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The planning system & nature: What next?

As the Levelling Up & Regeneration Act receives Royal Assent, Matt Browne and Emma Clarke of Link look back at how the legislation has been improved for nature - and ahead to expected new rounds of planning reform.

October 2023

On Thursday the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act received Royal Assent. With it one chapter on planning reform closes; just as another, potentially even more significant, starts to open.

Royal Assent for the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act marks the culmination of the round of planning reforms that began with the promise in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto to ‘make the planning system simpler’. This commitment has had a long and winding road to the statute book, via early attempts at a zonal planning system, back through the spiking of those proposals, before progressing over three different administrations in No10.

Through it all, Link has been working with members to secure the best outcomes for nature. Policy experts from Link’s Land Use Planning Group have supported Parliamentarians to make the case for changes to the Act to increase the contribution the planning system makes to nature’s recovery. A cross-party group of nature champions in the Commons and Lords - Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, Crossbenchers, and backbench Conservatives - have successfully improved the Act for nature by:

- Strengthening the duty on public bodies to further protected landscapes statutory purposes. Following a series of Commons and Lords amendments, the Government accepted (with some minor tweaks) an amendment requiring public bodies to ‘seek to further’ the statutory purposes of National Parks and AONBs, including the purpose to conserve and enhance wildlife in these protected landscapes, replacing the previous, weaker duty to ‘have regard’ to the purposes. The amendment also requires the Secretary of State to pass regulations tying protected landscape management plans to environmental targets. It is critical that these regulations are brought forward as soon as possible.

- Bolstering the role of Local Nature Recovery Strategies within the planning system. A series of Commons and Lords amendments, made the case for giving Local Nature Recovery Strategies more material weight in the planning system, to ensure their recommendations for nature recovery on particular sites are respected in planning decisions. The Government listened and at Lords report stage passed their own amendment requiring local authorities to take account of LNRSs in plan making. This amendment creates a specific legal duty to tie LNRSs directly into plan making for the first time, meaning that LNRSs will directly inform planning policy at all levels.

Further wins for nature secured in the Lords include preserving the ability to require environmental mitigation with funding tied to particular sites in the long term, rectifying misunderstandings about how the mitigation hierarchy should operate, hastening new ancient woodland protections and securing environmental assessment safeguards for devolved governments.

Link members also worked hard to help peers halt damaging nutrient pollution proposals advanced by the Government in September, hopefully permanently. Associated work secured a further amendment to the Act requiring water companies to make greater use of Nature-Based Solutions when tackling nutrient pollution.

Link is hugely grateful to all the parliamentarians and organisations who supported these changes, and to partners in other sectors who collaborated in this work through the Better Planning Coalition (BPC). Royal Assent is not the end of the process; the above wins and important further safeguards secured by BPC work on climate and National Development Management Polices now need to be embedded in policy and practice. Similarly, amendments that didn’t quite make it, from swift bricks to healthy homes, may resurface through other parliamentary means.

However, as we look ahead the critical fact is an electoral one - we are likely to be within a year of the next General Election. The kaleidoscope will be shaken, and new rounds of planning reform will emerge. Given the increasing public and political discussion around housing affordability (and the need for new infrastructure to meet net zero), it is reasonable to expect significant planning restructures to loom large in the new Parliament, whatever the complexion of the next Government.

Link’s Land Use Planning Group will shortly be leading a new round of work to chart how such changes could constructively contribute to nature’s recovery. In advance of this, the authors of this blog (on a personal basis) offer the below up as suggested pointers for ongoing nature advocacy, drawing on the experience of recent legislation:

- Planning for health. There is increasing recognition that nature is a health issue, and that by using the planning system to connect more people up with nature, politicians can significantly boost public health. As nature organisations successfully make this argument, it is incumbent upon us to also recognise that housing is a health issue. Poor quality accommodation, financial stress and an inability to start a new phase of life; all of these can cause profound physical and mental ill health, which well-designed new homes are needed to address. As we argue for new green and blue spaces to boost resident health and wellbeing, we should feel comfortable supporting the new bricks and mortar people also require.
- The polluter must pay. A key environmental principle is that those profiting from actions that increase pollution must assume responsibility for the costs of mitigation. In the case of development, developers profit from new homes, which do have polluting impacts on nature. Historically, the environmental mitigation that developers have been required to pay has fallen short of the damage caused, something the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) system has been introduced to try and address, albeit imperfectly. Any scaling up of development over the coming years must be accompanied by improvements to and a radical scaling up of BNG. Biodiversity gains of at least 20% on development sites, effectively delivered and properly monitored, should become the new norm, alongside wider mitigatory measures for nature.
- Looking to the long term. The tragedy of the commons underpins much of the unease around new development; a sense that unplanned, unchecked development will creep, from day to day, decade to decade, over the few wild habitats we have left. Holistic consideration of how best to balance competing land use needs, through a Land Use Framework, is essential to prevent this. It could protect important places for nature, whilst facilitating development elsewhere, in the right places for nature and people. Beyond a Land Use Framework, we should also advocate for properly long-term planning. Why not a vision for 2060, the other side of (hopefully delivered) immediate housing needs, Nature 2030 and net zero? Could we ask for an ultimate limit to the footprint of the built environment in the UK, to preserve wilder spaces for posterity? Just as far-sighted Victorians gave us much of our civic infrastructure, could we aspire to pass real green infrastructure onto our descendants?

Look out for more proposals from Link, developing these and many other points, over the months ahead.

Whatever may in store for planning and nature in the run up to the General Election and beyond, it certainly won’t be boring.

Matt Browne, Head of Policy & Advocacy, Wildlife and Countryside Link 

Emma Clarke, Senior Policy Officer, Wildlife and Countryside Link

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.