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Nature-Positive Planning and the Mental Health Connection

Carl Bunnage, Senior Policy Officer (Planning) at RSPB England and Chair of the Link Planning for Nature Advocacy Group, reflects on the potential of the Government’s proposed National Model Design Code to create nature-rich communities and their importance for positive mental health – and why it might not deliver.

May 2021

Perhaps like you, I’m looking forward to getting out and about again, socially distanced of course. But I’ve been fortunate. I have a garden and enjoy wildlife from my window, and countryside on my doorstep. It’s kept me happy and healthy in dark times, as nature has helped the mental and physical wellbeing for so many of us in the pandemic.

Many others though have not been so lucky, with 1 in 5 of us not having access to a garden, park or other green space nearby. For those without nature on their doorstep, the urge to get back out after lockdown to enjoy wild places and nature-rich greenspace must be overwhelming.

The pandemic has really shown the importance of that connection with nature for all of us. How then can we ensure that more people in future live in homes with nature all around them all of the time?

Last autumn the Government consulted on plans to dramatically change the English planning system, speaking enthusiastically of creating ‘beautiful’ places using pattern books known as design codes and guides developed with local communities. However many criticised the proposals for speaking of ‘beauty’ narrowly, referring just to the physical appearance of buildings.

But beautiful places are about so much more than just physical appearance. The spaces between buildings, and fundamentally what lives there, is just as important. It is about trees, vegetation and birdsong; of green spaces within which to relax and for children to play. The life, vitality and beauty of places so often comes from them being rich in nature. The high cost being without it has been laid bare by the pandemic, not just for the health and wellbeing of individuals but for the NHS and society as a whole.

Last year’s proposals were concerning and so it was a relief to see that when the Government consulted in February on its detailed proposals to develop a template ‘National Model Design Code’ that it had listened and had taken a broader approach. The template contains guidance about creating nature-friendly places, and whilst it could still be improved, this is a positive step.

So, can we safely relax knowing that if areas follow the national template guidance then nature-friendly developments will automatically follow? Well no, unfortunately it’s not that simple…..

Whilst the approach to the template is a positive step, it is part of a bigger picture. Changes to the planning system recently have included allowing more types of buildings to be converted to housing, or expanded in size, without needing planning permission or having their importance for nature assessed first. This type of building is called permitted development (PD). It has led to poor quality homes and undermines any ambition to create beautiful places full of wildlife. Homes have even been brought forwards as PD devoid of natural light and outdoor space. What must weeks of lockdown in one of those do for your mental wellbeing?

Yet more radical changes are anticipated to be announced later this year in a new Planning Bill. This could see new forms of permitted development rolled out, with the idea that the existing process of a local council considering, and where necessary requiring the improvement of, a planning application (which you and I of course can have a say about) replaced by the automatic approval of development as long as it fits with the local design code. It is therefore impossible to understand at this time what the planning system will ultimately look like within which these design codes will work. Link's proposals for putting nature at the centre of the Planning Bill can be found here.

And there are worries. The thinking is that councils will develop their own design codes with their local residents, only using the national template where there isn’t a local version in place. That could be a great thing, but many now lack the funds and expertise to do this properly, if at all. There also appear to be loopholes allowing builders to prepare their own design codes but not requiring them to have local community support. It is therefore possible that we may end up with a system within which there is no planning application process within local people have a say, with design codes (national, local authority or developer-led) taking its place but in which local communities do not feel that they have a sufficient stake.

The idea of using nature-positive design codes has real potential to be a force for good in creating places to be proud of that benefit nature, communities and individual’s well-being. However, this will only really happen if the design codes sit as part of the existing mechanisms for requiring planning permission - open to full public consultation, where local people are able to fight to damaging proposals to protect the wildlife around them. Relying on design codes alone with no other right of say cannot be seen currently as a fit for purpose alternative.

Just think though of what we could achieve with proper planning applications, democratically decided upon and subject to full public consultation, having to fit with a nature-friendly design guide. Now that would be a thing, and allow so many people in future generations to benefit physically and mentally from what I have been so fortunate to have had during the pandemic.

Carl Bunnage is
Senior Policy Officer (Planning) at RSPB England and Chair of the Link Planning for Nature Advocacy Group.

Follow: @RSPBNews and @RSPBEngland

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