Planning system shake up - danger ahead for nature.

28 August 2020
Comments 6
Category Blog, Comment, FrontPage, News
28 August 2020, Comments 6

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.

6 responses on “Planning system shake up – danger ahead for nature.

  1. Andrew Mann says:

    Thanks for outlining the issues clearly and succinctly.

  2. The proposals feature consultation with the Community from the beginning. It is essential that Communities are prepared and resourced to engage proactvely in the design and implementation of realistic joined up proposals for the built and natural environment. That’s a tough ask. However if the Church is serous and wishes to be taken seriously, Community has to become central to our witness and embedded in the life and worship of the local church. We need to get started now if we haven’t aready done so! For many Christians the timescales may well mean that they will never see the fruits of their labours. But what does the writer to the Hebrews say about Abraham’s faith?

  3. Peter JStrevens says:

    Thanks. Good article. We will “get ready”!

  4. Ken Austin says:

    One matter that concerns me is the way in which the categories of land will be designated. I have seen this in our local plan. There, there is felt a need to release land from the Green Belt for housing. Having identified the number of houses, rather than releasing just enough land for these the boundaries suggested are “rounded out” to some existing easily identifiable landmark such as a road, hedge, footpath etc meaning that the plan specifies for a development an area some 50-60% larger than needed. That gives developers a green light to put in excessive plans which could be passed on appeal.
    I raised the matter with local councillors to be told that there will be tight restrictions on the development but in truth a developer could appeal, affording the best of lawyers which cash-strapped councils cannot match.
    Once land is designated then how much notice will be taken of the need for environmental surveys (e.g. for bats, reptiles etc) across the site before any development is assessed?
    Planning needs to be local, Even within one street what may be suitable at one end may not be so at the other

  5. Genevieve Hibbs says:

    Environmental impact assessments of major developments were already often derisory in 2002-10 when I was a councillor on planning committees of the London Borough of Hounslow.

    Even if the planning process adds conditions, as long as builders commission and pay their own building inspectors one cannot expect a great result.

    Even at the appeal stage I observed gross environmental issues being overlooked, for example at the ‘Bridge at Bull’s Bridge application, that was for a bridge over the canal.

    The bridge was illegal:
    a. because it would have been a private bridge over a public canal, also the second new bridge within about 500 metres and within 10 years
    b. because it violated British Waterways’ own guidelines on the construction of bridges over the canal.

    The noise specialist who spoke for the application had produced the London noise survey that was published DURING the enquiry showed that the ambient noise levels for the site were already above the WHO level for residences. People in boats don;t count — “the noise is averaged over 24 hours’, so the canal villagers would not be protected from the noise of the heavy vehicles starting up and coming up onto the bridge from 3 am. It is well known that noise AND vibrations travel better through water than through air.

    The environmental impact assessment argued that no birds of interest had been observed nearby — in spite of the swans nesting by the path in the canal village or the ones that the residents’ had shown in their brochure. A Rocha has been doing bird ringing less than a mile from the site, and reporting well over 100 species a year, to British Waterways.

    So “… this strips out any environmental impact assessment from the initial stage of the planning process …” does mean huge and often unnecessary environmental damage.

  6. Ann Wills says:

    I’m very concerned about this “Build, Build, Build” plan, as apparently residents & the local council won’t have their objections & concerns taken into account. This is undemocratic & a very un-British way of doing things. They could perhaps build a chemical factory built next to residents houses, which will be completely unsuitable for the area & be a health hazard. We need to preserve green spaces to help our wildlife which is dying out & for our mental health. I wrote to Boris Johnson on this, but just received a Civil Service reply – which seems to indicate it is a done deal. We could make posters to put in our windows & have a peaceful gathering at a local shopping centre, for instance.