Planning for a healthy and natural environment?

Thursday 6th March 2014

As the Government’s National Planning Practice Guidance, an online resource, is launched today, The Wildlife Trusts reiterate that the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions.

Planning has a critical role to play in securing nature’s recovery and creating wildlife-rich places in which people want to live

Planning has a critical role to play in securing nature’s recovery and creating wildlife-rich places in which people want to live.  Positive planning for a healthy natural environment relies critically on the skills and expertise of ecologists.

Making information more easily accessible and engaging people in the planning process is welcome.  The Wildlife Trusts support the need to provide up-to-date, relevant guidance, in a single location, to support the effective delivery of plan-making and decision-making.

However, The Wildlife Trusts also express serious concerns.  The Government’s approach to ‘streamlining’ must not be used as an excuse to miss out essential details which provide clarity, which could lead to bad decision-making, and wholly avoidable impacts on the natural environment.

Information on the mitigation hierarchy is lacking on the National Planning Practice Guidance.  It provides a sentence on each of the stages, but doesn’t guide developers and planners on how to apply and interpret this in a sequential way.  This is fundamental to quality plan-making and decision-making.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said: “The approach to planning must be about the right decisions being made, not the quickest.  The Government should be enabling positive planning which avoids damage to the natural environment and ideally contributes to its recovery as connection to wildlife-rich spaces can improve quality of life and mental and physical health. Well sited and designed developments are good for people, for wildlife and for the economy.

The approach to planning must be about the right decisions being made, not the quickest

Local planning authorities have statutory obligations to consider biodiversity when determining applications but due to cutbacks 65% of local authorities have no or limited in house ecological expertise.

Paul Wilkinson continues: “The right guidance and access to local expertise is essential in ensuring the planning system helps to achieve a more sustainable and wildlife-rich future in the long term.  However, with only a third of planning authorities having access to an ecologist, this makes conserving and restoring nature even more difficult.

All 37 individual Wildlife Trusts in England are actively engaged in the planning system, responding to 6,600 planning applications last year, with 3,000 improved for wildlife as a result.

Paul Wilkinson said: “The Wildlife Trusts are part of local communities and at the frontline of changes to the planning system and the increasing pressure to build.  We will continue to stand up for wildlife within the planning system to ensure the true value of nature is at the heart of decision-making across England.

“In its pursuit of brevity, and desire to streamline, the Government must ensure that this one-stop-shop has enough clarity on the shelves.”

Notes for editors:

Timeline of the National Planning Practice Guidance:

  • Autumn 2013 – Government invited comments on the test website. The Wildlife Trusts submitted comments in October 2013.
  • May 2013 – Government published a response to the consultation and confirmed that it accepted the majority of the review group recommendations.
  • December 2012 – February 2013 – A consultation on how these recommendations should be taken forward (The Wildlife Trusts submitted a response and signed up to a response made by Wildlife & Countryside Link.
  • December 2012 – Recommendations of the review group were published, on existing guidance that needed cancelling or updating and areas where new guidance was needed. The group also made recommendations on how this resource should be presented and managed
  • October 2012 - Government initiated a review of English planning guidance. The purpose of the review was to streamline and reduce more than 6,000 pages of existing planning guidance, with the intended aim of ‘making the planning system swifter and more accessible’. It was undertaken by Lord Taylor and an external review group.
  • July 2012 - Planning for a healthy environment: good practice for green infrastructure and biodiversity’, was published by The Wildlife Trusts and the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA).  It provides practical guidance for practitioners to ensure nature is taken into account when shaping local areas and that local plans deliver a network of wildlife-rich places.  The guide was prepared with input from statutory and non statutory organisations with expertise in planning green infrastructure and biodiversity.  Endorsed by more than 30 organisations, it summarises the latest policy drivers; distils the best approaches and good practice; and signposts sources of further detailed information.
  • March 2012 - the National Planning Policy Framework gave local authorities a year in which to get their local plans in place, embedding policies which deliver strategic green infrastructure to protect important wildlife sites and species in local and neighbourhood plans.

Ecological capacity
What is needed to deliver statutory obligations for biodiversity (Ecological capacity and competence in English planning authorities) reports ‘(c.65%) have no or only limited (ie part-time or shared with another authority) access to any ‘in-house’ ecological expertise’.  The report also references that other studies have found ‘only c.35% of all English planning authorities employ an ecologist’. (These other studies are - ALGE (2004) Measuring The Momentum - Biodiversity Services In Local Government A Baseline Study; An Executive Summary. Report Prepared by Keydata Group Ltd ALGE (2013) Recent review of ALGE membership numbers and composition) 

The mitigation hierarchy
The starting point for any development proposal should be to avoid damage to important wildlife sites and to accept that irreplaceable habitats should not be developed.  Next, it is important to ensure that nature is designed into new development in a meaningful way to mitigate damage.  Only then - and as a final measure - should any compensation measure be considered to compensate for damage that cannot be avoided or mitigated.  If compensation cannot be achieved, for example because a damaged habitat cannot be created elsewhere, then the development should not go ahead.

Tagged with: Living Landscapes