Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Wildlife Trusts (GIB 59)

There are 47 individual Wildlife Trusts covering the whole of the UK and the Isle of Man and Alderney. Together The Wildlife Trusts are the largest UK voluntary organisation dedicated to protecting wildlife and wild places everywhere – on land and at sea. We are supported by more than 800,000 members, manage more than 2300 nature reserves and last year reviewed more than 80,000 planning applications.

1. Summary

1.1. The Wildlife Trusts believe the land-use planning system is fundamental to securing nature’s recovery. This is an objective that was adopted in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), [1] published in June 2011. NEWP recognised that successful, sustainable and prosperous economies are founded on a healthy, functioning natural environment.

1.2. The planning system is vital for protecting important wildlife sites and identifying where the potential exists to restore habitat and ecosystems. It is vital therefore, that any proposed changes to the planning system are seen in the context of promoting social and environmental objectives as well as economic growth.

1.3. While we recognise the need to secure greater prosperity, The Wildlife Trusts have a number of concerns regarding the provisions of the Growth & Infrastructure Bill. Our primary concern is that the Bill perpetuates the myth that planning is responsible for holding back growth rather than focusing on the significant issues of financial restraint and borrowing difficulties. We believe that this approach to growth, risks putting our natural capital at risk and undermining future prosperity.

1.4. This Bill follows soon after the planning reforms introduced by the Localism Act 2011 and the National Planning Policy Framework 2012. We believe further changes to the planning system and conflicting policies could run the risk of creating confusion, uncertainty and further delays to both planning and decision making.

1.5. Furthermore, the Bill introduces centralising measures that appear to contradict the principles of localism and which could weaken the ability of local authorities and communities to make local decisions and ensure the right development happens in the right place. We are also concerned that the Bill places pressure on local authorities to make swift and poor decisions to avoid losing their planning powers.

Comments on individual Clauses within the Growth & Infrastructure Bill

2. Clause 1: Making Planning Applications Directly to the Secretary of State

2.1. The Wildlife Trusts are concerned that this measure conflicts with the broad aims of the Localism Act 2011. By moving planning away from local authorities and communities towards central decision-making the changes could result in local people feeling disempowered and disengaged from a new planning system that was intended to engage neighbourhoods in local decision making.

2.2. The criteria for determining whether to designate a local authority as a consistently poor performer have only just been published for consultation, making it difficult to comment fully on the potential implications of this clause. The Wildlife Trusts have concerns that the speed and number of approved applications does not necessarily equate to quality decisions and good performance. We believe that any criteria should take account of local authorities with a record of approving inappropriate developments.

2.3. A large proportion of planning applications are already approved by local planning authorities (80% of the approximately half a million applications). The Wildlife Trusts fear that the measures in clause 1 would place increased pressure on local authorities to make swift decisions to avoid losing their planning powers. This could potentially reduce the quality of planning control measures and increase the risk of damaging developments getting approval.

2.4. Furthermore, if developers were permitted to make applications directly to the Secretary of State where a local authority is performing poorly, we would be concerned that consideration of local environmental issues may be overlooked. Local knowledge and information is critical in understanding the value of the local natural environment, particularly those of a non-statutory nature such as Local Wildlife Sites [2] . This local knowledge is also essential in considering strategic issues such as the cumulative impacts of developments and in identifying opportunities to secure functioning healthy ecological networks. It is therefore essential that any decisions made nationally are informed by local knowledge and expertise and that national decision making processes do not prevent third party representations.

3. Clause 4: Limiting the power to require information with planning applications

3.1. The Wildlife Trusts are concerned that the measures contained in this clause could undermine the local authorities decision to request the information that they ‘think necessary’ to make the right decisions and conditions on development. Our experience is that delays often occur because ‘the right information’ is not available/requested to make a decision. We believe the key issue that needs to be addressed with regards to information and evidence is to ensure that local authorities have access to ecological expertise and well funded Local Record Centres to ensure the right information is requested and understood to support and determine an application.

3.2. As it stands, we believe this clause could result in delays to planning decisions because the information requested is not sufficient or because the amount/type of information being requested is challenged and results in prolonged negotiations. There is also a danger that there will be an increase in the number of consents being sought on limited or poor quality information, which in turn could result in reduced consultation; a reduction in the quality of planning control; and an increase in the number of appeals.

4. Clause 5: Modification or discharge of affordable housing requirements

4.1. Whilst this clause relates specifically to affordable housing requirements, The Wildlife Trusts are concerned that this could set a precedent for re-opening negotiations on other conditions for example green infrastructure.

5. Clause 7: Electronic Communication code: the need to promote growth

5.1. While we agree with the need to improve broadband access in rural areas, we are concerned that this clause weakens the protection for the UK’s protected landscapes and runs contrary to the very recent policy in paragraph 115 of the National Planning Policy Framework to give ‘greater weight’ to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and AONBs. This conflict with the NPPF and the lack of regard to conserving beauty sets an unhealthy precedent for removing the duty and other protections in the future.

5.2. While there are clear statements that these measures will not affect Sites of Special Scientific Interest, it is not clear what level of consideration and consultation will be applied to ensure development would not have an adverse impact on Local Wildlife Sites of substantive nature conservation value and priority species and habitats. The Wildlife Trusts believe that greater clarity and guidance is needed in this regard.

5.3. The Wildlife Trusts are also concerned that the limited period of exemption will place pressure on providers to deliver cheap, fast solutions without working in consultation/partnership with third parties. We believe that this is an essential requirement of any development and that in this particular circumstance could ensure that the aim of this clause is achieved in a sensitive and well-designed manner which minimises the impact on the beauty and health of our natural landscapes and our future prosperity.

6. Clauses 12 & 13: Registration of town or village greens

6.1. The Wildlife Trusts are concerned that Clause 12 makes no provisions to raise awareness and consult those that lawfully use the land, by those that own the land and wish to terminate its public use. We believe that the Bill should require a landowner to publicise any statement to terminate the use of land as of right.

6.2. The measures in clause 13 appear to have been introduced to prevent the registration of a town or village green as a means of stopping development. Our belief is that given that there are less than 200 applications to register a green, a year, this measure is an overt step to prevent a small number of vexatious applications. Most community applicants will be unaware of the ‘trigger events’ that can suspend the right to register land as a green and as such we believe that the measures of this clause will have huge impact on genuine applications to register greens that provide immense community benefit compared with the small gains achieved by preventing the relatively few vexatious applications.

7. Clause 21: Inclusion of major business or commercial projects in the major infrastructure planning regime

7.1. While we were pleased that initial proposals to place large housing schemes within the scope of the 2008 Planning Act were not included in this Bill, we remain concerned that this is another measure that takes planning away from local authorities and communities towards central decision-making, undermining the principles of localism. The Wildlife Trusts are keen to see a guarantee that any decisions taken centrally will reflect locally agreed plans and be informed by local expertise and knowledge to ensure the protection of environmental assets.

November 2012

[1] HM Government (2011), The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature

[2] Local Wildlife Sites (LWSs) are identified and selected by local partnerships for their substantive nature con servation value based on important, distinctive and threatened habitats and species with a national, regional and (importantly) a local context. Whilst Sites of Special Scientific Interest ( SSSI s) are a representative sample that meet national criteria, LWSs include all sites that meet local selection criteria .

Prepared 10th December 2012