Few can have missed the headlines and increasingly heated discussions around new proposals to change the planning system this week. Shrinking over 1,100 pages of planning guidance down to just over 50, the thrust of the Government’s new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is to deliver the ‘default yes to development’ sought by the Chancellor.
The Trust is not anti-growth. We believe that economic gain should not be at the expense of the natural environment, and we stand with those NGOs and other groups that have been alarmed by the draft framework so far. There are fears that the presumption in favour of development threatens the vitality of our towns and cities as well as the countryside, and bears too many hallmarks of developer pressure. The Trust is also signatory to a wider Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition which is seeking to ensure stronger weighting is given to environmental and social concerns, instead of just purely economic ones.
Our issues with the NPPF in particular are around the guidance for protection of vulnerable ancient woodland and ancient trees, which remains weak, and we are actively campaigning to see a change in the text of paragraph 169 and have raised several concerns about the rest of the document.
Thanks to your help in our campaign during the Government’s ‘pre-consultation’ consultation period last year, we were successful in seeing the specific wording that protected ancient woodland in the old planning guidance carried over into the draft Framework. However, we are very concerned about the caveat which remains in the Framework around ‘need for and benefits of, development’ particularly given the overall pro-development thrust of the document.
Definitions are also an issue: confusingly the draft uses ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustained economic growth’ interchangeably. To be defined as sustainable, growth should be ‘capable of being sustained’ thus the planning system should be used as a tool to promote considered, high quality and durable developments to support economic growth. In our view, a planning system that gives a default ‘yes’ to development will not deliver high quality developments built to last in truly sustainable locations.
As well as our worries around protection for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland, we’re keen that the final Framework places more emphasis on tree planting. We welcomed the Government’s stated aspiration for a major increase in woodland cover, and the recent National Ecosystem Assessment which showed that woods deliver more ‘ecosystem services’ than other habitats. It’s a fact that trees and woods are key to shaping the kind of places where people will want to live and work (fundamental to good planning). Plus the recent consultation on a well-being or ‘happiness’ index to sit alongside GDP, showed that access to green space is the environmental issue people are most concerned about.
Government does claim it wants to hear to the public’s views. We’d encourage everyone to make their voices heard and respond to the consultation themselves. If Government doesn’t hear us – in full, en masse and as loudly as possible – through its own channels, it surely has every excuse to then disregard what’s said. Without a clear message given through the formal public consultation, the debate on planning changes could well end up like others have done in the recent past. Remember the furore about Government’s plans for the future of England’s forests? That debate isn’t over; it’s just taken a different shape.
Like most consultation exercises, the NPPF consultation needs a bit of thought and time. We have produced some guidance on the specific issues we have on ancient woodland protection that could help. And in the meantime, you can also respond to our quick poll to help back up our calls.
James Cooper, head of Government Affairs