England is currently undergoing the most radical overhaul of its planning system in a generation, and today marks an important stage in this process.
Today the UK Government launched its own draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – an important document that will provide the national context for local planning decisions. It is slimmed down guidance, replacing over a thousand existing pages of national planning policy with around fifty.
All that might ring a few bells if you’ve been trying to follow the UK Government’s planning reforms. For just two short months ago, a small group of expert practitioners, tasked by ministers at the department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), with my colleague Simon Marsh amongst them, published their draft of the NPPF.
The critical difference is that today’s publication is the Government’s own draft. Whilst this bears more than a passing resemblance to that produced by the practitioners’ group, there have been a number of significant changes.
Before I get ahead of myself and into the devil of the detail, today’s launch provides a moment to take stock of where we are. Consolidating national policy is enough of a challenge to get right, but today’s draft NPPF offers two other important milestones for the English planning system.
Firstly, it formally marks the government’s desired shift in the emphasis on planning decisions, placing one factor – economic growth – higher than others in decision-making. Of course, the draft NPPF isn’t the first indication of this trend – let us not forget clause 124 of the Localism Bill which I blogged about here.
It is understandable why some are clamering for economic growth, but we must have the right checks and balances in place to ensure this does not come at the expense of nature. It is already clear that the draft NPPF fails to put in place the measures necessary to ensure that the purpose of planning really is ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’. It is therefore unfit for its own, self-defined, purpose.
Secondly, it also marks a lost opportunity to use the NPPF to support the Government's ambitions to restore the natural environment as outlined in the Natural Environment White Paper. The RSPB has long argued that the NPPF should be ‘spatial’ – to help decide how to maximise the value that our natural resources offers us. This would help us guide development to the most appropriate locations, thus avoiding conflict, as well as identifying areas which would be suitable for restoring wildlife to England.
We will be pouring over the draft in some detail over the next few days, and I may come back to this subject over the next few days.
For now, despite the strong, and welcome, references to restoring the natural environment in Greg Clark’s foreword, the draft NPPF is effectively green-wash. During the consultattion phase, the balance of truly sustainable development - which helps us to live within environmental limits - needs to be restored.
Other than a few fleeting mentions in the media, the furore around the future of England’s public forest estate seems to have simmered. The Independent Panel on Forestry has started to examine the issues and a few public pressure groups have mobilised. But it certainly isn’t the political hot potato that it was in February and March of this year.
But it’s important that we don’t forget about it. As we said repeatedly earlier in the year, it’s a complicated issue and our views on it can’t be fitted comfortably onto a placard. But basically we want to make sure that, whatever happens, we get the best possible outcome for wildlife, habitats and people. And then it’s about finding the best possible way of achieving this.
The results of a recent re-survey of deciduous woodland bird populations showed that 9 out of 34 bird species have suffered serious declines. Some, such as willow tit, have declined by more than 70%, one of the largest bird declines in any UK habitat. Changes in the structure of woodlands, caused by a lack of management, are thought to have had the biggest influence. And it’s not just birds - alarming declines in woodland butterfly and plant species have also been recorded.
The Forestry Panel for England will need to address any shortcomings in the management of our woodlands if these iconic landscapes, and the wildlife that lives in them, are to have a secure future.
So, what do we want?
We’d like to see improved woodland management for rare and threatened wildlife, through the protection, restoration and extension of our native woods and priority open habitats, such as heathland.
We also need to ensure that the right trees are in the right places. This may sound a bit odd, but some important habitats have been overplanted with the wrong species of trees, often to provide commercial timber. Planting of non-native conifers has damaged some our most important habitats – both ancient woodland and heathland.
It’s shocking to realise that over 80% of England’s heathland has been lost over the past 200 years, which has had a devastating impact on the wildlife that depends on it. We’d like to see these special and important places restored and see an increase in heathland species like the woodlark, Dartford warbler, sand lizard and heath tiger beetle. And restoring our ancient woodlands could benefit species such as hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker and the glorious purple emperor butterfly.
And it’s not just about the wildlife. It’s also about you and me. Woods and forests need to be managed with people in mind, providing local areas for recreation, education and the enjoyment of wildlife.
The Forestry Commission does some things well, but there are quite a few things that need to be fixed. For example, an area of heathland and ancient woodland almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight continues to be damaged by conifer plantations on FC-managed land.
These are some of the issues that we will be asking the Forestry Panel to consider. What do you think?
The debate about the relative merits of the new National Planning Policy Framework has started. As discussed on yesterday's Today programme, it seems that those who do not embrace the reforms will be painted as anti-growth and therefore somehow out of touch - not accepting the reality of the need for economic recovery.
But that is too simplistic and misses the point. As my colleague, Simon Marsh, points out in his blog, unless economic growth is sustainable, we will be storing up problems for our children. The reality is that the NPPF has gone too far by 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 departure from the current approach of the planning system which seeks to give equal weight to environmental, social and economic needs in decision-making.
This is such a fundamental shift in emphasis, that we will be rolling up our sleeves to fight this.
If you are equally concerned about the direction of travel, then you can help by joining our campaign here.
I have now been the RSPB's Conservation Director for three months. It really is a fantastic job - I feel so lucky to be able to work with such talented and committed people and to have a window onto the breadth of the organisation's work.
But, to be honest, I could do with a bit of a break. So, I am off for a long weekend to our family hut in Northumberland and will soon be travelling to France for a fortnight's holiday.
So, to give you advance warning, I may blog a little less frequently during August. I am not expecting the world to stand still - and I will pop back for the odd posting - but it is time to recharge the batteries before the fun and games begin again in September.
Before I head north, it is worth recapping on what we have managed to achieve over the past three months.
We have successfully launched our Stepping Up for Nature campaign following the elections in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
We have (literally) set sail to save the Henderson petrel from extinction.
We have influenced (with mixed success) a raft of policy announcements including the UK National Ecosystems Assessment, the Natural Environment White Paper and the National Planning Policy Framework.
We have had our first major fight with the European Commission over their proposals for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy as part of the the EU Budget.
The past 3 months have been busy, but tremendously rewarding. I've learned a lot - and I'm still learning!
I have mixed feelings about the EU Budget announcement.
I feel frustrated that once again the European Commission has failed to come up with a budget to tackle the environmental challenges we face. Yet, I feel relieved that our worst fears about cuts to funding for wildlife-friendly farming have been largely allayed. And, I also feel proud about the way that the RSPB, working closely through BirdLife International, our supporters (over 8,000 of them) and many farmers spoke up for nature by contacting Mr Barroso directly.
Their support has helped retain most of the existing pot of cash for activities which can improve the environment. But we were looking for so much more.
I am not convinced that the funding and proposed reforms will be sufficient for the EU (or indeed the UK for that matter) to fulfil its many environmental commitments to reversing wildlife declines or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is notoriously difficult to interpret the Budget figures, our economists have managed to draw out the following headlines:
You can read the Commission's proposals here. I will direct you to the RSPB analysis as soon as it is on our website.
But this is just the beginning of a long process.
The Council of Ministers now get their say. And once the Council and the Commission reach agreement, the EU Parliament still needs to give it the nod. The key completion date is the end of 2013 when the current budget term expires.
So it is clear that we will have to roll up our sleeves and step up again for nature by lobbying governments and MEPs to honour Europe’s environmental commitments. We'll keep campaigning to defend what we have, to seek improvement and ultimately to deliver a brighter future for Euorpe's wildlife.