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To unblock development, parties must prioritise nature and climate, say environmental charities

10 June 2024

  • Planning, building and development set to be major General Election issue.
  • Environmental charities say “natural infrastructure” must be prioritised alongside acceleration of renewable energy developments in the next Parliament.
  • Without planning reform to foreground nature and climate priorities in the planning system, political parties’ plans for development are likely to face delay.

Nature and climate groups have today published a joint statement and policy paper, calling on political parties to reform the planning system to prioritise renewable energy and nature-restoration. [1]

They recognise that very significant renewable energy infrastructure development will be necessary for the UK to play its role in global climate change mitigation and to meet its domestic net zero emissions targets. Very significant “natural infrastructure” development (restoration and creation of habitats) will also be necessary for the UK to create a resilient and healthy economy, restore our waterways, and to meet the Environment Act target to halt the decline of species abundance by 2030.

Planning reform is essential for the protection of habitats including rivers, lakes and streams. Current rules on nutrient pollution ensure that when development takes place near key wildlife sites if the developer reduces other forms of pollution. [2] These rules were successfully defended following campaigning from nature groups in Autumn 2023. However, today’s statement calls for additional protections to be built into the planning system including stronger defences for river catchments against intensive livestock pollution, and investment in freshwater habitats including wetlands.

At the moment, the planning system does a poor job of making space for environmental considerations. As a result, space for nature and climate is “squeezed”, leaving environmental considerations as an afterthought in the planning process. This can result in delays and environmental harm.

Instead, the groups propose:

  • An ambitious and well-funded habitat-restoration and creation prospectus alongside any proposed planning reform;
  • Strategic spatial planning on land and sea, prioritising space for nature and renewable energy.
  • More investment in environmental planning, including local ecological expertise
  • Frontloading nature and climate in development design, including popular measures like swift bricks and bat boxes on land, and “leases for nature” at sea. [3]

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:

“The planning system needs significant reform to make sure that we make space for lots more renewable energy and a lot more nature. Both can be achieved together, but not if we continue to depend on a system that treats nature as an afterthought or an obstacle.

“Any planning reform that does not go hand-in-hand with an ambitious and well-funded prospectus for large-scale restoration of nature will fail. Plans to increase development must be paired with stronger protection for nature and an equally ambitious plan to increase the scale and pace of “natural infrastructure” restoration alongside scaling up renewable energy—investment in rivers, woodlands, wetlands, meadows and moorland.

“Nature charities and climate charities are in agreement on this. We need a national spatial plan that prioritises renewables and habitat restoration. To deliver it properly, we need more ecological expertise in the planning system, and environmental priorities written into the planning and design of every building and development. Successful planning reform for renewable energy must come with a long-term, fully-funded plan for nature restoration.”

Doug Parr, Policy Director at Greenpeace UK said:

“The next government should take a much more proactive approach to strategic planning to avoid a series of protracted and soul-destroying site battles to get new green infrastructure built. National spatial mapping would allow the ideal locations for important new offshore wind, grid upgrade and home-building projects to be identified while still delivering the agreed goal to properly protect at least 30% of our land and seas by 2030. Not every issue can be solved this way, but political leaders should embrace these joint proposals to help move climate and nature-friendly developments forward at speed and scale - rather than getting drawn in by unhelpful narratives around 'bulldozing' planning."

Michael Copleston, Director of RSPB England, said:
“With the right protections and planning frameworks in place, and a properly resourced, joined-up approach, we can tackle climate change and restore nature together. The scale of the challenge facing the next UK Government is huge, but we already know the solutions – what is needed now is the political will and ambition to see them delivered.

“For example, putting nature restoration at the heart of marine planning would allow us to prioritise and accelerate the rollout of offshore renewable energy while also addressing the 62% decline we’ve seen across seabird species within the UK. On land, an effective planning system would help create healthier rivers, restored habitats and flourishing wildlife, all while giving confidence to industry without creating barriers to sustainable development.”

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Nature recovery must be at the heart of all future development, to create and connect vital habitat for wildlife, and provide a myriad of health and social benefits for communities. The big issues of climate, nature, health, housing and pollution can be addressed through concerted attention and action. It’s about integrating nature into all our decision-making, rather than simply seeing it as a bolt-on or afterthought.

“Through sensible and strategic planning, we can link existing hotspots for wildlife, build nature-friendly housing, protect natural carbon stores, make our urban areas more climate resilient, and deliver renewable energy to meet net zero. This transition to cleaner, greener living can stop energy bills from spiralling out of control and ensure that everyone has improved access to nature near where they live.”

Read the full paper, Planning Ahead on land and at sea, here. Some of the key policies set out include:

  • A single National Spatial Plan on land, ensuring that space for nature and climate are prioritised in every tier of planning. The National Spatial Plan would support stronger protections for nature sites and river catchment areas where intensive livestock farming causes pollution.
  • A marine plan allocating sea space around the country for priority marine activities, including the deployment of offshore renewable energy and habitat restoration. This would confirm an end to licenses for oil and gas activities.
  • More investment in environmental planning resources and enforcement. This would speed up the planning process and ensure effective action is taken in cases where environmental protections have not been maintained.

Notes to Editors:

  1. 30 nature and climate organisations have signed on to support the policy paper, including RSPB, The Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Woodland Trust, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth
  2. The planning system plays an essential role in protecting rivers, lakes and waterways from inappropriate development. When inappropriate development takes place, additional sewage from homes can increase nutrient pollution to unsustainable levels, harming wildlife. 
    1. Effective regulations are in place to ensure that development can only happen near wildlife sites if the developer pays to reduce other sources of pollution, see: Nutrient neutrality works: pollution rules don't block housebuilding
  3. However, reducing harm from development is not enough; the planning system should also play a role restoring rivers to good health. Nature and climate groups are calling for this kind of approach to be maintained and strengthened, so that businesses contribute to helping clean up river catchments.

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