Do you trust them?

It’s all getting quite heated out there.  And so it should – although it always looks bad if the government Ministers are the ones losing their tempers whilst the environmental campaigners are cool, calm and collected.

But it’s not surprising, because the government is in a worse place over planning reform than it was over forests.  If Cameron had held his nerve, which he doesn’t seem very good at doing, over the future of forestry, then the government could have salvaged something from the consultation process and the issue might well have gone away, because, quite honestly, no-one would have noticed the difference very quickly whoever owned productive, uninteresting, wildlife-poor conifer forests.

But this time around, with the planning system, the government really does want to change things dramatically and it is trying to hide the fact from all of us – but only sometimes.  Because it can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s hiding the fact that everything will be up for development or boasting about it!

Remember it was over a month ago that CLG Minister Bob Neill started calling NGOs names– those lefties from the National Trust! And in Wednesday’s Times  Alice Thompson marvelled at the belligerance of Ministers, one of whom apparently said that the RSPB was filled with ‘red-crested Trotskyites’.  My! How things have changed back at The Lodge in a few short months.

And then there was the ranting piece by Osborne and Pickles in Monday’s FT promising to fight and battle anyone and anything in the cause of economic growth.

Amongst all this nastiness Greg Clark, the nice man of CLG, is always trotted out to be the reasonable face of government and he does it quite well.  But I trust Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Pickles – when they say they aren’t going to let the planning system get in the way of economic growth that is what they mean. And when they say nothing about what sustainable development means then that’s what they mean – nothing!

But nobody does know what sustainable development means – or at least it means different things to different people, which doesn’t make it a very clear concept to use in your reform of the planning system unless you are trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that the RSPB ever had a definition of sustainable development but we did have a pretty handy test.  We always regarded the ‘maintenance of biodiversity’ as a key test of sustainability and that still seems pretty good.  Living in a way that depletes the planet’s natural capital (to put it in a way that Mr Osborne might favour) is not sustainable – it passes on a worse planet to future generations and that cannot be regarded as fair and it cannot be regarded as sustainable.

I’m not expecting government to accept this definition of sustainable development.  But since government is committed to a planning system which has a presumption in favour of sustainable development let’s assume that no-one knows what the word sustainable means. Where does that leave us? Yep, with a system with a presumption for development.

The planning system should help deliver a sustainable future by stepping in the way of proposals that are short-term, will damage wildlife, will damage the beauty of the world around us and are wrong-headed.  But a positive planning system should also step forward and embrace those proposals that lead to a better world, of more wealth, more efficient use of the world’s limited resources, more natural beauty and a better future for us all.

But the government seems to think that the correct behaviour for a planning system is to be seen (in the distance) and not heard, to step aside and get out of the way, to exist but not influence.  I trust them – they mean it.  And it is bad.

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22 Replies to “Do you trust them?”

  1. Once you have the land you can do what you want with it. Once it is in private hands it has gone. So all those conifers you bleat about have a future but not in private hands. As for this planning look to Ireland and Spain if you really want to see what this government is to let loose in this country. And you know what happened in those two countries. Bankrupt!

  2. Let us hope the National Trust can mobilise and other conservation NGO's follow suit as at the moment it does not appear the issue has the same profile as the forest sell off and it should have, it could be a much much bigger issue.

  3. President Obama has just announced proposals for getting the USA back to work. These are essentialy emploment tax changes. It seems to me such changes would have much relevance in this country as well, rather than the totally irrelevant planning changes proposed. There are large numbers of existing empty office blocks and shops and other facilities not being used and which can and should be converted where required. To trash our countryside in so call sustainable development is an unnecessary irrelevance which will have no effect on growth at all. One dispairs of politicians at times. Keep up the good work, the NT, CPRE, RSPB against these bad proposals

  4. Mark,

    I've been reading the various posts you've written relating to the NPPF in addition to other sources, e.g. the Guardian & the FT. I'm interested personally, and professionally as I work as a freelance ecologist, am a member of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and a Chartered Environmentalist. So it will be, if or when the time comes, that I will be engaging with the NPPF on behalf of clients who interact with the planning system.

    Currently, any planning application, almost without exception from my experience, will require an ecology survey to identify the potential or actual presence of protected species or species of principle importance (as defined by policy (Planning Policy Statement 9: Biodiversity & Geological Conservation) or legislation (e.g. Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981; Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act 2006; or the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010)). Under the current framework, these ecology survey(s) are required before submission of the planning application; otherwise there is a risk of refusal. This is particularly the case for European Protected Species (e.g. bats or great crested newts) and there is case-law to support this. So, whilst it is proposed that the NPPF will have a presumption in favour of sustainable development, perhaps it can be reasonable to assume that the Government, Messers Osbourne and Pickles included, will seek to make it abundantly clear that all planning applications must have all the relevant supporting surveys in place prior to submission; or if not...?

    This said, the discussions relating to the NPPF and the concerns raised by certain NGOs and yourself seem to imply that the new Framework will significantly remove the protection afforded to relatively important habitat and species by placing a presumption in favour of sustainable development, with an emphasis on the economic development. I agree with you that Messers Osbourne and Pickles are throwing their weight behind this approach, but I wonder if they are overlooking the points raised above and those below?

    For example, in my view, whilst the presumption may change, there will still be the requirement to comply with case-law and legislation, even if planning policy with regards to biodiversity conservation may change (currently Planning Policy Statement 9: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation).

    At the moment, I have not seen any information inferring that these safeguards will be removed or diluted. Indeed, I would argue that with relatively recent case-law (e.g. Woolley v Cheshire East BC and Millennium Estates Ltd [2009] EWHC 1227 (Admin); or The Waddenzee Judgement ECJ [2004] C-127/02 to name but two), the protection given to protected species (bats in the Woolley case) or habitats (European habitats in the Waddenzee case) will remain in place.

    I am not aware, or have not read any article relating to whether the proposed NPPF will seek to dilute, remove or contradict this case-law but I suspect that it won't and if it does, then this should be raised, and raised quickly.

    So to conclude, for many planning applications, whether they will be in urban (brownfield) or rural environments, there will still be, in my opinion and as I currently understand, protection in place where this is merited. I raise these points because I have not read them elsewhere - though correct me if I am wrong.

    As for the wider impact on the natural environment, e.g. the visual landscape and the risk to green belt, agriculture (both as an industry and as a habitat for farmland birds etc), I would imagine that developers would face similar constraints but I am not in an informed position to make comment, but I recognise that this is an equally important issue relating to the NPPF.

    Richard Wilson

    1. Richard - great comment, thank you. And it allows some clarification which may help many of us. Here is a quick view from me but others may be better placed to respond.

      You are right that some sites and some species have special and quite strong protection under domestic or EU legislation - that should not be affected by what government plans. For this part of the planning system to work well though the right sites and the right species need to have been identified and given that form of protection and designation. Not surprisingly, the system isn't perfect and some of the wrong species are given too much protection and some are ignored completely which ought to have more protection. But this is not the fault of this government and isn't the main point.

      The main point, I think, can be illustrated through what, I guess CPRE and NT are most concerned about - the death by a thousand cuts. The current planning system has worked pretty well to limit built development to particular areas so that you usuaully know whether you are in a town or village or in 'the countryside'. Look at other countries such as the USA, France and Spain and those boundaries have broken down in many places - there is urban sprawl, ribbon development and a loss of integrity of the countryside. This has big impacts on the aesthetic beauty of the countryside - and once lost it is difficult to regain. Windfarms would be the example that many would give - although I, for one, feel more relaxed about their visual impact (but I'd still want to see them banned from some areas - although not IMBY as I can see 10 turbines from my house).

      From the point of view of wildlife, urban sprawl leads to more disturbance, more pollution, more cats and dogs in the area, loss of hedgerows, trees, ponds and other useful habitat features. So you could have a growing number of development proposals, none of which affects a priority site or species, but taken together they cut away at the wildlife quality of the countryside dramatically. And make the countryside look very ugly too.

      I wonder whether others have more to add on this?

      Your point, which was right and well-expressed, was that the protection of the very best will (probably) not be changed (but 'ware slippery slopes and all that). But the protection of what we currently regard as the ordinary and everyday will be changed. After all - the government claims it is doing something dramatic so let's trust them that they are!

    2. Richard - and another thought. Although European designations are pretty strong - requiring compensatory habitat if some is destroyed - the protection for SSSIs is much weaker, as is that for most species. So I should have said that the presumption in favour of development could well affect these sites and their environs.

    3. Richard - your comment was very stimulating. Here are some other bits of the answer:

      The proposed new policy framework puts great emphasis on approving applications (rather than rejecting them) and approving them quickly. Ecological surveys, which are the exception rather than the rule, need to be done, as you would appreciate, at the right rtime of year. If an application is made in April for a site which is important for wintering golden plover (for example) there could be a delay of over a year before the data are collected and a decision made. This type of delay is already very unpopular with developers who are often ignorant of the ecological realities of the world. imagine the pressure that comes from the new guidance 'Well, the presumption is in favour of development and we can't wait for more data, if there are no existing data that show a problem then let's get on with it'. Will local authorities have the nerve to stand up to developers under these circumstances? Will NGOs be able to mount challenges? You can see this is a real area for concern.

      Planning decisions are not usually cut and dried - they involve weighing up the pros and cons across a wide range of areas of interest - landscape, buiodiversity, economics etc. Let's say a survey is done and shows some biodiversity interest. Government policy is saying 'weigh up the economic case more strongly from now on'. So a local authority is more likely to say uyes than it was before - and less likely to impose conditions. If the playing field were level before, it will be sharply tilted by this wording of policy - and to be clear that is exactly what government intends it to do. Government is prioritising removing apparent barriers to economic growth over protecting wildlife. And wildlife is getting stuffed already.

      Local authorities can refuse planning permission for 'development resulting in the loss of irreplaceable habitats....unless the need for, and benefits of, the development clearly outweigh the loss'. Previously the 'unless' bit wouldn't have applied. So you can see that this is a real shift in policy which it will be difficult for local authorities to ignore - since it is being set by the Treasury and CLG - the two government departments they need to keep in with the most! And some local authorities may be happy to go along in this direction anyway.

      I aopologise for the kit-form nature of my reply - I had to phone a friend! And it is a very good comment from you, thank you. It's made me get my thoughts straight - or straighter. And a bit of your question was nagging away at the back of my mind as I was writing the blog - so, thank you again.

  5. Mark,

    Thanks for your responses. The text below this paragraph was written after your second response to mine but before your third. So please excuse me if I appear not to have considered some of your additional points more thoroughly. In response to the golden plover point, it would be argued, both by the developer and to some extent, by a planning inspector, that if a site is really important for wintering golden plover, then it should be designated (assume it would be a Special Protected Area (SPA) in accordance with the Birds Directive). If it is an SPA then my argument on European designated sites below stands. If it is not designated (and I accept that not all sites that perhaps reach the threshold are) then your comment of 'death by a 1000 cuts' has greater emphasis. I take your point on there being other issues and didn't intend to come across as believing that it was a single issue but I was trying to keep my response restricted to nature conservation to avoid being too lengthy! Nevertheless, please see my additional response below and hope it is thought provoking.....

    I understand the point of view of 'death by a thousand cuts' and to some extent, accept that this could happen. But I also think that it already does happen, which may seem to contradict my first response, but please bear with me...

    As your main response stated, it will be the 'ordinary' habitats that will be most affected, if the NPPF is really as bad as it is being made out to be. But at the moment, there is little legal or policy protection for these anyway. Take Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which covers the "Duty to Conserve Biodiversity" [i.e. 'ordinary' habitats and 'ordinary' species]:

    "Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity."

    On first reading, this sounds great. But note the phrase, “...have regard,..." This is no accident...this is a legal term. It requires the public authority, merely to demonstrate that they thought about it. It doesn't require them to do it.

    Buglife referred to this piece of legislation (and PPS9) in a recent court case and there is now some limited case-law around the subject of biodiversity protection (in general). The outcome for Buglife (and the invertebrates) was not, on the whole, positive. But it did demonstrate that the 'biodiversity duty' is weak...and this is the status quo!

    Now, as I mentioned, this second response of mine appears to be a contradiction...and on first appearance it is! However, I would propose that the arguments against the NPPF are that it is bringing about unwanted change to biodiversity protection. Not so! It is already weak (when it comes to the 'ordinary'). But this is the point (a subtle one perhaps?). Legislation and case-law trumps policy and guidance...each and every time (as I understand) so unless the Government is intending to repeal and not replace the legislation, am not sure if the NPPF will for all intents and purposes, result in a meaningful and different outcome to what already happens.

    However, having said this, the Government has also published, as you've commented on, a White Paper on the Natural Environment. This seemingly supports the protection on a landscape scale of the ordinary, the mundane but the essential by way of Nature Improvement Areas (see my Blog ( for my thoughts on this). So there is arguably a contradiction between the two proposals...and I for one would be interested to find out what Messers Osbourne and Pickles have to say about this – could you ask them?

    In response to your second thought, re: European designations and SSSIs, I am uncertain how the NPPF could affect the former at all (e.g. given the Waddenzee Judgement (WJ)). In brief (if that's possible with European legislation!), the WJ essentially stated that any proposal (be it a plan or project) has to demonstrate certainty (and it meant certainty, not 98 % certain; that would be insufficient) that it would not result in a European site losing its integrity unless Imperative Reasons of Overiding Public Interest (IROPI) can be demonstrated. And note, this is not restricted to land loss. Air pollution from a site 10 km upwind or a large transport development adjacent to a European site must demonstrate absolute certainty that it won't affect the European site's integrity otherwise it cannot be granted permission (save for IROPI). All of this is dealt with through the Habitat Regulations Assessment process, set out in law. The NPPF won’t change this.

    On to SSSIs...yes, the legislation is weaker but it still trumps policy so will the NPPF really result in the loss or a reduced extent of SSSIs that otherwise wouldn’t happen? I’m yet to be persuaded.

    And on to protected species (not European protected species) – so the water vole is a good example. Will the NPPF result in water vole habitat being lost, fragmented or obstructed to a greater extent than is happening now? Admittedly, this is difficult to come to a firm conclusion at this stage but I don’t think so for the reasons given in my first response (need for ecology survey) and this response (NPPF won’t change existing legislation).

    So is the NPPF good news for developers? As you stated, the Government lined up a series of professional institutes related to development to pour favourable supportive comments on the proposals. But I suspect, they may be too supportive, too soon. It was almost as if they were thinking, no need for ecology surveys (or cultural heritage surveys, or visual impact assessments...), revenge on the great crested newt and there would be a mad dash for the countryside, spades, JCBs and concrete at the ready. But in reality? Yes, land that is currently not ‘available’ will likely become ‘available’, opportunities for development arise that otherwise, perhaps, would not and planning application rates increase (or not). But the protection, strong and weak, afforded by our legislation to habitats and species will remain in place, in use and in law.

    So in essence, will the NPPF result in any meaningful change for nature conservation protection? Well, you’ve proposed in the blog that maintenance of biodiversity is a key test for sustainability, so on this basis and based on my responses, the NPPF in my opinion based on what I have read to date, will likely result in a neutral impact, i.e. the good stuff will still happen and the bad stuff will still, regrettably, happen.

    So what would make a meaningful difference? I think the focus of attention should not be on what and where the NPPF enables developers to build, but to what extent it changes the policing of nature conservation under the legislative framework in place and any additions (or repeals) enshrined following the White Paper. Whilst the NPPF will change the presumption for development, this won’t remove or dilute the legal compliance necessary to grant permission. And I’ll end on this note. Arguably, developers could be granted permission more easily but have more onerous conditions attached to their development with regards to nature conservation. As I alluded to a few paragraphs back, perhaps the supporters are being too supportive, too soon.

    1. Richard - thank you again. I'll need to think about your thoughtful points - and you can think about my third reply!

      A quick point - on the golden plover example. Golden plover occur in a rather lumpy way across the countryside in winter. Some places are very very important for them and are designated under EU legislation but a very sizeable proportion of the golden plover population in winter at any one time will be smeared all over the countryside, here and there in arable or grass fields. My local gravel pits are desingated for their golden plover numbers but those very golden plovers, and lots of other stoo no doubt, will also be found dotted across the arable landscape of east northants through the winter. Just because those fields don't meet SPA or SSSI thresholds doesn't mean that in combination they aren't important. And no-one would suggest that they should be designated. But from a golden plover's point of view they need protecting. So golden plover need their most important sites protected but that is a necessary but probably not sufficient conservation measure for them. Maintaining the integrity of the countryside from urban sprawl is one thing that will help. And it will help lots of other wildlife too.

  6. Green belt doesn't equate to sites of high conservation value by any means. Spreading urban sprawl could actually be of higher conservation value than the "sterile" landscape that is farmland. If rigorous planning controls were introduced so that any development contained a reasonable proportion of nature reserves or other wildlife areas then indeed this may improve the countryside.
    And why does no one ever mention birth control and human population reduction in order that demands on our more important areas of countryside are diminished?

    1. Dave H - thank you. Yes it would be good if development had to include nature reserves - but that isn't what is planned.

  7. I suspect you were fishing for a rise with your throwaway comments about the 'wildlife free forests' and it would be churlish not to bite ! I won't go into the wildlife beyond the BTO (who, of course, we've established are about politics) comment that Thetford Forest is the best place in east Anglia for 'woodland, heathland and farmland birds' - perhaps a future blog might explain how that can be ?

    Mor important, what really happened - for possibly the first time ever the conservation NGOs went one way, their public the other. Trivial ? Well, in a few weeks the 38 degrees petition raised 500,000 signature, more than twice the number on the RSPB petition that had been running for 6 months and worth comparing with the 100,000 Fiona Reynolds is hoping to raise against the planning changes. Time for a rethink ? Certainly not - since then, perhaps in revenge for this turnabout, those conservation NGOs have been heaping criticism on the Forestry Commission which can do no good as far as they'r concerned. Its resulted in something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime: Communities in and around forests like the Dean and Thetford who know and love their forests now trust the Forestry Commission more than the RSPB.

  8. It is a pity that Roderick Leslie finds it necessary to sneer at NGOs, particularly when they are trying to ensure that the interests of wildlife are secured. What he fails to mention is that 38 degrees are basically a trade union group, with a vested interest in keeping the Forestry Commission as it is. This means that they are defending it at all costs, instead of trying to make things better for wildlife. Every organisation can improve, but people like Mr Leslie don't want to listen to other ideas. Instead they just slag off organisations that they should be seeking to work with if they are really hoping to save the emvironment. The worst offender is Jonathon Porritt, who doesn't have a job in an NGO anymore so spends his time criticising those that do. It's just Grumpy Old Man syndrome. And the people who made a fuss about the forests don't seem to have said a word during the campaign against planning reform. If it's so easy to drum up signatures, why aren't they doing it again? Perhaps they don't have a vested interest on this one?

  9. I agree with Marion Anderson's comment about Porrit. The only person who takes any notice of him nowadays is Prince Charles. But HRH has always spent a lot of time talking to vegetables! 🙂

  10. I know this threads a bit old but I hope Marion and Spike at least might pick this up.

    The point is that FC has changed - and, with the right support can change further. A lot is riding on that happening - for heathland in particular everyone has found it very tough, including RSPB, principally because people don't like trees being removed and, equally ironic, Fc has been the best at persuading them - to the point where it has restored roughly the same amount of heath as every other organisation put together. Its the same with ancient woodland - FC has already restored as much as the Woodland Trust's whole ambition. But there is still a lot to do and just as you suggest that 38 degrees was a trad union for Fc I'm concerned that some of the NGOs have got confused between their business aims - exapanding their own operations - and their conservation aims which are best served by updating FCs remit to match what we want from it.

    There has also been a thread running through this whole issue of conservation commentators trying to downgrade the significance of the 38 degrees petition. That, I think, is where the need for change works the other way - there has been a shift in power, very fortunate in view of what the Government have been trying to do. Actually, I see the forestry & planning issues as very much one and the same thing - a very deep reaction to vandalistic threats to the quality of life of many thousands of people. To see either in the limited context of conservation politics is a big mistake - I wouldn't claim to understand quite what happened over forestry, but it was certainly a lot bigger and deeper than the Forestry Commission.

    What the forestry debate and whatever happened with the NGOs has contributed is a much steelier approach to planning - Whether she'd admit it in public, Fiona Reynolds has taken the message and is doing a heroic job in the face of the sort of rhetoric from Ministers that can only rally more and more of the public to her cause. I'm one of them and will be persuading everyone I can to support the National Trust campaign - and if you go to the Save our Woods websit you'll find it making the link to the petition. Like with forestry I do think we need change to our planning - but like the forestry sales absoluitely not these changes !

  11. I don't disagree with a lot of the comments that Roderick makes. In fact I agree with a lot of them, but that's partly the point. I don't really understand why some of these groups seem to be making the NGOs out to be the bad guys in all this, when actually they are all working to most of the same objectives.

    The RSPB has never seemed to me to be criticising the Forestry Commission. It has pointed out that the FC isn't funded or structured in a way that is designed to do the best for wildlife and habitats. It doesn't blame the FC for its failure to do more; it just seems to say that it is unable to do it because it is underfunded or badly structured.

    And the solution is the kind of thing that I have seen Mark refer to. A public body that is designed with wildlife in mind, that is funded properly and isn't trying to juggle a lot of different objectives. But the pressure groups seem to automatically think that anything that threatens the status quo must automatically be a bad idea (It's strange isn't it? They present themselves as radical but behave like conservative defenders of the status quo?). I'm sure such a body would include all the best bits of the FC, so there's really no need for people who work there (or used to) to feel so threatened. I think they just come across as a bunch of self-serving Luddites.

    The trouble with harping on about what the NGOs aren't doing is that it distracts from the real battle with government. The media seems to like the spectacle of old environmental grandees scrapping it out with NGOs, when it would be better if each side were recognising the different roles that the other can play in putting pressure on the decision-makers.

    I find it all terribly sad. And I think that Porritt and his like should be ashamed of themselves for trying to make life uncomfortable for people who are working hard every day to make a real difference. It all just feels like a big ego trip on the part of some bitter old men who are out of touch with the reality of conservation.


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