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Brexit promises more change for the planning system

'The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change’ - Heraclitus

With the housing crisis and economic growth at the forefront of politicians and policy makers’ minds the planning system has been in a constant state of flux over the last few years. Our impending ‘Brexit’ from the EU promises yet more change ahead.

August 2016

If asked, most people would probably think that our land use planning system has always been controlled by the Westminster Government, and so is one area that will be unaffected by our exit from the EU. But while planning itself is a domestic matter, environmental policy is not, and planning practice across the UK has been greatly improved through the application of EU environmental policy.

The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of plans and programmes and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of development projects are both procedures having emerged through the application of EU Directives. As well as ensuring the ‘environment’ is considered in plan-making and project development, SEA and EIA provide an important forum for public engagement. Both procedures also drew heavily on English common law approaches to consultation and public involvement, and there are comparable procedures in place in other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

As such, Link's Land Use Planning Group will be arguing as a minimum that the existing framework be retained into UK law and preferably improved. Going forward, it is critical that the existing level of protection and opportunity for engagement in decision making, as provided for by the current legislation, is maintained in each of the four countries of the UK. It is vital that emerging legal protection for our most special places for wildlife across the UK is consistent with international best practice and, at least equivalent to that currently provided by the EU Nature Directives. Consequently, we will also be intending to (at least) retain the legislation that enacts the EU Nature Directives in each of the four countries of the UK.

Brexit has not yet happened; it is likely to be at least two years before we formally withdraw from the EU. But whilst these policy changes will take years for lawyers and policy makers to wrangle over, more immediate effects are already happening on the ground.

Fundamental to these changes is the element of uncertainty. Depending on which blogs you follow and which papers you read, you will see different degrees of doom mongering. But ultimately uncertainty is bad for business, particularly construction. Indeed in the days after the referendum UK house builders lost as much as 40% of their share value.

July data from the global financial services information company Markit shows that the average drop in house building over the past two months has been the most severe for seven years. Together with the International Monetary Fund reducing its UK 2017 predicted growth figures from 2.2% in April to 1.3% the ingredients seem to be coming together to create the perfect storm for another recession.

Sadly here at Link we know all too well the impact that economic downturns can have on the planning system. Since the last recession started in 2008 there has been a drastic policy shift away from sustainable development towards ‘sustainable economic growth’ –the word ‘sustainable’ seems like an afterthought rather than an integral part of the Government’s vision. This has been manifested in government policy such as the National Planning Policy Framework and also through the systematic stripping back of planning guidance, compounded by the continual drive to cut ‘red tape’. If another recession hits this direction of travel may continue – unless we show policy makers what the effects of these changes would be. We are already hearing, anecdotally, that developers are reconsidering the viability of schemes following the Brexit vote. It is our fear that ‘green infrastructure’, such as the provision of wildlife habitats, will be cut as a part of these re-evaluated deals, along with affordable housing and community facilities, and more and more unsuitable sites will be released for new development.

Whatever happens to the European Directives or the economy, over the next months and years the UK is signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The planning system has a central role in delivering on these goals, particularly goals 11 and 15 - 'Sustainable cities and communities' and 'Life on land'.

So, in these uncertain times whilst continually pushing to maintain robust environmental legislation, we must also be continuing to make the case for nature and the countryside, and the value they add to everyone’s lives, including as part of development projects.

Victoria Bankes Price

Chair, Land Use Planning Group

Planning Advisor, Woodland Trust

Find me on Twitter @VBP2011

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.