By Jess Price
Sussex residents frequently get in touch with us concerned about the amount of development happening in their local area, and asking what Sussex Wildlife Trust is doing about it.
Staff in our small Conservation Policy team spends the majority of their time on planning issues. The planning system is very complex and there are many issues with the way it works (or doesn’t), but as a nature conservation charity we focus on the way it impacts wildlife or acts as a barrier to nature’s recovery.
We engage proactively with the planning system in three main areas:
1. National planning policy
Firstly we are working to address the root cause, which in our view is national planning policy that allows damaging development to occur - in particular, the unsustainable housing targets produced by the ‘standard method.’ This sets out how many homes a Local Planning Authority (LPA) needs to plan for and the resulting targets are unachievable for most LPAs.
Last year the Government ran a consultation to make changes to the standard method, that would have made these targets even higher for most Sussex LPAs. We submitted a robust objection to these proposals and publicised the consultation to encourage as many people as possible to respond. We also wrote jointly with CPRE Sussex to all Sussex MPs, and met with a number of them in person, to express our concerns. As a result, we were partially successful and the Government decided not to bring in the most damaging changes. However, this still leaves the existing methodology, which still results in unachievable housing targets. We continue to work in partnership with CPRE Sussex to lobby for further changes, such as the abolition of the Housing Delivery Test, which is causing many LPAs in Sussex to have ‘out of date’ plans even though they have only recently been adopted.
One positive outcome from this lobbying was that the Government released this statement about the standard method, which clearly states that the figures it produces are not a ‘target’ but a starting point and that it is for local authorities to determine precisely how many homes to plan for, taking into account their local circumstances and constraints. This may not seem like much but for many years the figure has been treated as a target, not least by Planning Inspectors deciding whether Local Plans should be adopted or not, and this is why you get so many LPAs saying they have to plan for a certain figure or else planning will be taken out of their hands. So it’s a step in the right direction.
2. Local Plans
The majority of our effort to influence development is focused on the Local Plan process. We try to respond to all Local Plans in Sussex at all stages of the process, which is lengthy and complex.
We also meet with LPAs to encourage them to consider the ecological value of their planning area and how the planning process should protect and enhance this. This is often done in partnership with organisations such as CPRE Sussex, the Sussex Ornithological Society and the RSPB. In particular, we talk about environmental capacity and whether areas can deal with the level of housing proposed. The statement produced by the Government on the standard method is helping with these discussions about realistic housing delivery and you can see that we have mentioned it in our most recent local plan responses. We are really encouraging LPAs to be bold and work up a proper environmental evidence base that demonstrates where there is capacity for development, and where development should be avoided.
3. Planning applications
Ideally our work on Local Plans should mean that the right policies are in place to protect and enhance wildlife at the planning application stage, but this doesn’t always happen. So, where capacity allows, we do occasionally comment on individual planning applications. Unfortunately, given the sheer volume of planning applications submitted every day in Sussex, we cannot engage in all of them. We have to prioritise development proposals that could potentially harm sites designated for their biodiversity value, irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland, and of course our own nature reserves. We also try to equip people to respond to concerning development proposals themselves through the advice on our website and through our wildlife advice service - WildCall.
This is only an introduction to the work we do in the Conservation Policy & Evidence Team. There are lots of changes to the planning system coming, driven by the new Environment Bill (e.g. Local Nature Recovery Strategies, Biodiversity Net Gain) and potentially an entirely new planning system as set out in the Government Planning White Paper! Whatever happens, you can be assured that Sussex Wildlife Trust will be doing what we can to make these systems better for wildlife and people.