According to The Times, the new secretary of state for housing, Michael Gove, is examining proposals drawn up by officials which form part of the government’s paused planning reforms, and would encourage England’s local councils to create nature recovery zones earmarked for biodiversity projects.
The paused reforms, as laid out in the government’s Planning for the Future white paper, have proved unpopular with some Tory backbenchers. They are concerned that the delivery of a more ‘zonal’ planning system where land would be labeled either for growth, renewal or protection, would result in less scrutiny of individual planning applications.
The proposals for a new designation are not dissimilar to a ‘wild-belt’ policy first drawn up by the Wildlife Trusts, whereby towns and cities would be linked by natural corridors.
However, the charity has previously said that it could not support the planning reforms as they currently stand in the white paper due to the zonal approach.
Commenting to the Times, Craig Bennet, the Wildlife Trusts CEO said “taking a zonal approach to planning will not stop the spiral of decline”.
“Nature in the UK has been pushed to the brink, with hedgehogs, water voles and many other species on the verge of extinction and wild areas left stranded, disconnected from each other”, he continued. “We need to move on from believing that protecting small pockets of nature is enough - it isn’t.”
The jury is still out on what Gove’s approach will be to environmental issues in his new portfolio. While many green NGOs respect him for the role he played in the early development of the Environment Bill as a former DEFRA secretary, he is set to face big challenges, from the overhaul of the environmental impact assessment regime, to the housing logjam in counties where nutrient pollution has forced councils to stop greenlighting developments.
Matt Browne, advocacy lead at NGO coalition the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said that Gove’s “first steps have been encouraging for nature”, and that his decision to put the planning reforms “back under the microscope” was key to ensuring that “in the rush to build back better we’re not actually building in loopholes for destroying our precious natural resources, habitats, and wildlife and adding to community issues such as flooding”.
Browne said that a new planning designation from Gove could be very welcome, but warned that for it to be effective “it must deliver a joined-up network of nature recovery sites, providing more places for hard-pressed wild animals and plants to live, feed and grow back”.
Last week, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Parminter told ENDS that it is going to be “fundamental” for Gove to make sure that “outcomes we want for nature are included in development planning”.
She said that unless nature recovery strategies are a material consideration in planning applications, and unless targets for nature are on a par with housing targets, then the government’s stated ambitions for nature “will not be achievable”.
In a statement, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “As a new secretary of state in a new department, the minister is taking time to review the departmental programmes. The government’s Planning for the Future consultation response will be published in due course.”