Planning reforms drive a bulldozer through plans for nature recovery in the Environment Bill
No answers to key concerns being raised that the Planning White Paper will seriously undermine the new biodiversity net gain provisions, writes Daniel Zeichner MP. | PA Images
Planning reforms and the Environment Bill are moving in opposite directions, pitting nature against economic development, as policy divisions within government descend into incoherent chaos
As a country, we desperately need more homes, and they must be made environmentally sustainable. A decade of Conservative rule has left us with far too little affordable housing, and now more than ever we need an ambitious green recovery package to boost the economy and create the sustainable jobs of the future to reach our vital net zero targets.
The government’s contentious upheaval of the planning system has rightly led to outrage over the past few months, not least amongst their own MPs. Much has been said of the democratic dangers of stripping out the voice of local people from planning proposals. Outcry over the government’s ‘mutant algorithm’ for allocating the building of new homes across the country has been so substantial, that it’s now been reported that the government is instituting a hasty u-turn to rebalance the formula. Less discussed so far has been what these ill-conceived measures will mean for our environment – and it’s not looking good.
The government’s proposals to carve England into three zones designated Protected, Renewal or Growth offer little detail, and as Growth zones will be given automatic approval for development, there’s an important question about what this will mean for nature in these zones.
As many of us have come to appreciate more than ever during lockdown, wildlife and green spaces do not just exist in National Parks and green belt – much of the UK’s biodiversity lives alongside us in smaller local green spaces and sites of nature in our towns and cities.
In the words of ex-Cabinet Minister Damian Green - hardly a regular critic of Conservative party policy - we are in some considerable danger here of “turning the garden of England into a patio”.
What’s more, there is growing concern that these planning proposals drive a bulldozer through new measures set out in the Government’s Environment Bill – once touted as a flagship attempt to restore nature and ensure that planning takes proper account of our much threatened biodiversity.
The once-noble goals to restore nature have been bulldozed out of the way by a Prime Minister in the pocket of big developers
Under pressure to reverse the lost decade for nature that successive Conservative Governments have overseen, the Environment Bill was set to make important changes to planning law. Requiring developers to guarantee a net gain in biodiversity at the end of developments. Scrutiny of the Bill at Committee stage has revealed that the government has no answers to key concerns being raised that the Planning White Paper will seriously undermine the new biodiversity net gain provisions.
The once-noble goals to restore nature have been bulldozed out of the way by a Prime Minister in the pocket of big developers who seems not to have noticed that COP26 has nature-based solutions at its core.
The blustering rhetoric from the Prime Minister around ‘newt-counting’ wildlife surveys being an impediment to planning made headlines, but are baseless with no recent evidence that wildlife surveys are unduly delaying development. Boris Johnson echoes previous Conservative thinking – Cameron’s infamous ‘cut the green crap’ was complemented by Osborne’s attack on the Habitats Directive as ‘a ridiculous cost on British Business’.
This rhetoric pitting nature against economic development undermines long-established protections such as the EU Habitats Directive, which helped protect important species. It also undermines the promises government made in their 25 Year Environment Plan.
Planning reforms and the Environment Bill are moving in opposite directions, as policy divisions within government descend into incoherent chaos.
We know the planning system will be crucial for meeting net zero targets, restoring biodiversity, and improving our lives after the pandemic. Here, the Environment Bill once offered hope – sadly it has now been trashed by the Prime Minister’s erratic, out-of-control bulldozer.
Daniel Zeichner is the Labour MP for Cambridge and shadow minister for food, farming and rural affairs.
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