This article examines The Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) paper: ‘Plan the World We Need’ [1]; understanding what local authorities can do to enable biodiversity net gain in the planning system and how the central government can support them. 

RTPI ‘champions the power of planning’. They encourage the government to ‘capitalise on the expertise of planners to achieve a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic’ [1]. In August 2020, the Government published a paper outlining a new planning system, ‘Planning for the Future’ [2]. Richard Blyth, Head of Policy RTPI, spoke us through it.   

Planning Reform  

The RTPI assessed the values of the planning system across the UK, focusing on the value the system currently generates to the economy and society. The RTPI’s concern with the ‘Planning for the Future’ whitepaper was the lack of ambition beyond planning. They felt that the paper’s focus was on planning permission for houses for sale. Consultants suggested that we should consider how the planning system could expand.

In October 2020, Vivid Economics and RTPI conducted a research paper on the ‘business case for investing in planning’ [3]. They estimated that strategic greenspace planning could deliver £78 million in health value to the most deprived neighbourhoods [3]. There are many financial benefits to encourage new ambitions in planning, such as [3]:  

  • Providing enough affordable housing could save UK households over £5 billion per year   
     
  • Shifting 10% of car trips under 5 miles to cycling could lead to 1,200 fewer deaths per year  
  • Energy savings in developments could save 19 million tonnes of CO2 (£243 million-1.3 billion) per year   

The RTPI’s response to the whitepaper showed how we can achieve greater ambitions for planning. The RTPI response ‘Plan the World we Need’ outlined 4 key targets: 

  • Tackling place-based inequality  
  • Enabling a green industrial revolution  
     
  • Prioritising healthy and sustainable modes of transport  
  • Accelerating the deployment of zero-carbon infrastructure  

How can we achieve this?  

The ‘Plan the World We Need’ film includes six key campaign messages to support the RTPI’s vision [1].  

Local Environment Plans   

Strategic planning will allow us to improve transport corridors, with space around these transport links then being built on. The areas between can be used for investment in nature and wildlife corridors. Ensuring that natural areas are close to people so they can access them. Richard says it takes “Positive, proactive action to improve nature alongside providing the homes we need in a coordinated way” [4].  

Richard uses Berkshire as an example of good practice. Rather than beginning by mapping assets, their planning process identifies where needs improving, particularly focusing on opportunity areas near where people live.    

Resources for Planning: Green Growth Boards  

Resources for development control and approving planning have fallen, while the number of applications has increased. Similarly, there has been a large fall in funding for planning policy. To achieve successful local environment plans, the RTPI argue that more resources are needed for plan-making [4].  

The RTPI has put together a proposal for local planning agencies, it suggests offering planning services for local authorities over wider areas than a single authority. Green growth boards would be able to address strategic and cross-boundary and streamline Local Plans, ‘while ensuring that they are aligned with wider national objectives for a given functional area’ states the RTPI. 

Green Growth boards would not only ensure that strategies are coordinated but bring together local authorities with other relevant organisations. Additionally, it is not always possible to provide a specialist for every district council, agencies could also include other specialist disciplines, such as archaeologists, providing a variety of career paths for those wanting to become involved in planning.   

Advice for Pratitioners on Biodiversity in Planning  

In November 2019, the RTPI published Practice Advice on Biodiversity in Planning (despite government planning reforms, this advice is still relevant). The advice highlights the obligations and opportunities to promote biodiversity through the UK’s planning systems.   

Advice to members currently includes [5]:  

  • Adopting a strategic planning approach. Recognising that biodiversity, ecological resilience and green spaces are integral components to achieve wider economic and social wellbeing objectives. Integrating biodiversity into other strategies that can have an impact on biodiversity, including transport, economy, housing and infrastructure. 
  • Promoting biodiverse developments through planning. Provide a clear planning framework to promote this approach, using definite language that avoids ambiguity. 
     
  • Preliminary Ecological Appraisal and Ecological Impact Assessments to understand the potential ecological impacts that might be incurred. 
  • Communication and engagement. Share local and national biodiversity information and trends, promoting greater awareness and active engagement in local species and habitat programmes, policy and planning decisions. 
  • Embedding biodiversity into evaluation and monitoring. LPAs should work with partners, experts and local groups to keep up-to date information on the status of biodiversity in their local area. This enables authorities to keep track of progress on biodiversity, as well as the appraisal of the potential impact of future plans. 
  • Establishing financial and management arrangements. With more limited resources local planning authorities need to be increasingly innovative in how they ensure long-term funding.   

Case Studies  

Richard highlights Lichfield Council as an example of good practice, their Supplementary Planning Document, published in 2016, requires 20% biodiversity net gain in all new developments [6].   

Similarly, Exeter City Council published Residential Design Supplementary Planning Document in 2010. The paper calls for all residential developments to protect and enhance biodiversity. It also states that planning applications must show: 

‘development which contributes to the provision of green infrastructure and enhancement of biodiversity, including the integration of existing and new wildlife habitats’ [7].   

In 1998, the United Kingdom signed the Aarhous Convention of Environmental Information, Access and Consultation [8]. Which stipulates that all environmental activity should include public engagement. Therefore, local authorities should aim to communicate with their constituents about biodiversity planning. 

Aylesbury Vale District Council, Barratt Homes and the RSPB have partnered to work on public engagement in relation to wildlife. The Kingsbrook development of 2500 homes, was built with wildlife assets preserved and enhanced.

The project aimed to set a ‘new benchmark for wildlife-friendly housing’ [9]. The RSPB has been working with Kingsbrook residents to explain the wildlife features. This not only allows residents to appreciate them but ensure they are maintained. They are also working with residents to help them encourage wildlife into their own gardens. This is a great example of multi-layered engagement. the importance of environmental activity involving public engagement.  

Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to step back, reflect, and reset on how we can build back better. ‘Plan the World We Need’ shows how planning can contribute to calls for a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery from the current health and economic crisis.   

Sources:

[1] RTPI.org.uk. 2020. Plan the World We Need

[2] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local government. 2020. Planning for the Future

[3] vivideconomics.com. 2020. Invest and Prosper

[4] Blyth, R. 2020. Enabling Biodiversity Net Gain in the Planning System Conference

[5] RTPI.org.uk. 2019. Biodiversity in Planning

[6] Litchfield Council. 2016. Supplementary Planning Document

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This case study explores the ways that local authorities can enable biodiversity net gain in the planning system, and ways that central government can support them.

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