Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by The Wildlife Trust (RG 88)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  The Wildlife Trusts are well placed, with our extensive local knowledge of wildlife and our place in the local community, to engage with land use decision-making structures at both local and regional levels. With regard to the planning system, we scrutinise around 80,000 planning applications a year. As more and more decisions are taken at a regional level in England, The Wildlife Trust movement increasingly engages regionally to ensure that strategies, developments and projects initiated at that level are environmentally sustainable—conserving, enhancing and recreating biodiversity. We work closely with the Regional Assemblies, Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices. We therefore have experience and observations which are relevant to this effectiveness of regional government as it currently operates.

2.  THE PRINCIPLE OF REGIONAL GOVERNMENT

  Overall we support the principle of regional government—many environmental issues and problems need to be considered in a more strategic way beyond the local authority level. For example, there is a growing realisation that for wildlife to be able to adapt to meet the challenges of climate change, the protection, enhancement and recreation of wildlife habitats in larger areas is the way forward. Often such projects need to be considered on a landscape scale and they do not necessarily follow or fit into local authority boundaries. It also enables the planning of developments to be considered at a more strategic level. In this context, we would support closer inter-regional co-operation as some of these areas cross regional boundaries as well. Beyond landscape scale conservation, other environmental issues and programmes need to be dealt with at a regional level such as the management of water supply.

  In addition, the scale of regional governance should allow for the development of skills and expertise in areas such as biodiversity that it may be difficult for local authorities to secure on an individual level.

  We believe a regional approach has the potential to add significant value in the management of our natural resources. This evidence sets out some of the problems with the current arrangements and our recommendations for solving them.

3.  SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN THE REGIONAL CONTEXT

  The protection and enhancement of our natural resources—including biodiversity—are central to our economic, social and environmental well-being. Environmental wealth is as significant as our social and economic wealth, and contributes significantly to it. The scale of the contribution that the environment makes to the economy has been illustrated by the Environmental Economy Reports published at a regional level in most English regions.

  There are some projects, initiated by RDAs, which integrate social, economic and environmental objectives. The Idle Valley in Nottinghamshire is one of those projects where EMDA supported a partnership of local authorities (Nottinghamshire County Council and Bassetlaw District Council), the private sector (Tarmac Ltd), North Notts College and The Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. The project allowed the re-establishment of linked wetland habitats in river flood plains and old gravel pits not far from Retford in association with the development of a rural skills training centre. Not only was this project going to contribute to the region's natural environment, but also to its skills base and the regeneration of a market town where inward investment was sought.

  This is a relatively isolated example of joined up regional thinking. Whilst there are some positive examples, our general view is that the environmental leg sustainable development is not given equal weight and much more needs be done to redress the balance and make it work better.

4.  REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCIES (RDAS)

  The RDAs have a very strong economic focus in line with their statutory focus "to further the economic development and the regeneration of its region" (RDAs Act 1998). The only environmental element of its purposes is "to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the UK where it is relevant to do so." The latter is a weaker purpose. However, this is now balanced by the RDAs Tasking Framework which will require them to take account of delivering certain PSA targets in their work. Those that are particularly relevant include that for sustainable development (Defra PSA target) which includes biodiversity commitments, and also that for increasing voluntary and community sector engagement (Home Office PSA target).

  There are signs that the Tasking Framework is having an impact. In the East of England, EEDA host Envirowise, the Regional Biodiversity co-ordinator and is about to appoint a climate change co-ordinator. The Regional Economic Strategy for the Region also takes account of green infrastructure (the incorporation of biodiversity into a development at the planning stage), natural asset protection and enhancement. The assessment in this region is that the RDA is beginning to make a contribution to biodiversity and the environment.

  But overall, we believe other mechanisms are needed to counterbalance the economic focus of the RDAs and to promote the conservation of the natural environment.

5.  REGIONAL ASSEMBLIES

  Despite the Government Guidance in 1998 for Assemblies identifying a clear sustainable development agenda for Regional Assemblies, their consideration of environmental issues since that time has been patchy. A good example is in the East Midlands where the Assembly is strengthening its approach to scrutinising the RDA, particularly beyond the narrow economic function. They have also developed and driven the concept of green infrastructure in the region. It is hoped that, whilst resources for the concept are uncertain, the idea is being picked up in different strategies. Another good example is in the West Midlands where the Regional Spatial Strategy includes strong biodiversity policies.

  However, our overall concern is that this is not typical, and regional assemblies rarely take sufficient account of the environment or biodiversity in their work. They have small budgets and the representatives volunteer much of their time. This can challenge an assembly's credibility. The economic and social elements of the agenda usually have greater representation, money and attention focussed on their issues.

    —    Representation: Often environmental interests are under represented by comparison with the other two "legs" of sustainability. In the South East, for example, of the 112 members, 34 are from different stakeholder groups. Of these, 17 are from the economic sector, 14 from the social and merely three from the environmental. The environmental interests should be broader than this to represent the range of interests within it: biodiversity, water, waste, energy, transport etc. This seems imbalanced when the RDA already has a strong economic remit. In the South East, the result has been difficult for the proposals for green infrastructure to be considered in the Region's Spatial Strategy.

    —    Budget and focus: There is also an issue of the imbalance in the weighting of spending. In the West Midlands, for example, the Assembly has just agreed to spend £2.4 million of which £1.3 is to be spent on staff and administration; £896,000 on planning housing and transport; £80,000 on policy integration and development and £100,000 on energy. Environment features in planning, housing and transport—a sum of £43,500 to cover the cost of one officer. The result in the Region is that the majority of reports and initiatives address non-environmental issues.

  The Wildlife Trusts believe that the role of Regional Assemblies is vital in having any scrutiny into the work of the RDAs and in many cases are represented on them.

6.  NATURAL ENGLAND

  The Wildlife Trusts in England work closely with the statutory partner for nature conservation, English Nature. It has had a relatively low profile role in influencing the regional agenda. This new statutory body is due to commence operating in October this year, incorporating English Nature, parts of the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service. We are aware that this new body will have a stronger regional presence and we look forward to working with Natural England at this level. It is vital that it has a well-resourced regional structure so it can take an active and dynamic approach to engaging with regional stakeholders to frame Regional Environmental Strategies and influence other regional decision making processes.

7.  CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

  Overall we believe that a regional tier of government could play an environmentally important role by taking a more strategic approach to developments, plans and programmes. However, the way regional government currently works runs counter to the environment due to the disproportionate emphasis on economic development. We believe that this should be addressed urgently and our recommendations to redress the balance include:

    —    Boosting the environmental focus of regional assemblies, particularly by ensuring they spend more money on environmental priorities and improve their representation from people with environmental expertise or interests.

    —    Greater resources for regional biodiversity initiatives.

    —    RDAs to employ staff with biodiversity expertise to advise them on their plans and programmes.

    —    Central guidance to emphasise the importance of taking advice from the environmental sector—both voluntary and statutory.

    —    The Regional Assemblies should be delivering against regional environmental PSA targets and success with achieving these should be scrutinised by central Government.

    —    Regional Environmental Strategies should be put on a statutory footing in line with the Regional Economic Strategies. They could be prepared by regional stakeholders and revised within an appropriate cycle. They should then both inform the Regional Spatial Strategies.

    —    A significant effort should be made to ensure that the regional bodies comply fully with the new duty in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill (Clause 40), currently passing through Parliament. Whilst we would prefer to the duty to be stronger, the Bill will give all public bodies a duty to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity. This should give some incentive for biodiversity to be incorporated into various plans and programmes.

    —    Natural England should have adequate resources to enable it to have a strong influence at the regional level.





 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 15 March 2006