Planning for a Healthy Natural Environment

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) when launched earlier this year was welcomed cautiously by environmental NGOs. The final content was widely acknowledged as an improvement on previous iterations, with guidance to local authorities clear that the pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – should be integrated in the development of local plans and in decision-taking. The emphasis on gains in biodiversity through the planning system and an encouragement to local authorities to plan positively for the development of ecologically coherent networks was also welcomed. Yesterday the environmental community, industry and planning sector came together at two events in Parliament to consider the NPPF and discuss implementation to ensure that spatial planning can deliver for the natural environment as well as for people.

In the morning, the Town and Country Planning Association, together with the Wildlife Trusts, held a reception to launch good practice guidance for delivering green infrastructure (GI) and biodiversity through the planning system. The guidance aims to demonstrate how planners and practitioners in England can use GI (using the Department for Communities and Local Government definition as ‘a network of multi-functional green space…capable of delivering a wide range of environmental and quality of life benefits for local communities’) as a multi-functional resource to provide biodiversity, ecosystem service and well-being benefits.

The ten principles set out in the report for planners to follow include the need for GI to be planned on the basis of sound ecological evidence on the location and use of GI assets; the need for GI to achieve physical and functional connectivity between sites; and that GI should contribute to biodiversity gain through safeguarding, enhancing, restoring and creating wildlife habitat.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity met in the afternoon to receive Planning Minister Bob Neill MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hilary Benn MP. Speakers around the table thanked the Minister for listening to the concerns of the environmental community in developing the final draft of the NPPF, acknowledging that although the NPPF is ‘not perfect’, it is nonetheless a positive step forward to deliver objectives for nature.

The concerns of the speakers focused around a number of issues, most significantly the capacity of local authorities to develop local plans which deliver biodiversity gains, given the significant loss of ecological expertise in these organisations. It is challenging for local authorities to safeguard biodiversity at present; delivering additional biodiversity beyond this is even more difficult and demanding of expert advice.

A member of the audience from the Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) highlighted a recent survey conducted by this body revealing that only 35% of local authorities in England currently employ an ecologist. Many ecologists in local authorities are being forced by budget constraints to reduce staffing levels, whilst evidence suggests that it is the senior ecologists, those most experienced in planning matters, who are being made redundant.

An additional worry, expressed by Simon Marsh, RSPB, concerns how the duty on local authorities to cooperate with one another, to plan across administrative boundaries, will work in practice. This is a particular concern in those areas where there are high levels of development pressure. Sally Hayns, Chief Executive of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM), was concerned that those so minded could still read the NPPF as prioritising economic growth. Finally, a significant issue raised by a number of speakers and participants, is the need for post-implementation monitoring. Although monitoring the impact of developments on biodiversity is mentioned in the NPPF, this is a current planning condition that is poorly enforced.

The Minister acknowledged that the NPPF is pro-growth, stating that a Government that failed to encourage growth would be failing in its social and moral duty to the population. However, he stressed that not all forms of growth are acceptable and that a means needs to be found to reconcile growth with sustainability. The Minister was clear that he wants to see the NPPF deliver the conservation of biodiversity within the planning system and as such has met with Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State at Defra, to discuss ensure that the NPPF aligns with the White Paper as it is implemented. Very important, the Minister stated, is the need to move from net loss of biodiversity to net gain.

The Government will be developing short technical guidance in the autumn to accompany the NPPF and the Minister called on members of the APPG, which includes the BES, to assist in this.

Both the Minister and Hilary Benn MP acknowledged the importance of the NGO sector to ensuring that the NPPF delivers for biodiversity. Hilary Benn stressed the importance of both capacity and adequate scientific evidence on which to base judgements about the biodiversity impacts of developments. He had been surprised when Secretary of State at Defra, he said, by the lack of evidence regarding the biodiversity of UK waters, which had been necessary in the development of the Marine and Coastal Access Act. It was clear from a member of the audience Miles King, Grasslands Trust, that evidence with respect to some aspects of the terrestrial environment is as patchy; there is no comprehensive grasslands inventory for the UK for example.

Mr Benn encouraged the NGO sector to assist local authorities and to hold them to account in the delivery of the NPPF. There was concern around the room however that vital though it might be, the NGO sector cannot compensate for the loss of ecological experts within local authorities. These capacity issues were not adequately addressed by the Minister during the meeting.

A final, very interesting point was raised by Sean Spiers, Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The CPRE has gathered evidence which suggests that in poorer areas of the country, with greater pressure for economic growth, greater weight is being given to the economic development objectives of the NPPF. Incentives for local authorities to develop business units, to collect and keep their business rates, militate against concerns for environmental protection. More affluent areas with stronger civil society networks may protect their green space to a greater extent, with this disparity raising issues with respect to social justice. The CPRE will collaborate with other organisations over the next year to map the implementation of the NPPF. Despite warm words on the part of the Government, it will be important for all concerned to keep a very careful eye on the implementation of the NPPF over the coming months.