In her speech, 11 January, launching the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, the Prime Minister, Mrs Theresa May, reiterated the Conservative Party’s pledge ‘to make ours the first generation to leave the natural world in a better state than we found it’ and the importance of ‘protecting and enhancing our natural environment for the next generation, so they have a healthy and beautiful country in which to build their lives’.
Sounds positive? Unfortunately, her words do not correlate with the reality of the National Planning Policy Framework, and related guidance from the Government on how it should be interpreted, and its application to decision-taking by councils, the Planning Inspectorate and by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Planning Officers and District Councillors who decide applications, and the Planning Inspectors who determine Appeals, are almost invariably content with ecological reports that lack essential information and inadequate impact assessments of how applied-for-schemes could or would harm the natural environment.
Consequently, non-compliance with the Natural Environment and Communities Act 2006 seems to be the norm.
Appalling, too, was (since retired) Planning Inspector Salter’s advice to Horsham District Council, given during the examination of the Horsham District Plan that it was permissible for the Council to write and adopt plan policies for the District’s natural environment that in the wording would provide less protection than NPPF policies.
Why? Because in the view of the Inspector and his political masters the environmental dimension of sustainable development carries less weight than the economic dimension, including housing and employment growth - and that growth cannot be achieved without environmental harm.
That this is a false dichotomy is proven by the Wildlife Trust’s ‘Homes for people and wildlife - how to build housing in a nature-friendly way’, which was also released on 11 January. This pivotal document should be compulsory reading for the Prime Minister, her Ministers, Planning Inspectors, Planning Officers and District Councillors and developers across England.
If the Prime Minister’s speech was sincerely meant she will surely ensure that changes to the NPPF, which are shortly to be the subject of public consultation, will strengthen NPPF paragraphs/policies covering the natural environment and the need to protect and improve it, outside of as well inside areas of countryside with designated protection. Will she? I wonder.
Dr R.F. Smith
Trustee, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) Sussex, Bashurst Copse, Itchingfield