Planning reform – the good, the bad and the ugly

Hedgehog_Tom_Marshall

This job has given me renewed respect for certain professions. The noble role of the Planner is one of them. Planners get a bad press. But when development is in the right place, designed with quality in mind – and where the environment is seen as a benefit rather than something to manage – the results can deliver gains for wildlife and people.

Unfortunately, life gets in the way. Planning is complicated and Local Planning Authorities have been drained of resources. And now we are embarking on another wave of planning reform – this time a seismic change and one that could see a weakening of protections for wildlife. The new planning reforms propose the setting up of three zones: a growth zone (where it’s pretty much a free for all in terms of development); a renewal zone (which encourages ‘gentle densification’, whatever that means); and a protection zone (for protected areas, including local wildlife sites).

This kind of zoning is not unusual and works well in some other countries. But the devil is in the detail. Zoning can’t work unless you have the right information on which to base your decisions. I’m proud that at GWT we’ve led the way in developing Nature Recovery Network maps – and now we are supporting our Local Nature Partnership to produce natural capital maps. That’s a lot of jargon to say that we now have maps that demonstrate how we can help nature to recover in the county. We just need to make sure that they are used. We also want to make sure that wildlife records, collected by amateur naturalists across Gloucestershire and collated by the Gloucestershire Centre for Environmental Records here at GWT, are integrated into that process. Despite all of this there are still gaps in our knowledge and site surveys remain vital to prevent losing unrecorded wildlife and habitat. For zoning to work, evidence is key – and there’s nowhere near enough support or recognition for this in the proposals.

Green_Veined_White_Butterfly_Paul_Hobson

Green_Veined_White_Butterfly_Paul_Hobson

We think there is a missing zone in the Government’s proposals. If we are serious about nature’s recovery, protection is not enough. We also need a zone designed to help nature recover and support natural solutions to tackle climate change. Along with Wildlife Trusts across the county, we are calling for a new designation, a ‘Wildbelt’, mentioned only recently in the Prime Minister’s conference speech. This could identify the places where we create mosaics of woodland, wetland and wildflower-rich meadow – and where we can link green infrastructure in between towns and cities.

Together with our partner Wildlife Trusts around the country, we’re proposing five principles to ensure the planning system helps nature:

  1. Wildlife recovery and people’s easy access to nature must be put at the heart of planning reform by mapping a Nature Recovery Network
  2. Nature protection policies and standards must not be weakened, and assessment of environmental impact must take place before development is permitted
  3. Address the ecological and climate crises by protecting new land for nature’s recovery by creating a new designation – Wildbelt
  4. People and local stakeholders must be able to engage early and meaningfully with the planning system.
  5. Decisions must be based on up-to-date and accurate nature data
Common_Toad_Terry_Whitaker

Common_Toad_Terry_Whitaker

Here in Gloucestershire, we want to add one more – and that’s the importance of a shared vision. One thing that has really struck me in developing our Building with Nature framework of standards (find out more at www.buildingwithnature.org.uk) is that the environment is a core part of what makes places great to live and work in. But too often we put health, biodiversity, climate change, community safety, social cohesion and the economy in separate boxes when we are thinking about planning. Rarely do we consider all these things together.

Bringing all those elements together helps to create better places, but it also makes sure that the environment is embedded from the start, not an optional extra to be dropped when budgets are tight. If we have learnt anything from Building with Nature, it’s that engaging early is key. Reviewing and objecting to planning applications is something that it’s important we continue, but we want to be involved earlier. We want to show that a shared vision (one that integrates the environment and climate change) is the key to better planning and creating better places to live.

We agree with Government that the current planning system needs an overhaul, but we need to make sure that, in the rush to ‘build, build, build’, they don’t forget their commitment to restore nature and leave the environment in a better state than they found it. We share the desire for increased certainty and nimbleness. Sustainable development could and should be a mechanism for delivering nature’s recovery. Too often we see promises to create spaces for wildlife broken and a system that is too slow to respond to advances in knowledge. That is simply not good enough to tackle the pressing climate and ecological emergency in front of us.

Stage_Beetle_Terry_Whitaker

Stage_Beetle_Terry_Whitaker