Planning reforms - why we are smiling

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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

Planning reforms - why we are smiling

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Last October, I suggested in a radio interview that the draft National Planning Policy Framework should be put in a park bin.  It was a rather cheeky reference to Oliver Letwin's error of judgement in disposing of constituency correspondence in a similar fashion.   There was real anxiety that the original draft would undermine the UK Government's own ambitions to pass on the environment to the next generation in a better state.  

The environment sector was united in their condemnation of the proposals and a public campaign (with the support of the Daily Telegraph) kept the issue alive politically for months.

But yesterday we had reason to celebrate.

To the surprise of many, in publishing the final National Planning Policy Framework, the Planning Minister, Greg Clark, graciously accepted many of the recommendations made by environmental groups and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee.  While we are still ploughing through the detail, we believe that the NPPF as published yesterday has addressed most of the RSPB's concerns including our top three red lines.

1. The Government has adopted the definition of sustainable development as described in the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy.  Crucially, this incorproates the prinicple of living within environmental limits.

2. The incendiary phrase "the default answer to development is yes" has been removed.  This essentially means that economic interests will not be given priority in the planning system.  It also means that many of the positive elements of the guidance regarding nature conservation are no longer undermined.  This includes the headline statement "the planning system should contribute to protecting the natural environment by... minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing net gains in biodiversity where possible, contributing to the Government’s commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity, including by establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures".

3. We believe (although our lawyers are doublechecking the text for us) that the protection afforded to Sites of Special Scientific Interest has been upheld.  In the original draft our lawyers had concluded that protection of SSSIs had been undermined by essentially turning the precautionary principle on its head.  The old system essentially advised local authorities to reject development that damages SSSIs unless the benefits of the development outweigh the negative impacts. Under the draft NPPF, local authorities would have been obliged to consent development "unless the adverse impacts of allowing the development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits".  We are delighted that the Minister listened to our concerns.  The final document now says "when determining planning applications, local planning authorities should aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity by applying the following principles: proposed development on land within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (either individually or in combination with other developments) should not normally be permitted. Where an adverse effect on the site’s notified special interest features is likely, an exception should only be made where the benefits of the development, at this site, clearly outweigh both the impacts that it is likely to have on the features of the site that make it of special scientific interest and any broader impacts on the national network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest."

So, the sun is still shining and the NPPF has been radically redrafted which means I can remain cheerful for the rest of the week.

One last thing - while I it is sobering to think how hard that many of us have had to fight to maintain existing protection to wildlife (through the red tape challenge, review of habitats regulations and now the NPPF), it is now clear to any minister that the public is not going to take lightly any proposal which potentially undermines the natural environment.

Are you reassured by the final National Planning Policy Framework?  What lessons do you think the Government will now have learnt?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Thanks for your comments.  It's much appreciated.  I have to say that it is a pleasure seeing the delight on my planning team's faces when they spot more of their own recommendations in the final document.  Hidden, hard graft.  And I am chuffed that it paid off.

  • Hi Martin,my thoughts are that almost everyone except yourself seemed certain that the Government would make this a disaster for environment and wildlife so it just shows it is wrong to pre-judge what may happen,all the environment etc bodies seem satisfied with the proposals so well done you for keeping a open mind on it and your optimism proved correct,must be very satisfying in a quiet way.

  • It is a lot better outcome than I expected - so ,like you, I shall be cheerful for now. I shall be far more reassured though, a couple of years hence, when we see how it is all working out in practice - & when the proposed Thames Estuary airport and HS2 are in the bin.


  • Hi Martin. I haven't looked at it in detail yet but I am reassured by your analyses of the reviews in your blog posts, which I read every morning before work. Like a lot of people I expect, I read your entries more than I post comments, but despite the silence I am incredibly grateful for RSPB's hard work, expertise and influence on these extremely important issues. Congratulations on these real successes and thank you for your honest, personable and informative blog posts.

  • That is good news Martin, both in respect of the final NPPF and that you can remain smiling and cheerful!! Seriously, it is pleasing that all the campaining and very hard work by everyone, especially the RSPB staff, appears to have payed off to a large extent. Obviously with a fifty page docuement it will want some digesting and a few nasties may be hidden in the woodwork but over all, not too bad and could have been a lot worse. It just shows how very important indeed responsible campaining is these days.

    I don't think the guard should be relaxed in anyway though, as while a good proportion of the present Government/ majority party I think do take a reasonably responsible line towards wildlife protection and the environment, a fair proportion do not and generally still have the attitude that it "gets in their way"- "no names no pack drill" as the old saying goes. I suspect this situation is finely balanced within Government members and back benchers.

    So it is two down, (The Habitats Directive Review and NPPF), and one to go, the south east region airport issue, but of course there will be others.

    However, well done again, to conservation organisations like the RSPB, where would we be without them? - in a very dire situation.