Government published its much trailed proposed reforms to the planning system in England on 6th August with a consultation White Paper Planning for the Future. These include ‘streamlining and modernising the planning process, bringing a new focus to design and sustainability, improving the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensuring more land is available for development where it is needed.’ ‘Build beautiful’ is thread throughout.
The planning system has a profound influence on nature in London. It plays a critical role in protecting important places and features for biodiversity, securing enhancements of the capital’s nature either through appropriate development design or financial contributions by developers, and – always controversially - deciding future land use as the city continues to grow.
The pressures on land here are considerable. Given that London has grown by over 30% in its population over the past 30 years, that there are over 1600 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation in London, covering about 19% of the capital, is a testimony to a planning policy that has stood the test of time. But it isn’t a perfect system, few sites are entirely sacrosanct, and the planning system’s many flaws have helped contribute to significant damage to the fabric of the city’s – and England’s - nature.
The proposed reforms, attempting to address many of the real and perceived barriers to development, propose a mixed bag of some radical changes. These include dividing local authority areas into Develop, Renewal and Protect zones, giving automatic planning permission in Develop zones based on a ‘design code’ which will be the basis of a new Local Plan. The simplification brings the risk of creating a disconnected landscape, one in which wildlife could decline because nature doesn’t recognise artificial delineations of an area. There is, however, an emphasis on beauty and building this – and sustainability - into the ‘design code; whether this strengthens the existing weak commitments is not yet clear.
The focus on digital technology to replace the hefty amount of paperwork in Local Plans and planning applications (there are over 90,000 of these a year in London) is to be welcomed. Although this is to make it easier for more people to engage with the planning system and scrutinise plans it would only apply the initial Local Plan ‘design code’. There is no suggestion that the public can comment on proposals in any of the zones after the Local Plan is adopted. This throws out a whole tier of local democratic input.
Thirdly, existing developer contributions, such as ‘section 106’, will be replaced by a nationally set Infrastructure Levy with a narrower set of issues it would help resource; whether enhancements for wildlife sites or local green spaces would be included is not yet clear.
Mathew Frith, Director of Conservation, said:
We are always nervous when Government announces reforms to the planning system; they all tend to mean one thing – to make it easier to build, rather than easier to protect – against, in our view, a fundamental principle of a plan-led system. However, we cannot pretend the system works well at the moment, and a number of the proposals in the White Paper are worthy of support in principle, if not in the detail. There is welcome recognition of the role of nature and the need to help deliver the ambitions of the 15-year Environment Plan. However, the simplification of areas into three types of development zones, and the radical cut in the opportunities for local people to have a voice on any development that affects them are deeply worrying in their ramifications.
London Wildlife Trust will be making our voice heard, and there is the opportunity for you too, through the consultation portal: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future