Friday, 30 March 2012

Planning reforms and habitat regulations

Back in December last year I expressed major concerns about the direction the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to be taking with the environment. Basically he saw it as a block on the economy – “gold plating of EU rules…. placing ridiculous costs on business”.

At the same time we saw a draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that again threatened the simplistic stripping away of environmental protection in the mistaken belief that, against all the evidence, it was this that was holding back the British economy.

Fortunately more sensible voices seem now to have been heard, I suspect perhaps including some words from our own Sussex MPs.

The NPPF has now been published and it is an improvement over the draft. The Government has now recognised the importance of planning positively for the natural environment and of including Local Wildlife Sites and Nature Improvement Areas. It is also good to see the ambition to achieve net gains for nature, specifically referencing the Natural Environment White Paper. Local Authorities now have the clear steer needed to help secure nature’s recovery by embedding policies to create vital ecological networks and protect important wildlife sites and species in local and neighbourhood plans.

The emphasis on economic growth still remains but at least the definition of sustainable development is a little better and the artificial polarity of environment versus economy, implied in the draft, seems to have gone.

Government makes great sway of reducing 1000 pages of planning guidance down to just 50. It remains to be seen if this is a good thing. Those 1000 pages were there for a reason and had been built up to provide clarity. Stripping that away could be a recipe for chaos, as development after development fights their case through Public Inquiries. Or maybe it will set a trajectory, perhaps supported by technical notes to provide the needed clarity.

So it is not quite as bad as I thought it was going to be. But “not quite as bad as I thought it was going to be” is hardly great praise. Maybe the proof of the pudding will be in the way that some of the localisation principles come into play. Will this be true local decision-making (what development goes where…) or will it actually reduce local say (government sets the development and locals are free to decide on what colour the gates should be painted!).

Part of this apparent assault on the environment was a review of the Habitat regulations – regulations used to protect our most important environmental assets. However, this has been a constructive process and the Wildlife Trusts have been able to engage fully. Unsurprisingly, the review found no evidence of “gold plating” of the regulations and even delays to development were only found in a tiny fraction of cases. I am relieved that Caroline Spelman was able to defend the principles and purposes of these Directives. Perhaps it is worrying that there was so little evidence of development being adversely effected by the regulations – maybe the only way to keep government happy has been to show how ineffective the regulations actually are! In practice, however, it probably shows how good negotiation can achieve good outcomes for both the economy and the environment when people make the effort.

Nevertheless, I remain concerned about some of the rhetoric still coming from the Chancellor. We still hear tales of global business being diverted from the UK, loosing hundreds of jobs to Germany and the Netherlands (who, incidentally, have environmental regulations as good as or better than ours), of restrictions holding back the economy and so on. Yet this is at variance with the evidence (places with strong environmental protection tend to have stronger economies) – a point almost never picked up by the media.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Green or Grey? Which direction will the budget take?

We have seen several good signs over past years as governments, of all political persuasions, seem to get a better understanding of the value of nature. I mentioned the South Downs Nature Improvement Area a while ago for instance. However, against some of these good news stories are worries about the coming Budget Statement.

Our concerns have been articulated by Stephanie Hilbourne, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts nationally, in The Wildlife Trusts Pre-Budget Statement:

Society has spoken out repeatedly against policies that put short-term profit ahead of our countryside and wildlife, eroding our natural capital and quality of life. The budget next week (21 March 2012) will show whether the Government has chosen to listen.

It will test whether the Government is still at odds with itself as it was in the pre budget statement. We are unclear which side of its personality it will express.

On the one hand its Natural Environment White Paper (June 2011) states that it “wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited”, a statement which we wholeheartedly support. This point is further reinforced by the National Ecosystem Assessment, (also June 2011), which makes a compelling case that failing to address declines in ecosystem health, habitats and species, will have a significant effect on the well-being of society, as well as having environmental and economic costs. The Government has committed to putting ‘natural capital at the heart of government accounting’.

On the other hand Government is pressing forward with new road building and priming the scene for more development with less planning control and even fewer environmental regulations, all in the name of growth. Comments made in the Autumn Statement on the Habitats Regulations, the ‘red-tape challenge’ and the ill-conceived planning reforms, show an out-of-date approach casting regulation and the environment as enemies to growth.

Since the Chancellor suggested ‘gold plating’ of European Regulations is hindering development, we have had to devote considerable charitable resources to participating in the review of the implementation of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives.

The Wildlife Trusts work on the ground with developers every day and we know that the regulations are not holding back developments. We are pleased the review appears to have confirmed that view and concluded that the regulations are neither ‘gold plated’ nor an excessive burden on business. We do, however, acknowledge that there are measures that can be taken to streamline and clarify processes. Now we wait to see if the Treasury will accept the outcomes of the review.

Rather than being an obstacle to economic productivity, the environment is the very basis of it. And there is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate the fact. We appeal to the Prime Minister to champion long-term, sustainable economic policies that will bring much-needed prosperity without destroying the natural environment that millions hold dear.

To tear apart environmental regulations and weaken planning laws would be to take a huge step backwards. A Government seeking to be progressive and the greenest ever would certainly retain this established good practice.

Last century this country saw devastating declines in wildlife that only slowed towards its close. Far from undoing the laws that were created to stem this tide of loss Government should now be introducing new measures to restore our ecosystems and put our stewardship of the natural environment at the heart of government policy.