At the Conservative Party Conference, Boris Johnson riffed that the UK will ‘build back beaver’! However, underneath the pithy remark lies a headache for the Prime Minister, namely that the Conservatives urgently need to rethink their vision for the planning system, which has received a battering since the launch of the Government’s white paper last year.
That white paper proposed land be allocated to one of three categories: Growth, Renewal, or Protected. None provide a mechanism to support nature’s recovery and there is little detail on how adaptation to and mitigation of climate change will fit into the planning system.
Not only do the proposals remove some of the ways in which you or I can currently participate in the planning system, they will streamline Environmental Impact Assessments and wildlife protections which could mean the impacts of a development on nature are not fully assessed.
Following a disastrous by-election loss in Chesham & Amersham (widely attributed to local opposition to the new planning agenda) the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities has paused the politically sensitive reforms for now. This brief reprieve is welcome because the proposed changes would have significant consequences for how planning permission is granted in Derbyshire, with potentially disastrous consequences for local wildlife.
We think there are ways that the planning system can be changed to benefit local people and wildlife, and now we have the time to consider them properly.
To be successful, any legislative reform can’t be made in isolation, rather it needs to be done in the context of complementary Government policies. In this case, the Environment Bill contains a number of requirements pertinent to planning. It requires local authorities to create a local nature recovery strategy, which will form the basis for a national network of joined up wildlife corridors. This is a significant development that the planning system should contribute to, by mapping out where nature still thrives and where it needs more space to recover. We want any planning reform to mandate that local planning authorities contribute to the formation of nature recovery strategies and take due consideration of them when making decisions on development.
Secondly, the Environment Bill will place a requirement for builders to demonstrate that their developments deliver Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). Basically, developers will have to leave the environment in a better state than they found it either through biodiversity enhancements on-site or by making improvements offsite, known as offsetting.
When this comes into force, it will hopefully increase the amount of land that is set aside for nature. However, there is no designation in place to protect land which is being put into recovery. Therefore, rather than watering down environmental protections, we believe the time is right to introduce a new designation for nature: wildbelt.
It can take at least 30 years for an environmentally denuded site to recover a level of biodiversity significance to be considered for protection under existing designations. But we don’t have time if we are to address the biodiversity crisis or meet the Government’s own targets! The Prime Minister pledged to protect 30% of the UK’s land for nature by 2030 and this will only be achievable if we make more space for nature. A wildbelt designation will do just that by protecting areas of land that are in recovery.
Whilst reforms are on hold, there is a small window of opportunity to demonstrate that constituents in Derbyshire object to any changes that will make our planning system less democratic and considerate of wildlife.
If you’d like to know more about our alternative vision, one that puts nature at the heart of the planning process, please take a look at our new policy report Planning: a new way forward, and share it with your locally elected representatives.