Planning for a wilder future or planning to fail?

Building Houses by Jonathan Oakley

The planning system is broken. Not only is it failing to create the type of sustainable, healthy communities that we all need but new development continues to tear up valuable habitat and further fragment our vital Nature Recovery Network.

The Government has recognised that a substantial reform is needed and we agree.

However our starting points seem to be very different.  The government seems determined to bring in sweeping simplifications so that they can more quickly ‘build, build, build’ the homes needed by our growing population and create jobs for those in the trade. Meanwhile, those that care about the ability of our planet to home us for the long-term believe strongly that now is the time to radically rethink what sustainable development looks like and to build on the bedrock of nature - supporting healthy natural resources, so that both people and wildlife can thrive.

What’s particularly striking is the lack of dot-joining.  On the one hand, Government is pledging ambitious improvements for the environment.  They have committed to tackling the climate and ecological emergencies and are bringing forward a swathe of new legislation to set us on the road to nature’s recovery. 

However, over in the department for communities and local government it seems that wildlife is simply an annoyance and a distraction from the matter of getting the economy back on track.  While the White Paper sets out some laudable ambitions to make the system work more smoothly for everyone involved, there is a conspicuous lack of mention of one of the centre pieces of the Environment Bill – the Nature Recovery Network.

Whilst the economic and social imperative to fast-track development may be huge, the absolute pressing need to meet their commitments on the environmental front are just as vital, if not more so.  If they are indeed serious about saving the planet and all who sail on her, this must underpin all policy making and be given equal billing and weight.  Government, it seems, is listening to the loud demands of industry and Treasury, but is turning a deaf ear, when convenient, to mother nature’s warnings.

But it doesn’t need to be either/or.  It is pointless and counter-productive to pit nature against the economy and, with radical reform now on the table, this is our opportunity to make sure that we build a system that is truly sustainable from the start.  We have been honing the knowledge and tools to do this and we know it is possible to plan for great places that balance and support the needs of both people and wildlife.

In fact, we know that by putting nature at the heart of planning and development you can not only safeguard and restore our vital natural habitats and species and ensure that we all have a plentiful supply of clean water and air, but you can also create better, healthier and more desirable places to live.

Can we fix it?  Yes we can

The proposals as they stand would see areas ‘zoned’ for growth, regeneration and protection, with those allocated for development given permission by default.  Nature only gets a look in within the ‘protection’ zone and then only those sites that are already designated and safeguarded.

Decision-making at a local level would also look very different and depend much more on digital and data-driven processes.   

We think he Government needs to take a step back and start with nature – where it is and importantly where it could and should be.  Our knowledge of the Nature Recovery Network locally could mean that we clearly identify not just the small fragments of wild space that are already protected, but new areas where nature can thrive – a ‘wildbelt’ that will help move us towards nature’s recovery.  

Beyond this, we want to see meaningful engagement by local communities in longer-term planning, so that people have a real say in place making and we want the Government to make sure that, as they encourage developers to ‘build beautiful’, this means embedding nature within new and existing communities, creating green spaces for people to enjoy and expanding and connecting vital wildlife habitat within urban and rural settings.  

Our vision for a planning system fit for a wilder future, is guided by the following principles:

  1. Wildlife recovery and people’s easy access to nature must be put at the heart of planning reform by mapping a Nature Recovery Network
  2. Nature protection policies and standards must not be weakened, and assessment of environmental impact must take place before development is permitted
  3. Address the ecological and climate crises by protecting new land put into recovery by creating a new designation – Wildbelt
  4. People and local stakeholders must be able to engage with the planning system.
  5. Decisions must be based on up-to-date and accurate nature data

More analysis of the proposals and details about our principles can be found here.   We will share more of our thinking on the proposals over the next few weeks and would love to hear your views.

We will be formally responding to the Government’s consultation, which is open until the 29th October. We will also be urging our local MPs and Councillors to listen to both our concerns and our ideas.

We would really encourage you to make your voice heard too

The more people that make the case for planning for a wilder future, the more chance that we will get the reforms that we need and that nature deserves.

Respond now