Here at the RSPB and at other environment charities we’re waiting with bated breath for the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF). The Government has committed to publishing it by the end of March, and we suspect it may come out sooner, possibly even before the Budget on 21 March. Media reports suggest that Chancellor George Osborne has been pressing Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to get on with it. There have been conflicting views from the BBC and the Daily Telegraph about whether environmentalists will be happy with the NPPF.
Wildlife and Countryside Link, the coalition that brings many environmental NGOs together, has just published its red lines for the NPPF. What do we need to convince us that the NPPF will be good for the natural environment?
1. The presumption in favour of sustainable development must be designed to achieve sustainable development, defined in line with the 2005 UK strategy.
In plain language that means the NPPF needs to recognise that there are environmental limits to development. The policy can’t be a presumption in favour of any old development, but must allow local authorities to resist development which harms the environment.
2. The natural environment must be properly and consistently protected.
We’re looking to see strong policies for protecting and enhancing the natural environment. The protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) has been a particular concern ever since our legal advice showed that the NPPF would actually undermine protection, despite the Government’s words to the contrary.
Take Hintlesham Wood in Suffolk. It’s an ancient woodland and a SSSI, notable not just for its tree and plant communities, but home to a healthy population of woodland birds such as nuthatch, marsh tit and treecreeper. There is documented evidence that these woods were around in the twelfth century. However, National Grid is consulting on route options for power cables which affect the wood.
Or take Chattenden Woods SSSI in Kent, where the woods and surrounding scrub supports more than 1% of the UK population of nightingale. The nightingales there are threatened by an urban development of 5,000 homes.
Neither of these sites are protected by international law; both of them could be threatened by an NPPF with weak environmental policies. These are just the sort of places that the NPPF must protect.
We’re also looking to see recognition of Local Nature Partnerships and the new Nature Improvement Areas, which have a crucial strategic role in delivering environmental enhancement and restoration.
3. The NPPF must achieve smart growth.
That is, it must encourage the sensible and efficient use of land through policies such as ‘brownfield first’ (except where brownfield land has developed biodiversity interest) and locating in places accessible by public transport.
13 organisations support these red lines. What would yours be?
We’ll be watching closely on the day of publication to see if the NPPF crosses any of these red lines.