Losing what we love: England’s planning system is destroying nature piece by piece

Sunday 13 February 2022

Minsmere RSPB Reserve, general view of Boomacre Mere

  • Between 2009 and 2020, local authorities in England published an average of 422,000 planning decisions per year, of which about 85% granted planning approval. Of the 98 Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects applications, only four have been refused and one partially refused.
  • A snapshot of the data taken in July 2021 shows over 8,000 planning applications located within 500 methres of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
  • A new report by the RSPB outlines eight steps that would help governments and local authorities reform the planning system to stop it squeezing nature out and help achieve the government’s own environment plan goals.

England’s planning system is destroying nature and is in dire need of reform according to a new report published by the RSPB. In its current state the system is squeezing nature out and is running counter to the Government’s own goals for nature recovery through the 25-year environment plan.

The new report, Losing What We Love: How planning is affecting our wildlife, highlights the discrepancies in the system and the sheer volume of applications that are swamping an already damaged process. It also lists solutions. Eight steps that could help turn the tide for our beleaguered wildlife.

Between 2009 and 2020, local authorities in England published an average of 422,000 planning decisions per year, of which about were 85% granted planning approval. A snapshot of the data taken in July 2021 shows over 8,000 planning applications located within 500 metres of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), places that should be protected because of their importance.

Alice Hardiman, RSPB England’s head of policy said, “Our current planning system is broken. Swamped by sheer numbers of applications and with loopholes that pepper the system, allowing developers to weave around conditions meant to protect nature. And what protection for nature there is, has been watered down.

“Applications shouldn’t be viewed in isolation but need to be assessed as part of a wider picture with the cumulative effects of decisions being considered. This is not currently being done and consequently both people and wildlife are losing out. The places, sights and sounds that we love are disappearing.”

But it’s not just the thousands of smaller applications, some of the country’s largest infrastructure projects, or Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) will take significant tolls on some of our most important places for nature. Of 98 NSIP applications, only four have been refused and one partially refused. 

The RSPB’s Minsmere reserve is on a stretch of the Suffolk coast renowned for its abundant wildlife and is one of the most protected places in Europe. However, it is also an area identified by government as a potentially appropriate location to construct a new nuclear power station - EDF’s proposed Sizewell C development. Should that development go ahead the impacts on nature, the environment and Minsmere’s unique sense of place will unarguably be significant and detrimental.

The Swanscombe Peninsula, which sits on the bank of the River Thames, is under threat from the proposed London Resort theme park that, if approved, would see over 100 ha of nature rich land concreted over. The site was confirmed as a SSSI by Natural England only last year (2021).

The new report also sets out some solutions to the current planning quagmire, highlighting eight positive and constructive suggestions as to how our planning system could be improved to better support nature’s recovery.

  • Strengthen the protection for nature offered by the Habitats Regulations.
  • Introduce a new planning designation to safeguard land for nature’s recovery.
  • Reintroduce an effective ‘larger than local’ tier of planning.
  • Guarantee that any review of Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment rules results in stronger, not weaker, protection for nature.
  • Get the most out of the Biodiversity Net Gain
  • Ensure that developer contribution funding continues to be forthcoming for nature
  • Give Local Authorities powers to tackle land banking by requiring consented developments to be built within a specified time frame.
  • Tighten-up legislation to protect species from harmful cumulative impacts of interventions that are currently legal, such as the use of nets and spikes as nesting deterrents.

Alice Hardiman said “England’s planning system urgently needs reform, but we do have the solutions to help fight back against the nature and climate emergencies. The government needs to see the bigger prize, be bold and deliver a system worth of this country.”

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