Yesterday, the Westminster government launched its long-awaited draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and a full public consultation that will run until 17th October.
Whilst this type of Whitehall paper-pushing can seem irrelevant to day-to-day life, it will have the potential to influence what happens to the nature close to you, from local parks to internationally designated wildlife sites.
As anticipated, and indeed, as leaked, the NPPF is largely based on the earlier practitioners’ advisory group draft. It is, of course, no secret that I sat on the practitioners group – in fact I’ve blogged here before on what was a fascinating, if at times uncomfortable, experience.
With a range of diverse and conflicting views represented, the draft text we ended up with was inevitably a compromise. In other words, the practitioners’ advisory group draft of the NPPF was not my perfect NPPF – far from it – and as I was acting in personal capacity on the group, it certainly wasn’t the RSPB’s perfect NPPF.
Since the practitioner’s draft was published, the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) has been beavering away to turn it into an official government draft. This has meant changes not only from CLG itself, but from other departments across government, including those who don’t place a high value on either the environment or the planning system. The structure is broadly the same, as are many of the passages, but amongst the detail is a markedly different emphasis for the planning system.
Firstly, I should say that we welcome the positive remarks made by Greg Clark about the role of the planning system in protecting and restoring England’s natural environment in his ministerial foreword. We wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, but we are concerned as to whether the draft NPPF will be able to achieve this type of restoration on the scale necessary to achieve the ambitions set out in the government’s Natural Environment White Paper.
Our first, and overriding, concern, relates to a profound shift in emphasis for the planning system, centred around the so-called ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. A tricky concept to bring to life, in principle this sounds good, but in practice? Well, let’s just say it has raised many eyebrows!
Ideally the presumption in favour of sustainable development would be just that – a presumption that unless development can prove it is sustainable, against a robust series of tests, it should not go ahead. This version, however, reads more like a presumption in favour of development, with the ‘sustainable’ tacked on to please the greenies.
This profoundly misses the point. Unless our much-needed economic growth is truly sustainable, we will be setting up problems for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.
The draft establishes a reasonable (if not fantastic) definition of sustainable development at the outset, but then the presumption clearly places one ‘pillar’ of sustainability – economic growth – higher than the others as an objective for the planning system. This inconsistency is carried through the entire draft, and is a shift away from the current approach of the planning system which seeks to give equal weight to environmental, social and economic needs in decision-making.
What would this mean in practice? Basically, it could make it much harder for a local authority to refuse permission for a proposal that would damage the natural environment, unless someone is able to show that the ‘adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’. And that doesn’t sound straightforward.
Our second concern relates specifically to the measures outlined in the NPPF to support and encourage the restoration and enhancement of the natural environment. Whilst there are some welcome policies on this in the draft text, they do not go far enough to achieve the ambitions set out either in the government’s Natural Environment White Paper, or in Greg Clark’s own foreword.
For example, local authorities are encouraged to work collaboratively on strategic planning priorities with Local Enterprise Partnerships, but why not also with Local Nature Partnerships, the natural environment equivalent?
But, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There’s real potential to make something positive out of the NPPF if government listens to the public and environmental NGOs like the RSPB during the consultation. For example, the NPPF establishes the right for local communities to identify areas of Local Green Space for special protection – and these could include local areas important for wildlife and people’s contact with nature.
Later today we will be asking our members and supporters to respond to the consultation as part of our Stepping Up for Nature campaign.
Here’s an important article by Tracy McVeigh in the Guardian – it lays out the stark reality of the pressure that is being put on Kenya (and plenty of other countries) from the foolish rush to develop biofuels driven by, amongst others, policies in Europe.
With news of severe drought across the Horn of Africa, the development of water-hungry bio-fuel cropping is pushing the Tana Delta towards chaos.
The Lower Tana Delta Trust has started this petition – please add your name.
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I’ve been hoping to bring you this news for a little while – we’ve just confirmed that there are two bittern nests this year at Dungeness. There was booming in 2009, one successful nest in 2010 and now two.
Booming (the male bittern’s weird far-carrying call which you can hear, here) started three weeks earlier than last year after in a winter when the reserve hosted several bitterns – many of which were regularly seen. Now that the parents are making regular flights to feed young, they are being seen more often and from now the summer holidays there will be guides on hand at the reserve to give visitors the best chance of seeing them. So don’t be shy, plan a visit to Dungeness – check the details here or you can ring the reserve on 01797 320588.
You may wonder what has happened to the public inquiry into the proposed expansion of Lydd airport. Well, it’s still underway and I’ll bring you an update at the end of formalities. It will be some time before we know the outcome.
I suspect that in years to come the story of the out-pouring of campaigning around the future of England’s forests will be told many times, a tale for the grand-children. How a spontaneous rumble of concern built to a crescendo that swept away Government policy and had ministers fixed in its sights.
Big Society’s big shout.
The diversity of voices added strength (as well as complexity) and stirred up ideas about the nature of campaigning. Access, a sense of place – and who owns it, the future of the Forestry Commission, what about the wildlife – a tide of personal concerns. All under-pinned by a growing belief that the approach the coalition Government was taking was fundamentally flawed.
Stopping Government policy and forcing a time-out to consider the future is a massively impressive outcome – but is only a start.
The establishment of the Independent Panel on Forestry is the next chapter in this story – and we’re delighted that our chief executive, Mike Clarke, is a member in his personal capacity. He’s keen that as many of you take the time and trouble to make your views known.
Here’s the panel’s call for views and this is the email address that you can use to send them to the panel firstname.lastname@example.org . If you do submit your views (and you’ve got until the end of July) we’d be delighted if you could copy us in your comments at email@example.com
So if you are going to show us your views – it’s only fair if we show you ours, and here they are set out by our Director of Conservation, Martin Harper. In short, what’s needed is improved woodland management for rare and threatened wildlife – for birds like lesser-spotted woodpeckers and hawfinches. This will involve the protection, restoration and extension of our native woods and absolutely not forgetting the open habitats such as heathland, which have been the casualty of some forestry policy in the past.
And if the campaigning of the past months tell us one thing about England’s forests – they really matter to people, to you and me. Here’s a tale of woods I know. Central to the future of our forests is our connection with them – but I’m sure you’ll make that abundantly clear to the panel.
Next week the inquiry into development adjacent to Talbot Heath in Dorset will get underway. Here’s a bit of background and an earlier post. Tony Whitehead is our man in the South West who will be bringing you updates as the inquiry unfolds.