Here’s a test. What Government minister do you think said this recently?
“I believe our natural environment can be better cared for. Historic habitats that have been destroyed can be re-established. Species that have become trapped in isolated refuges must be reconnected. Monotonous swathes of brown masquerading as 'green belt' should be improved to live up to their name and be refilled by nature. And the green belt should be somewhere in which people, especially those in towns and cities, can hope to encounter nature and air and openness personally, rather than view it from a nose pressed against a car window on a ring road.”
Caroline Spelman? Richard Benyon?
No, it was actually Greg Clark, minister for planning policy and one of the architects of the Government’s reforms to the planning system in England. I can’t recall a planning minister ever being this positive about the natural environment. Thank you!
Greg Clark said it to an audience of planners at conference where the RSPB happened to be presenting a workshop asking whether this government’s approach was for the ‘greenest planning ever’, and urging planners to step up for nature.
Contrast this welcome approach with the publication a day later of a ‘working draft’ of the proposed ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, which will be a central plank of the Government’s forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework. The so-called presumption in favour is essentially a policy device to encourage more development. Ah, I should have said sustainable development, shouldn’t I?
There are some nice words about sustainable development buried in the preamble to the presumption. They recognise that our long-term economic growth relies on protecting and enhancing the environmental resources that underpin it. Exactly. That’s precisely the message coming from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and the Natural Environment White Paper.
But the nice words are submerged by the strong emphasis on economic growth. In fact sustainable development seems to be redefined with growth as the number one priority. Worse, planners are expected to say “yes” to development as the default answer. Where’s the even-handed approach to decision-making that we need in the highly contested world of land use planning?
I am convinced that Greg Clark gets it about the natural environment. But there are forces in Whitehall that don’t yet get it, and would like to see development at any cost. There’s still a chance for the Government to get it right in the National Planning Policy Framework. Here’s to truly sustainable development, with nature at its heart.
One of the problems that development planners seem to have is that they are very relucant to properly investigate alternatives. We see this time and time again. They come up with the solution they want and then seek to justify that solution environmentally, sustainably and in all other ways. They must spend time (and money) properly investigating real alternatives, not just variations to their selected development, and then carry out full environmental impacts assessments of these alternatives, From now on, incorporating the guidelines contained in the National Ecosystem Assessment and the Natural Environment White Paper will also be necessary. Only when reasonable alternatives have been properly studied and evaluated can an informed opinion be made. I have a feeling that this will be a hard and difficult lesson for the development planners to learn.