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Planning reform in England

RSPB Exe Estuary reserve, aerial view

Image: David Wootton

Why is planning important?

England's planning system plays a little-seen but extremely important role in protecting wildlife whilst allowing the houses and business that we need. From local parks to internationally important estuaries, the planning system directs development away from these important places to less damaging locations.

The reform of the English planning system

Soon after it came to power, the Coalition Government set about radically reforming England's planning system. The changes proved controversial, and throughout 2011 and the into the early part of 2012, along with many other nature conservation charities, we called for the Government to alter their approach.

There have been two main elements to the reforms. The first is the Localism Act – a lengthy piece of legislation that includes the abolition of regional governance and the introduction of neighbourhood planning. When the Act was still a Bill, we worked closely with other organisations to try and ensure that the resulting system acts in the best interests of communities and wildlife.

Most of the controversy however, focused on the second component of the reforms – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – which was published in March 2012. This condenses more than 1,000 pages of national government planning policy with one 50-page document.

Why was the draft NPPF controversial?

When the draft document was published for public consultation in summer 2011 we, like many other environmental organisations, had serious concerns.

Our primary concern was that the draft NPPF as it stood would weaken protection for much of England's wildlife. Whilst it contained welcome environmental policies, these were undermined by an important clause called the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development'.

This presumption could make it more difficult for local authorities to reject applications that damage all but the most highly protected wildlife sites.

What action did we take?

We called on government to change its approach to planning reform. On the Localism Bill we worked with a range of other organisations to persuade MPs and Peers to take action to ensure a positive outcome.

From the publication of the draft NPPF in summer 2011 to the publication of the final version in March 2012, we actively campaigned for major amendments. We insisted that the planning system must continue to protect wildlife, and to go beyond that by requiring local authorities to work with partners (such as ourselves) to restore vital wildlife habitats.

Now that all the changes have taken place, what do we think of the new planning system?

The new English planning system is very different to the one it has replaced. The changes will take a while to settle in at a local level and only then will we know the real impact.

Through the Localism Act, regional planning, which helped local authorities work together on 'larger than local' challenges, has been scrapped. In its place the Act introduces a Duty to Co-operate, which requires local authorities to work together on key issues. We worked closely with other environmental organisations to improve the ways in which this new Duty works.

The Localism Act also gives us neighbourhood planning – a new form of community-level planning.

On the once-controversial National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) it is clear that government listened. All of our key concerns were addressed in the final document. Arguably the natural environment policies are actually an improvement on previous government policy. Huge thanks to all those members and supporters who took action demanding change to the NPPF – it really did work.

The focus now shifts to a more local level, and success will depend on how all these changes are put into practice. For example, will local interpretation of the new NPPF prevent damage to our most important wildlife sites, or will political rhetoric swing the balance too far in favour of damaging developments?

The new planning system offers real potential to support the restoration and recreation of wildlife habitats. We will be working with local authorities to help put these policies into practice so that there are more special places for wildlife and people to enjoy.

For more information on what we think of the NPPF, please download our detailed briefing note from the side of this page.

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