A Rocha UK Trustee Rev. Dr Mike Perry comments on the shake-up to planning promised in the August White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’.
‘Build, Build, Build’ has been a recent mantra of the UK government. In June Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced fundamental changes to planning in England as part of last month’s consultative White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’. The changes aim to radically reduce and simplify environmental assessment within the planning process in England. However, as these proposals stand, the result will be that local communities cannot rely on a reactive process of opposing the development of Local Plans. It is essential now for environmental groups to engage with the government as it formulates its new strategy.
Successive governments have considered the planning process to be cumbersome and a brake on the economy. The White Paper, as far as we can tell, aims to be a ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’, (p6). The plans designate all land into one of three categories: ‘Growth’ (suitable for substantial development), ‘Renewal’ (suitable for development) and ‘Protected’ (which will include Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and local wildlife sites).
Preliminary planning permission will be automatically granted for ‘Growth’ areas and (within limits) for ‘Renewal’ areas too. This strips out any environmental impact assessment from the initial stage of the planning process. Simplifying environmental checks raises some serious issues. Vulnerable wildlife do not only exist in SSSIs or AONBs, and in particular, critical small habitats may fall through the net of a simplified process and so be destroyed as part of ‘Growth’ or ‘Renewal’ areas. Let’s hope not, but we need now to lobby hard to ensure that a framework of robust environmental assessment is established because once these proposals are implemented, local conservation groups will need an on-going involvement with local plans.
The elephant in the room in regard to the current environmental checks and balances on planning are not the brake on house building that they are portrayed to be. That delay is, in fact, due to the business model of house builders who build large numbers of identical houses and have to trickle them into the market to keep prices high. The government’s own 2018 report concluded this (see also Madeleine Cuff’s article in the Independent). However given that the current environmental regulations originate from the EU Habitats Directive, they were never going to be popular with this government.
More positively, Planning for the Future does aspire to have better building standards to combat climate change, something that environmental groups have been calling for over many years. However, and disappointingly, no details are given; I foresee the need for hard environmental lobbying and public pressure in this area too.
So, if you are in England, get ready then to raise your views with your local MP to ensure that the government’s simplified planning system keeps wildlife and people safe and ensures that any new buildings are climate friendly. Get ready too for proactive work at the local level as your authority formulates their Local Plan. The government wants a national strategy, but conservation is, at its heart, local, fighting to preserve, and increasingly to link up, the patchwork of small interlocking and vital habitats that make up the greater whole.