New planning policy is a step backwards for nature

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

New planning policy is a step backwards for nature

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England is currently undergoing the most radical overhaul of its planning system in a generation, and today marks an important stage in this process. 

Today the UK Government launched its own draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)  – an important document that will provide the national context for local planning decisions.  It is slimmed down guidance, replacing over a thousand existing pages of national planning policy with around fifty. 

All that might ring a few bells if you’ve been trying to follow the UK Government’s planning reforms.  For just two short months ago, a small group of expert practitioners, tasked by ministers at the department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), with my colleague Simon Marsh amongst them, published their draft of the NPPF.

The critical difference is that today’s publication is the Government’s own draft.  Whilst this bears more than a passing resemblance to that produced by the practitioners’ group, there have been a number of significant changes. 

Before I get ahead of myself and into the devil of the detail, today’s launch provides a moment to take stock of where we are.  Consolidating national policy is enough of a challenge to get right, but today’s draft NPPF offers two other important milestones for the English planning system. 

Firstly, it formally marks the government’s desired shift in the emphasis on planning decisions, placing one factor – economic growth – higher than others in decision-making.  Of course, the draft NPPF isn’t the first indication of this trend – let us not forget clause 124 of the Localism Bill which I blogged about here.

It is understandable why some are clamering for economic growth, but we must have the right checks and balances in place to ensure this does not come at the expense of nature. It is already clear that the draft NPPF fails to put in place the measures necessary to ensure that the purpose of planning really is ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’.  It is therefore unfit for its own, self-defined, purpose. 

Secondly, it also marks a lost opportunity to use the NPPF to support the Government's ambitions to restore the natural environment as outlined in the Natural Environment White Paper.  The RSPB has long argued that the NPPF should be ‘spatial’ – to help decide how to maximise the value that our natural resources offers us.   This would help us guide development to the most appropriate locations, thus avoiding conflict, as well as identifying areas which would be suitable for restoring wildlife to England.

We will be pouring over the draft in some detail over the next few days, and I may come back to this subject over the next few days.

For now,  despite the strong, and welcome, references to restoring the natural environment in Greg Clark’s foreword, the draft NPPF is effectively green-wash.  During the consultattion phase, the balance of truly sustainable development - which helps us to live within environmental limits - needs to be restored.

  • You are right, Flutterby, the planning system does seem to be a toy for politicians to play with.  I think that the focus over the past few years has been on trying to get the economy moving and this and the last government both felt that the planning system was a block to growth so sought reform.  The reality is much more complex.  We commissioned GHK consultants in 2006 to look at Kate Barker's review of planning policy.  She was interested in how changes to planning might increase changes in economic productivity.  Our report concluded that many other areas of public policy – particularly on education, skills, investment and financial regulation, health and science – have a more direct impact on the “five drivers” of productivity - competition, innovation, skills, investment, and enterprise - than planning.  They also said that, conversely, planning policy has an impact on a much wider range of social, environmental and other economic conditions of ‘places’ than the productivity of business.  Alas, the current government are equally obsessed by liberalising planning to underpin the growth imperative and I fear that the current reforms will backfire.

  • What is it about the planning system that attracts so much meddling from politicians?  Thank you for this analysis Martin - this issue has received so much coverage today, and it is useful to hear the RSPB's view.