuges for most of the UK’s flora and fauna and through the connecting and buffering qualities, they complement other site networks.
• Local Sites have a significant role to play in meeting overall national biodiversity targets.
• Local Sites represent local character and distinctiveness
• Local Sites contribute to the quality of life and well-being of the community, with many sites providing opportunities for research and education.

The new consolidated NPPF omits a description of the value of Local Wildlife Sites both in the body of the policy framework and in the associated glossary.

Sustainable development
The Wildlife Trusts believe the NPPF should be centred on the core purpose of achieving sustainable development by truly integrating environmental, economic and social goals and mutually respecting the five principles set out in the 2005 Shared Framework for Sustainable Development: living with environmental limits; ensuring a just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science.

Whilst The Wildlife Trusts welcome the reference to the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, the five principles are not adequately reflected.  Instead, the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ is at the heart of the new framework and described as the ‘golden thread running through both plan making and decision making.’  It sets the tone that planning authorities should promote development.

Although the following ‘pro-development’ statements have caveats that could ensure protection of the natural environment, so much rests on how they are interpreted and applied:

All of these policies (aimed at planning positively for development and approving development proposals) should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.’

‘Decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is “yes”, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework.’