The National Planning Policy Framework and wildlife: our initial response

Paul Harris/2020VISION

On 5th March, the government launched a consultation to ask for views on a major overhaul of the rules that guide planning for development: the National Planning Policy Framework. Dr Sue Young, Head of Land Use Planning and Ecological Networks, responds:

The National Planning Policy Framework is the policy that all new development must comply with, whether it is a new 5000 home estate, a business park or two houses at the end of your road.

It sets out the way that different kinds of development should be located, designed and built, and what infrastructure and services (e.g. transport, schools, parks and open spaces) are needed. About 36 square miles of land are used by new developments every year, so the outcome of this consultation is hugely important for wildlife. With one in six species at risk of extinction in the UK, we need to give nature more space, not less.

The proposed changes aim to speed up house building but in doing so there are a number of risks. Whilst the government is attempting to accelerate development, some people think that getting planning permission is not the problem, and that there are plenty of housing schemes ready to build, when the market is right, although this is contested. We will know more when the government review that is looking at this is published.

It is essential that the National Planning Policy Framework protects our precious remaining wildlife sites
Carr Wood Local Wildlife Site

Carr Wood Local Wildlife Site

There is a need for good quality, affordable housing, and The Wildlife Trusts don’t dispute this. What we do dispute is the principle of planning development around where housing can go, rather than where it should go. If housing development is planned and built in the right way and in the right place, it can help nature and, as housing has such an impact on people’s quality of life, good for the health, wellbeing and economic success of society. And this means it is essential that the National Planning Policy Framework protects our precious remaining wildlife sites, supports the recovery of nature by enabling the creation of new areas of habitat and seeks to provide people with homes that have access to nature on their doorstep.

The reason that Local Authorities produce plans for local development is so that land use can be thought about strategically – so housing is located near to services like schools and shops, industrial estates near good transport links and so on. So why not think about nature in the same way? To plan where wetlands can be created to hold back water and prevent houses flooding, where greenways within housing development would give traffic-free, nature-filled routes to schools and local services, where land is needed to grow food and within that, where natural areas would help the bees that pollinate many crops.

That’s the approach we would like to see in the National Planning Policy Framework and one we have promoted in our recent publication Homes for People and Wildlife. In that, we envisage the starting point for decisions about housing being to map the woods, meadows, rivers and other natural areas we already have and that must be protected, identify where new habitats are needed and then locate and design new housing around this.

Housing developments should be designed to be sensitive to their environment and integrate nature
Housing (c) Ben Hall/2020VISION

Ben Hall/2020VISION

It seems to me that the role of the planning system should be to create high quality places that are good for the people that live there. It could achieve this by supporting a nature recovery network and by requiring housing developments to be designed so that they are sensitive to their environment and integrate nature. There are places where this has worked: planners, developers and The Wildlife Trusts working together to design places where people really want to live. Places with nature parks for children to explore, where people can stroll and relax, places where trees, flowers, ponds and streams are included in the development.

So why doesn’t this happen everywhere?

Understandably, businesses want to maximise profits. For most, this means not doing things they don’t need to, so although many developers have said that they would not be averse to implementing these ideas, they cannot afford to unless everyone else is doing this too. This requires changes in regulations, but also the right policy support – and this is where the National Planning Policy Framework could make a huge difference.

After the Prime Minister’s speech on the environment in January this year, launching an encouraging (if a little vague) 25-Year Plan for the Environment, there was every reason to hope that a revised National Planning Policy Framework would support some of the commitments contained in the plan.

If implemented properly a nature recovery network could be the lifeline our wildlife needs, linking areas for wildlife through the countryside and in urban and suburban landscapes
Badger - Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

As stated in the plan, the Government proposes the creation of “a nature recovery network to provide 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat, more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure”. If implemented properly a nature recovery network could be the lifeline our wildlife needs, linking areas for wildlife through the countryside and in urban and suburban landscapes.

There are certainly some changes that will be helpful in making the case for why development should provide a net gain for wildlife and urging local authorities to plan strategically for the protection and recovery of nature. But whether this happens depends on how much weight the need to deliver benefits for wildlife is given.

On first reading, the consultation looks like a missed opportunity to plan for nature’s recovery. There is a lack of clear, joined-up policy support for strategic implementation of the nature recovery network promised in the 25 Year Environment Plan, or for such a network to provide a context for housing delivery. And the omission of Local Wildlife Sites from the first draft of the Policy Framework is a massive alarm bell.

Over the next few weeks, The Wildlife Trusts will be scrutinising the text in detail and considering how existing policy is interpreted on the ground, to inform our response to the consultation. You can find the consultation via the link below and we are urging everyone who cares about nature to respond.

Dr Sue Young is Head of Land Use Planning and Ecological Networks for The Wildlife Trusts