How should we plan for a better environment?

This is a question that’s been rattling around in my head for quite a long time – at least as long ago as 2018 when Defra launched its 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP). Since then, a lot has happened, at a national and local level.

Nationally, as a result of the Environment Act, biodiversity net gain (BNG) is going to be mandatory in 8 months’ time. We are expecting 50 or so Responsible Authorities to be appointed by the Secretary of State to begin work on developing Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS) officially next month, and local authorities have an enhanced duty to report on biodiversity. We have had the LURB, which will introduce planning reforms including Environmental Outcome Reports and mandatory Design Codes. Natural England has launched a new Green and Blue Infrastructure Framework and I, of course, am very mindful that we have 74 local authorities affected by nutrient neutrality. I could go on.

I often use the jigsaw analogy when talking about environmental planning. Another piece of the jigsaw arrived recently in the form of Defra’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP23), which provides a welcome degree of coherence to the Government’s ambitions on the environment.

Locally, since at least 2019, most councils and combined authorities have declared climate and/or ecological emergencies. Alongside the lessons from the Covid pandemic, this has had a transformative effect in the way that local leaders consider the challenges and opportunities of the environment agenda and it has driven a significant shift towards a more corporate and partnership-led approach. In turn, this has put a spotlight on place-making and the role of planning as an important vehicle for change.

So recent opportunities to have joined-up conversations with local authority planners, Defra and DLUHC, including at our Heads of Planning Conference, about how we should plan for a better environment have been very welcome and timely. 

But what have I learned and are we any closer to having a fully integrated set of environmental outcomes for planning?

It is evident that planners see a lot of complexity and uncertainty, which brings significant opportunities as well as challenges. Overall there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and positivity but a strong message that planning can’t do everything. I really like the way Rich Cooke at Essex talks about this – the need for planners to work with and through others to deliver outcomes.

I think there are 3 take-home messages from our recent engagement with local authority planners:

  1. the importance of leadership – to ensure that the environment is central to policy and decision making
  2. the need for land use to be multi-functional and deliver multiple benefits – how do we ensure enough land in the right place to provide food and energy security, housing, economic growth and meet the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss?
  3. the need to develop more innovative ways of coordinating and targeting funding and investment in people and projects to make change happen.

So back to my starting point. How do we do this?

Well, it isn’t one thing – it’s a collection of things involving 5 principles of good planning – leadership, policy, evidence, decision-making, and delivery.

Since the 25YEP was published, I’ve followed the trajectory of the natural capital concept and the idea of being able to measure environmental net gain, following the introduction of BNG. I like the concept of Natural Capital because it offers a broad framework for thinking about the environment and the benefits that nature provides. I like it because it introduces the idea of quantifying the value of nature which can help to inform land use policy and decision making about what we need, where and why. And I like it because it is understood by both the business and environment sectors, and therefore offers a common language for politicians, planners, developers, and communities. In other words, natural capital supports those 5 principles of good planning.

Many local authorities have initiated natural capital assessments, some have gone further and published natural capital investment plans, and others have started to model the data to inform development schemes, working with willing developers. However, from talking to planners and reviewing Local Plans, it is evident that natural capital is some way off becoming mainstreamed in planning. It is there, as part of the policy narrative, drawing on paras. 174 & 175 of the NPPF, but we seem to lack the means to implement it in a meaningful way, at least, that’s how I see it. Planners tell me that there is an inconsistent level of understanding of natural capital in a planning context and the lack of tools and strong policy context means that green and blue infrastructure is often the default policy framework for enhancing the provision of the benefits from nature.

The consensus is that whilst natural capital is useful as part of an evidence base, we need to learn how to use it and apply it in practice, so that it becomes more mainstream.

I’m optimistic that natural capital and environmental net gain will have their day. Planners are already thinking about natural capital benefits in the context of BNG and LNRS, and I know of one planning authority (Bedford) blazing a trail for environmental net gain with a policy requirement (DM7) for major development in the submission version of their Local Plan (currently in examination so watch this space!). There will surely be others I don’t know about.

The last few months spent talking to planners about this has taught me one big lesson – Government provides the framework but the really good stuff happens at the local level. Planners continue to push the boundaries and we all need to learn from and share with each other.

So, as a starter for ten, we’ll be sharing some information on our website summarising our conversations with planners, and a snapshot of what we think the different bits of the jigsaw are. If you have ideas and experience of natural capital and planning for the environment that you would like to share, we’d love to hear from you.

Returning to the start again, I don’t know if natural capital is the ‘one ring to bind them all’ (sorry for mixing my metaphors) but my instinct is that it is an important piece of the jigsaw that will help us deliver a fully integrated set of environmental outcomes for planning.


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