The Wildlife Trusts response: Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure

The twin climate and nature emergencies have profound impacts for planning decisions and people’s health and wellbeing. Here we outline the problems with the Government's latest planning reform proposals.

There are some alarming changes as 'Permitted Development Rights' in England (a national grant of permission for specific types of development) expand. A consultation on the changes comes hot on the heels of significant proposals to reform the planning system in England, set out in last year's Planning White Paper: Planning for the Future. In the apparent hurry to push through these changes, the Government is at real risk of harming wildlife and habitats - and seriously limiting people's access to nature on their doorsteps. 

This increasing physical ‘disconnection’ is what has led to the majority of the UK’s adults and children not feeling like they are part of the natural world, or they have a stake in its future.

We must help people re-connect with nature where they are. 

People’s personal connection to nature at both a physical and emotional level is declining as nature becomes a less frequent and significant part of our daily lives. Lack of access to nature is proven to be a significant factor in health inequalities. Health harm from climate change is already increasing. The affect will be worse on people living in our more deprived communities, where there is already less nature: children in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to green space and places to play.

What can be done? Make sure people have a say.  

An effective way of tackling the deep-rooted health inequalities that exist in our society is to give people and communities more control over their lives. A planning system that recognises this would ensure that people have a real say in what goes on in their neighbourhoods - critically, before the go-ahead is given to new developments that will impact on their lives, their local wildlife and their access to green spaces. 

In March 2020, Public Health England published a major review of the substantial evidence on the health benefits for people that have access to green spaces, and the impact therefore on inequalities in health that people experience. The review found compelling evidence that access to greenspaces is critical for population health and that easy access to greenspace resulted in a wide range of health benefits - from lower levels of cardiovascular disease through to maintaining a healthier weight. 

The review made some very important recommendations

These recommendations, to help Local Authorities, policymakers and developers provide equitable greenspaces for communities, included: 

  • Consider local green (and blue) space to be critical assets for maintaining and supporting health and wellbeing in local communities. 

  • Ensure that local policies and strategies are informed by evidence of need for sufficient access to greenspace. 

  • Prioritise improving access to greenspace and creating greener communities especially in areas of deprivation or where there is poor or unequal access, as an important part of the wider plan to reduce health inequalities locally. 

What are the problems with ‘Permitted Development Rights in England’? 

We continue to await the Government’s response to the Planning White Paper consultation. Much of the detail of the overall proposed reforms is still unknown. What we do know about ‘Permitted Development Rights in England’ is that the proposals will lower housing standards, threatening nature and the amount of accessible natural green space. The process will also trash local democracy - all but ending the public’s ability to participate in any meaningful way. 

Existing Permitted Development Rights in England have resulted in poor quality homes, according to the Government’s own report. Much less funding is going to Local Authorities as a result of these changes. Councillors and MPs across the political spectrum have voiced their deep concern at the size, quality, amenity, design, location, and climate change implications of these developments. 

The Prime Minister has promised urgent action on the climate crisis and taken personal leadership of the UN climate talks. 

As he said last year “As a country, as a society, as a planet and as a species, we must now act.” 

The personal commitment is admirable, but it does raise some key questions: 

  • Why are councils being stripped of the authority to require climate mitigation and adaptation measures to be put in place before planning approval is given? 

  • Why do these new proposals allow development in conservation areas and place sites important to nature at risk?  

Giving control of our town centres to private interests leaves people feeling powerless and certainly not part of an equitable, green recovery. That is why an influential group of organisations are calling for local people and businesses to be put at the heart of local decision-making.   

A fair and effective planning system needs to have a give people a fair and early say in what happens in their neighbourhoods, as well as deliver: 

  • Genuinely affordable homes for local people, with access to green spaces that are protected for families and future generations; 

  • Locally designed plans to recover nature and improve biodiversity year on year; and 

  • Strong climate change mitigation and adaptation duties. 

We believe the proposals present a huge opportunity to create a positive planning system. Greater and more equal access to wildlife-rich natural spaces leads to better lives for people and wildlife, at the same time as tackling the climate crisis. We have much to lose if this opportunity is missed.  

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