Twitter LinkedIn

Time to deliver a Planning Bill that works for people and nature

Matt Browne, Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link, writes on an opportune moment for rethinking planning reform.

September 2021

Recent days have seen renewed press speculation that the Government is rethinking its proposed Planning Bill, following months of criticism, and the appointment of a new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government. Such a rethink is essential.

Link has been one of many organisations voicing concern about the proposed planning changes, ever since the Planning for the Future White Paper was published in August 2020 to set the direction of travel for the forthcoming bill. The zonal planning envisioned by the White Paper would be a radically new system, with environmental assessments and protections scaled back and community objection rights removed in much of the country. These changes would allow more developments to proceed on sites important to nature, further reducing the amount of space available for wildlife and rendering the Government’s new State of Nature target (halting the decline in species abundance by 2030) almost impossible to meet. This significant loss to nature has been offered up to deliver a simple aim – to hugely increase the supply of newly built private sector homes.

Such iconoclasm is indicative of planning reforms undertaken primarily to demonstrate political virility. As with all machismo politics, a blood sacrifice appears to have been deemed necessary for planning, a symbolic ‘tough decision’ to denote policy boldness. The 2020 White Paper put nature on the block. The framing around the proposals presented a fundamental conflict between the need to protect spaces for nature and the need to increase housing availability, arguing that the former ultimately must be sacrificed in the interests of the latter.

This is a false dichotomy.

The truth is that far from clear that a massive increase in the delivery of new housing units onto the private market will, on its own, be sufficient to address England’s housing needs. A 2019 paper from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence synthesises extensive research and modelling to argue that mortgage markets impact UK house prices substantially more than housing stock delivery, concluding that ‘‘there is little reason to believe that supplying an additional 300,000 houses per year would raise home ownership. This is both because its impact on prices would be limited, and because ownership rates are much less sensitive to prices than they are to mortgage availability’’. Add to this substantial evidence showing that the greatest demand is for new social housing rather than private sector homes, and English housing need in the 21st century starts to look more complicated that a simple question of private sector supply. Even the right measures to increase supply are contested, with the 2018 Letwin Review of Build Out suggesting that action on landbanking and to diversify the type of housing being built should be prioritised to widen access to housing.

In other words, the placing of more nature-rich spaces on the altar of private sector development will not automatically translate into the increased availability of housing.

What the sacrifice of these spaces will do is to undermine the security our housing stock. As noted in the Dasgupta Review ‘‘continuing down our current path – where our demands on nature far exceed its capacity to supply – presents extreme risks and uncertainty for our economies’’. The further loss of nature-rich sites will hasten climate and ecological breakdown, which will in turn accelerate flooding, extreme heat and water scarcity. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but even the strongest castle will struggle to weather ecological and climate crisis. The Climate Change Committee’s 2019 report ‘UK Housing: Fit for the Future’ report sets out the vulnerability of UK homes to a range of ecological & climate impacts, including the 1.8 million homes currently at risk of flooding and the 20% of total housing stock liable to overheating. These impacts will get worse. Summer 2021 saw hundreds of homes lost to devastating floods in Germany and fires in Greece, a warning of the more extreme forms of disruption we can expect to soon see on our own shores. A decision to accelerate the destruction of the space nature needs, and with it the climate & ecological crisis, is a decision to undermine the future security our entire housing stock, new and existing homes alike.

There is, happily, another way. By adopting an approach that ties nature and housing together at the heart of planning, the Planning Bill can create great places for people to enjoy and contribute towards nature’s recovery, and by doing the latter help ensure that future generations have safe homes. New housing can deliver these benefits, if every proposal is preceded by robust environmental assessment and democratic scrutiny to make sure new homes avoid places important to nature. Similarly, ringfenced developer contributions from consented projects can grow the space needed for nature’s recovery, and give all people access to high-quality natural greenspace, with beneficial consequences for nature and public health alike. We can have a Planning Bill that increases the availability of good places for people to live and recovers nature, thereby ensuring that those places remain good to live in over the decades ahead.

We have a new State of Nature target and a new Secretary of State. Time now for a new approach to planning reform.

Matt Browne is Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link

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