Last week the Government released its much anticipated White Paper setting out how ministers plan to fix what they call ‘our broken housing market’. Naturally as a Wildlife Trust, we were keen to identify the impacts and opportunities this document presents for wildlife. Some of the key issues we’re interested in are set out below:
Government housing proposals and wildlife
The White Paper refers frequently to the need to protect the Green Belt and compensate communities when it is built on. Unfortunately there are multiple definitions of green belt –nationally recognised statutory Green Belt, as well as informal green belt as defined by local councils.
In principle this could result in more investment in green spaces, which would be welcome. However space for wildlife and space for people can’t always be the same thing; many wildlife havens are sensitive to disturbance and are not suitable destinations for high levels of visitors. Ideally developers would be required to provide open green space for recreation, to buffer the most sensitive wildlife habitats.
The government has re-emphasised the importance of better using brownfield land as a way to address the housing shortage. However, as we’ve written previously, brownfield sites are sometimes very wildlife-rich, so aren’t a panacea to our housing problems.
We argue that brownfield sites should be dealt with on a case by case basis to ensure that there is minimum impact on wildlife.
Ancient woodland, aged and veteran trees
One the most interesting new measures set out by the Government is giving ancient woodland, and aged and veteran trees, higher status in the planning system, and restricting development that might harm them.
We welcome the Government’s recognition that these are irreplaceable habitats, though we’d argue that there are also other wildlife-rich habitats that are equally or even more irreplaceable, that should also be protected. For example habitats like fens, mires and peatlands are among our most important, but receive little recognition in the planning system.
A strategic approach to protected species
The specific protections in place for particular species have come in for some criticism from developers and government in recent years – for example apocryphal stories of great crested newts ‘stopping development’. However a recent pilot of a new approach in Woking takes a more strategic approach to protecting species and the key networks of habitats they use.
In principle, adopting a more strategic approach like this could be better for wildlife, since it could ensure that development proposals are located away from important populations of protected or declining species or sensitive habitats.
However it’s crucial that any new approach is supported by robust ecological evidence, such as detailed species surveys, ecological network mapping, and that populations are monitored to ensure the effectiveness of the approach and modify if required.
It is also worth noting that whilst this approach may be suitable for more habitat specific species, such as great crested newt, it is unlikely to be effective for more wide ranging protected species, such as bats.
Ultimately we need to make it normal for all housing, commercial and infrastructure development to contribute positively to nature’s recovery. Ambitious housing targets – while aiming to help meet the demand for homes – risk putting enormous pressure on our already declining natural environment.
We must be ambitious in designing towns and cities in a way that incorporates the natural environment and wildlife habitats into the fabric of new development for the benefit of wildlife and people.