As the Environment Bill continues its journey through Parliament, the Government announced that the bill will be amended to require major infrastructure projects in England to provide biodiversity net gain.
The announcement, which follows the landmark Dasgupta Review on the economics of biodiversity, ensures nationally significant infrastructure projects include biodiversity net gain plans, rather than solely reserving this requirement for standard planning applications. The ambitious bill also requires councils to produce spatial nature recovery strategies as part of the Government’s pledge to deliver a nature positive future.
Whilst the Environment Bill is a critical piece of legislation towards achieving this aim, it counters what is currently known about the forthcoming Planning Bill. Its positive environmental protection policies risk being considerably undermined by the planning reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last month, which will form the basis of the Planning Bill. Environmental concerns about these reforms have been highlighted by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee (HCLG), in a recent report which notes that there is little reference to the environment in the Planning Bill. Echoing these concerns in a letter sent to the Prime Minister last week, more than 100 businesses have urged the Government to put nature at the heart of the Planning Bill, stressing that it is currently unclear whether proposals in the Environment Bill will be formally supported in planning. There is a clear consensus that the Planning Bill must align with the aims of the Environment Bill.
It is also feared by many campaigners, including CPRE, that the loosening of planning laws would destroy parts of the countryside. A zoning system, which would divide land across England into three categories – for growth, renewal, or protection – to achieve the Government’s objective of accelerating the planning system to boost building, could open up protected areas for development. Under the proposed zoning system, planning applications in growth areas would be preapproved if they meet local design standards, which could reduce protections for the environment. The HCLG Committee suggests that the introduction of a fourth ‘highly protected’ zone would enable stronger protections, but this recommendation could be ignored.
Given that the Planning Bill is still in formulation, it is possible for stronger measures to protect the environment to still be included. Furthermore, mounting opposition to the Government’s planning reforms, notably from former Prime Minister, Theresa May, could trigger substantial changes to the reforms, particularly following the outcome of the Chesham and Amersham by-election last week. The by-election saw the Lib Dems win the safe Tory seat, overturning a 16,000 majority. Whilst opposition to HS2 was the primary reason for the outcome, it is becoming evident that the planning reforms more widely also contributed to the outcome of the by-election. Given this backdrop the Government is likely to reconsider its approach to planning reforms. Changes to the Planning Bill, to make the reforms less drastic, will be necessary to avoid giving further ammunition to those opposed to the plans – particularly the Lib Dems who will be emboldened into thinking that they can poach more seats from the Tories by maintaining a strong anti-development stance. This tactic has already been voiced in Harrogate, where the Leader of the Lib Dem group has suggested that the shock by-election result could be repeated for the Harrogate and Knaresborough seat at the next General Election.
So, will the forthcoming Planning Bill undermine the efforts of the Environment Bill? It is clear that the Planning Bill is unpopular with a variety of stakeholders. As it stands, it undermines the efforts of the Environment Bill to deliver a nature positive future and contradicts the Government’s messaging on the importance of its green agenda. While the Environment Bill is hailed as the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth, the Planning Bill gives the impression that the environment is secondary to the Government’s ’build, build, build’ agenda. A holistic approach will be required to ensure that both bills work together to deliver a nature positive future.