Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the RSPB (L 104)

Sustainable Development, Strategic Planning and the Environment

This memorandum complements the written and oral evidence already given to the Localism Bill Committee by Wildlife and Countryside Link on behalf of the Greenest Planning Ever coalition. It provides additional information on sustainable development, case studies to illustrate strategic planning for the environment, and further information on the duty to cooperate.

1. Sustainable development

Discussion at the Committee’s oral evidence session on 27 January raised some issues concerning sustainable development which need further clarification.

a) A presumption in favour of sustainable development

A ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ was proposed in the Conservative’s Open Source Planning Green Paper, and is not included in the Localism Bill. The ‘presumption in favour’ is a policy instrument designed to act as an incentive to development, and some stakeholders are calling for it to be included on the face of the bill. However, the RSPB does not support its inclusion in the bill, because this would undermine the plan-led system. Its wording and operation is a matter which should be considered in the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

From an environmental perspective, the key issues about the ‘presumption in favour’ are:

· The plan-led system allows proper strategic environmental assessment of the impacts of development, as well as giving communities the best opportunity to shape the future of their area; and

· Any policy must not create a licence for environmental damage.

b) Sustainable development as the purpose of planning

Secondly, how strong and effective is the existing sustainable development duty, as applied to planning? The purpose of planning, as set out in s.39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, is to ‘contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’. According the UK Sustainable Development Strategy, and indeed other national and international conceptions of sustainable development, this means bringing about genuine improvements in environmental and social wellbeing for both present and future generations, including by building a strong, stable and prosperous economy. As it has been put, it means ‘not cheating on our children’. Across the UK, governments share the principle that we must live within environmental limits locally and globally. Planning is an essential tool for managing the use of our natural resources and for minimising the impacts of development on the environment.

Unlike the ‘presumption in favour’, this sustainable development purpose is more a goal or objective which expresses what the planning system as a whole is intended to achieve. Although it is not sufficient in itself to ensure that planning delivers sustainable development, its legislative basis sends a strong signal to plan-makers that plans should be framed with this goal in mind. Further elaboration on the meaning of sustainable development is provided in national planning policy (PPS1), and we expect that the NPPF will play a similar role in future.

However, the Bill committee should also consider this opportunity to strengthen the existing sustainable development purpose and introduce changes through the Localism Bill:

· The legislative purpose should be applied to all types of development plans, including neighbourhood plans (along with the allied climate change and design duties). A general requirement for the neighbourhood plan to conform to the key principles of the local plan seems inadequate;

· The existing legislative purpose should be strengthened, as it is currently defined in weak terms as merely ‘contributing to the achievement’ rather than more forceful terms such as ‘furthering’;

· Key principles of sustainable development should be defined on the face of the Bill and further elaborated in the NPPF;

· The legislative purpose should be extended to development management, to ensure in particular that carbon and biodiversity impacts are properly accounted for.

Amendments have been tabled to this effect and we urge all members of the Bill Committee to wholeheartedly support these. (New Clause 3 Purpose of Planning, New Clause 4 Sustainable Development and Amendment 132, tabled by Barbara Keeley, Alison Seabeck and Jack Dromey).

2. Strategic planning and the environment

The following case studies illustrate a range of environmental issues where local authorities need to plan strategically and develop joint solutions to issues that are too big in scale or timeframes to be resolved within a single local planning authority area. These include biodiversity protection and conservation, climate change mitigation (e.g. deployment of renewable energy infrastructure), climate change adaptation (e.g. coastal flooding), and waste management.

With the proposed abolition of regional strategies, which also provided a forum for the collection and management of data at a strategic scale and for mediation between local authorities around contentious issues, the Committee should consider how the Localism Bill should best deliver strategic planning in future. Amendments 195-205 and New Clause 9 Joint Planning Documents, tabled by David Ward, address these points.

v Case study 1: Protection and enhancement of wildlife sites

While much has been achieved through conservation action to date, species are still declining and habitats continue to be degraded, fragmented or lost altogether due to inappropriate management, environmental pollution, development and other pressures such as climate change. Reversing this decline will require a landscape approach to conservation. We will need to:

o get sites into favourable condition,

o manage the wider countryside more sympathetically to reduce pressures on protected sites

o improve the connectivity between sites

o increase the size of protected sites

o create new sites.

Decisions about precisely what action(s) to take are often best taken at sub-national and local level and require local authority and other actors (ie statutory bodies, wildlife charities, communities) to work closely together. As highlighted in the Lawton review of protected areas: "In areas which have large amounts of relatively unfragmented habitats, the best strategy will often be to focus on improving management on enhancing habitat diversity. In contrast in areas which only have small and isolated sites, it will be better to invest in the restoration and creation of new wildlife habitat."

Many designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs), part of the Natura 2000 network, fall within multiple local authorities; 28 SPAs in England contain no fewer than five local authorities, and 6 SPAs contain at least ten. In these areas, special arrangements for strategic planning may be required to ensure that development can take place which respects the environment and the legal obligations of the Birds and Habitats Directives.

Thames Basin Heaths and Dorset heathlands

Local authorities in south east Dorset and across Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey have set up formal mechanisms for cooperation to manage pressures on sensitive lowland heath resulting from development.

The Thames Basin Heaths Delivery Plan, part of the arrangements for delivering housing growth around the Thames Basin Heaths SPA, involves eleven local authorities. For the Delivery Plan to work all of the authorities must adopt a common approach to mitigation, otherwise housebuilding around the SPA will not be possible, even where local authorities wish to see that development go ahead. The Plan was until recently given a statutory framework by policy NRM6 of the South East Plan. It is uncertain whether an effective mitigation solution could ultimately have been developed in the absence of mechanisms for mediation and the strategic approach formerly provided by the regional tier.

It is essential that effective arrangements for strategic planning between authorities, including those that are not necessarily immediately adjacent, are provided.

v Case study 2: Planning the deployment of renewable energy

Regional strategies provided a range of mechanisms which facilitated the planning and deployment of renewable energy by creating a strategic approach and mapping areas of opportunities and constraints (regional energy capacity studies).

Their revocation will result in the removal of a range of targets (carbon dioxide reduction targets, renewable energy generation targets and climate change adaptation objectives), which previously helped translate national aspirations and obligations into local delivery. The Yorkshire and Humber RSS, for instance, contained the ENV 5 policy, which promised to support growth in the micro-generation industry by promoting new building developments to make greater use of decentralised and renewable or low-carbon energy sources.

The role of local authorities is central to enable the government meet the legally binding target of securing 15 per cent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020, but it is unclear what mechanism is going to help them do so.

Renewable energy projects can also be very controversial. Local authorities will have different constraints and capacity which will have an impact on site selection for renewable energy facilities. There will need to be a robust and fairmechanism for mediation between local authorities, as previously provided by the regional tier.

v Case study 3: Strategic approach to sea level rise

Sea level rise threatens not only local communities and economies in the coastal zones but also some of our most spectacular and internationally important coastal wildlife and habitats. A strategic approach to flood risk at multiple spatial scales is essential, with a clear policy thread linking the local, sub-national and national policies. Both case studies demonstrate the importance of formal arrangements to enable effective planning beyond local boundaries.

Lincolnshire Coastal Study

In some regions such as the East Midlands and East of England, the regional tier was the key forum for data collection and formulating a strategic response to sea level rise. The Lincolnshire Coastal Study provides a good example of strategic planning which successfully brought together all the key players at regional and local levels. The Lincolnshire Coastal Study Group was formed to undertake this research, consisting of Lincolnshire County Council, three coastal local authorities, Government Office for East Midlands, East Midlands Development Agency, Environment Agency, Natural England, East Midlands Regional Assembly and Internal Drainage Boards. The Lincolnshire Coastal study aims to put forward a set of long-term options for development that was resilient to climate change across a whole coastal area, thus enabling Lincolnshire’s communities affected by current and future flood risks to develop and have a viable and prosperous future. The study was to form part of the East Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy review. It is unlikely that such a project would have taken place in the absence of a strategic planning body with the necessary resources, and the future of the project is now uncertain with the proposed abolition of the regional tier.

Shoreline Management Planning process for the North East of England coast.

The East Yorkshire coast to the north of the Humber is the most rapidly-eroding coastline in Europe. As it erodes, it releases sediments which not only sustain the Humber Estuary but also the Lincolnshire coastline to the south of the estuary by maintaining the coastal dunes. Protection against co a stal erosion in the n orth risks transfer ring the problem onto the Lincolnshire coast, resulting in an increased r isk of flooding and the need for the introduction of coastal defence there . This has also implications for the sustainable spatial development of the coast. An agreed joint plan, in the form of a Shoreline Management Plan (SMP), for the areas to the North and South of the Humber would therefore be critical, but local authorities have failed tackle areas of conflict and cooperate effectively to deliver one. This is a problem repeated around much of the UK's soft coasts. Although SMPs were developed with an aim to coordinate flood risk management, they are non-statutory plans developed by coastal defence groups which do not sit easily within the statutory planning framework.

3. The proposed duty to cooperate (clause 90 of the Bill)

To replace the system of regional planning, the Government proposes the duty to cooperate between local planning authorities and other prescribed bodies (as yet undefined). But the duty is narrower than what was originally expected to be a general duty for local authorities to cooperate with each other. It mostly entails exchanging information and views when preparing plans. We are concerned that, defined as it is, it will not lead to local authorities proactively seeking cooperation to address cross-boundary issues. The duty to cooperate must be strengthened in the bill.

Joint working takes time and commitment, so local authorities need to be convinced that it is worth their effort. Effective strategic planning can rely on arrangements that are to a certain degree voluntary, provided that there are strong incentives that make local authorities take account of wider environmental, social and economic benefits and costs beyond their boundaries. Regional strategies or the proposed policies within sub-regions were created largely by the voluntary working arrangements between local authorities, but there were a range of drivers and incentives that triggered the cooperation and ensured it was effective: a duty to prepare the first draft proposals for the regional strategy for those sub-regions, sub-national targets, robust reporting systems, scrutiny and enforcement mechanisms. The Government has proposed a package of incentives to complement the duty to cooperate. But to date, the incentives put forward, such as the New Homes Bonus and localising the Community Infrastructure Levy, are general lacking for key environmental issues.

The Localism Bill provides for statutory guidance on the duty to cooperate to be brought forward at a later date. This needs to outline the (cross-boundary) issues with which the duty to cooperate should deal and the incentives for them to do so. It should also spell out the consequences of non cooperation.

To be effective at enabling strategic planning, the duty needs to be supplemented by a range of key mechanisms, most of which are currently lacking or are too weak. These include:

o Statutory basis for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in the Localism bill - there needs to be a common template from which local authorities can work on strategic planning. The NPPF needs to set long-term environmental, economic and social priorities, so that strategic planning, independently from the governance structures or spatial scale, acts as an interface between national aspirations and priorities and local delivery. New Clause 7 National Planning Policy Framework, tabled by Barbara Keeley, Alison Seabeck and Jack Dromey, addresses this point.

o Sound evidence base – To be robust and strategic, plans and strategies must be developed using a sound evidence base, which assesses the state of the environment as well as that of the local economy. While evidence will need to be ‘owned’ and kept up to date by appropriate groups, information previously gathered from the regions should be kept in one accessible place.

o Formal arrangements to enable genuine and meaningful public participation in decisions and promote collaborative planning.

o Robust monitoring arrangements.

February 2011