This post is by Simon Marsh, head of nature protection at RSPB.
“Build, build, build”. If that means building quality homes in the right places with wildlife-rich green space on the doorstep, who could object? But with rumours swirling that speeding up the planning system means cutting back vital environmental protections, and with radical planning reforms proposed, it’s time to speak up for good planning.
The RSPB works with planning systems in the UK and abroad to protect important wildlife sites and promote biodiversity in development, giving us a unique perspective.
Since I first wrote, seven years ago, about the global biodiversity crisis and the UK’s failure to halt nature loss, I can only say that the situation is now worse. The most recent State of nature report shows just how significant the losses are, with 41 per cent of species in Great Britain declining and 15 per cent at risk of extinction. The UK has failed to reach most of the biodiversity targets set in 2010. Neither this nor the climate crisis, both as significant as our current economic woes and with bigger long-term consequences, were mentioned by the prime minister today.
As has been widely reported, lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic has given many people a renewed appreciation of the nature on their doorstep. A recent YouGov poll carried out for us showed overwhelming public support for investing in nature as part of plans for recovery from the coronavirus crisis, with four out of five people in England supporting the idea of more accessible nature-rich areas in the UK.
Using the medical analogy, if the Covid-19 pandemic was an acute crisis, we still have to deal with the chronic ecological and climate crises which will shape our world for years to come. And the planning system has a key role to play.
In response to the huge economic dislocation resulting from the pandemic, it would be easy to respond by rolling back regulations in the mistaken belief this this would facilitate a massive programme of building to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
In fact, there is a wealth of evidence that well-designed, properly enforced regulations result in positive economic outcomes, and that they are good for the environment too. There can be a significant return on investments driven by regulation: every £1 spent on the management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest delivers over £8 in benefits.
Good planning should work for people and the environment
Simply put, it’s worth remembering that the purpose of the planning system is to deliver the right development, in the right place, at the right time, for public benefit. And this includes significant environmental benefits, for instance protection of valued wildlife habitats, public access to green spaces (all the more important in a post-Covid world) and avoidance of flood risk. It also helps to avoid significant environmental costs, such as the loss of beautiful landscapes or costs associated with pollution or devastating floods.
Environmental regulations which protect nature and other environmental assets – such as habitats regulations and Environmental Impact Assessment – have been a cornerstone of this approach. They have given teeth to the good intentions of planning policy and, in the case of habitats regulations, have been shown by successive reviews to be fit for purpose.
It would be wrong to imply that the planning system is perfect; many commentators have expressed concerns about mediocre development, the under-provision of new homes, and ongoing environmental damage. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has made many helpful recommendations on improving the quality of developments.
There is now an understandable desire to get the economy back on its feet. Critics of planning tend to focus on the costs to business and public administration. At the time of the last major planning reforms, we showed that this is a one sided picture.
Two priorities to protect nature and benefit people
First, it is critical that we do not downgrade existing environmental protections and also the tools which can help to inform better decisions, such as Habitats Regulations Assessment, Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment. These are the global gold standards for environmental planning. And all of these apply to the EU countries – such as France and Germany – who were praised by the PM for their speed and effectiveness. Environmental protections are not the barriers to speed.
Second, we need a strong Environment Bill which puts robust environmental protections and governance in place and goes further, requiring biodiversity net gain for all new development and the establishment of local nature recovery networks. Any planning reforms must not undermine or circumvent proposals in the bill.
All major infrastructure and large scale development projects should avoid harming nature in the first place and then be required to deliver a genuine overall net gain for biodiversity. In addition, if the UK is serious about meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement, these projects should be designed to keep us on track for reaching net zero as soon as feasible.
We need improved, mandatory standards for accessible natural green spaces, not just because it’s good for nature but because it’s vital for people’s health and wellbeing, especially in more deprived communities. This is a matter of social justice, as we starkly illuminated in our Recovering together report.
Planning problems are usually down to implementation
The recent revival of strategic planning in combined and mayoral authorities is welcome, as long as nature is properly embedded. Whilst we see a limited role for permitted development rights, their continued expansion threatens the quality of the places we are building.
Many of the problems planning faces – and in particular the speed of decision making – aren’t really about the tools and policies, but about their implementation. Local authorities have been the victims of many cuts, especially to their planning services and to specialist roles such as ecologists. Finding ways to resource the right skills and capacity will be crucial in a post-Covid world.
We have a unique opportunity to place nature and people at the heart of the recovery from this crisis, increasing access to nature rich green spaces for everyone, as well as restoring and protecting our wild places on land and sea. And only this way will we stand a chance of passing the environment on to the next generation in a better state than we found it.