The English planning reform – planning to fail wildlife?

We are appalled that the Government’s proposals for reforming the planning system in England are to ‘tear it down and start again.’

We rarely see such a strong example of bad workmen blaming their tools. The Wildlife Trusts recognise that any long-running system needs updating, but the Planning White Paper proposals are not the way to achieve this.

It’s a complicated matter

The English planning system has been in place for over 70 years, and has been tested, reviewed and honed throughout. Planning is a complicated practice which must take many different issues into account and engages many different sectors.

The current system in England is not perfect. But many of the aims that the Government has set out in the new Planning White Paper would be met by the current system – sadly failure is often in the implementation, not the system itself. Trying to oversimplify this complicated matter will lead to poorer decisions.

What is the consultation?

The consultation seeks views on the package of proposals for the planning system forms in England. There are some interesting ideas in the story the White Paper starts to tell. However, these are not backed up within the consultation.

The Government has been releasing these proposals in instalments, maintaining the suspense, the details tantalisingly out of reach.  But even with the little information that has been provided what is most clear is that by failing to address climate change, the ecological crisis and growing health inequalities, these reforms will not give us a planning system that is fit for the future.

We are very concerned by the Planning White Paper proposals and our top three key issues are:

  • The reforms are highly likely to increase nature’s decline.

  • The reforms fail to integrate nature into people’s lives.

  • The reforms undermine the democratic process and provide little opportunity to influence individual development proposals.

Below we lay out why we're so concerned. 

Orchid on brownfield site

Orchid on brownfield site © Terry Whittaker / 2020VISION

1. The reforms are highly likely to increase nature's decline

The idea is to “front-load” the planning system using zonal planning: Renewal, Growth or Protected. This means that all development in renewal and growth zones will automatically have permission to be built when the zones are designated.

By making all decisions at the beginning of the process, it means that new information gained further down the line, for example the presence endangered wildlife, would not be enough to halt the development.

Whilst we want to see strategic planning for nature, in which the network of space needed for nature’s recovery is identified, mapped and integrated into the planning system, these proposals fall far short of that idea, for the below reasons: 

  • They fail to integrate nature into two of the three zones.
  • They offer less protection than is available under the current system.
  • No explanation is given on how planning will contribute to nature’s recovery, beyond tenuous nods to net gain.
  • The data needed to provide the evidence on which to plan the zones is not available.

Furthermore, we have no confidence that adequate data can be provided up front - at the strategic planning stage - to prevent substantial damage and loss of nature.

It is vital that planning decisions are informed by actual survey of development sites, but in most cases, under this new system, these will not be required. By making all decisions at the beginning of the process, it means that new information gained further down the line, for example the presence endangered wildlife, would not be enough to halt the development.

2. The reforms fail to integrate nature into people’s lives

A connection to nature is now recognised as essential for our health and wellbeing. There is no suggestion of including space for nature, that people can enjoy, in the Renewal Zones, which are those areas where people already live. In fact, there is a high risk of direct loss of accessible nature-rich green space in the Renewal Zone.

The green spaces that are so important to people where they live and work could disappear

The government is encouraging infilling and denser development in the existing built area, and developments at the perimeters of towns and villages. This won’t put nature into people’s lives; it will lead to a reduction of available greenspace and crowding of remaining spaces.

The remaining pockets of unexploited, local, nature-rich sites will be under threat and nature could be further from people’s doorsteps than before.

Flats and green space © Tom Hibbert

© Tom Hibbert

3. The reforms undermine the democratic process and provide little opportunity to influence individual development proposals.

We welcome the intention to make it easier for people to get involved in planning and shaping the places where they will live and work and raise their families. But these proposals fail that intention. Currently when individual planning applications come forward, local people can respond. However, we are very concerned that this step is going to be removed.

Local people would only have the opportunity to respond to what happens at their district level, right at the beginning of the process, and not to individual planning applications.  

Consultation questions ask whether people get involved in planning decisions, and the barriers to this. But the consultation does not ask what would make people want to get involved. People should be able to have a say at both levels – not just when whole districts are planned, but when development on their doorstep directly affects them.  Under the new system, public engagement at the more relevant and local point would not be possible.

We fear that the Government is driving these reforms through with little regard for local needs and local opinion. The Wildlife Trusts will submit a response to the consultation informed by years of experience of engaging with the planning system at a local and national level to get a better deal for wildlife and our belief that planning should create a better future.  

It’s critical that you also respond to the consultation – watch out for our campaign action, coming soon.