In two directions
Environment, Planning and Devolution – a personal view
Most people have some idea of environmental issues and the role of government in protecting nature and large numbers also deal with the planning or development control system that decides what can be built where. What may be less apparent is that the UK is undergoing major changes in how both of these areas are managed and how they interact and that, thanks to devolution, England and Wales are taking different approaches.
In England there remain two distinct and arguably conflicting sets of policies, the Environment White Paper and Biodiversity Strategy for environmental protection and the National Planning Policy Framework for development.
The White Paper1 sets out a goal to “mainstream the value of nature across our society” and specifically mentions aims to integrate nature conservation with planning through a strategic approach. However in practice it is clear that this would apply mainly within local authority areas and not on a wider geographical scale and that the government feels the old system was over centralised. This approach is largely repeated in the Biodiversity Strategy2 together with an emphasis on achieving no net loss for biodiversity and creating ecological networks.
The National Planning Policy Framework3 repeats the importance of biodiversity and calls for the refusal of planning applications that would cause significant harm to biodiversity but has at its core a presumption in favour of sustainable development that applies for all areas outside of European protected sites. The situation for nationally important sites (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) is unclear as the Framework does call for applications in these areas to be refused unless the benefits outweigh any damage but the presumption remains in place.
Perhaps most significantly the Framework removes all regional elements of planning, replacing these with a general ‘duty to co-operate’ between local authorities and reduces national policy to general principles. This places responsibility for strategic planning entirely on local authorities without clear mechanisms for dealing with larger scales such as river catchments.
In Wales the Green Paper4 specifically mentions that both environmental and planning legislation are expected to follow from it. It proposes an ecosystem approach based on weighing up all the competing demands for land including ecosystem services such as flood alleviation and nature conservation as well as demand for development.
Importantly spatial priorities would be set at a national level under the Welsh proposals and the management of natural resources would be integrated with other types of planning such as infrastructure and development plans.
Both countries start from very similar premises emphasising the benefits of the natural environment, the economic value of those benefits and the need to integrate environmental protection with land use planning. However there are key differences.
- The English system will place virtually all responsibility on local authorities with limited guidance at a national level and none regionally.
- The Welsh system will include a stronger national element to strategic planning.
- The English system is entirely based on principles to be applied with no explicit spatial element, although this would be expected at a local level.
- The Welsh system would be spatially based and look to provide national spatial plans making it possible to map out the strategic importance of any area.
- Finally the Welsh proposals would seem to go much further towards integrating the planning process with environmental protection.
So which approach will work better, a set of broad principles to be worked out at a local level or a national strategy based on integration and lots of mapping and spatial planning?
The Welsh approach seems more popular among both environmentalists and professional planners and seems to me better thought out but the real test will be in implementation.