By Laura Brook
Back in my late teens I had not really considered that a career in conservation might involve ploughing through endless documents and highlighting the importance of specific words in local planning policies. Over 20 years later and that is exactly what I find myself doing to help ensure we strike a balance between development and our environment.
At Sussex Wildlife Trust we engage with the strategic planning process, which is how all the local councils deal with planning for the longer term, say the next 15 to 20 years. In order to do this they produce Local Plans that set out how much housing and employment space is required in their district or borough. There are policies within the plans that are used to decide planning applications and plan for other infrastructure needs, and this approach is called a plan-led system. We’re supportive of a plan-led system because – if done properly - it allows us to ensure that biodiversity can be embedded at the heart of communities, and that local planning authorities are not flooded with planning applications against which the impacts on biodiversity and our environment are not considered.
As a Wildlife Trust, we expect Local Plans to be based on up-to-date environmental information so that areas can be identified for development without compromising the very resources a community needs for a healthy, functioning environment. We also look closely at policies relating to biodiversity to make sure they are ambitious and meet the now-clear requirement to deliver net gains to biodiversity – in other words, to make sure that development gives back more than it takes away from nature.
However, what we expect and what is often on the table can be very different things. We actively engage with local councils throughout the production of their Local Plans – which can be a very long process - so we can keep reminding them how important their plans and policies are for their district’s/borough’s/county’s /country’s biodiversity.
The Local Plan process includes several rounds of consultation, where statutory bodies (such as Natural England and the Environment Agency) and members of the public have the opportunity to submit written comments on the information presented in the plan and the evidence that supports it. This consultation culminates in the plan being submitted to a government planning inspector and going through a formal process called an Examination in Public. The Examination enables the planning inspector to consider the plan in more detail and ask specific questions about all aspects of the plan to ensure it meets the test of ‘soundness’. Public bodies and individuals are then able to respond to these questions, either through written representations or being present in person at the Examination to join in the discussion and, if needed, make their case to propose changes to the Plan.
The last two months have been exceptionally busy for the Trust’s Conservation Policy department as we have seen a flurry of Local Plans here in Sussex go to Examination in Public. This has been driven by an update to the National Planning Policy Framework, which saw a flurry of local authorities rush to submit their Local Plans before the end of January so they could be examined under the requirements of the old 2012 Framework.
In April and May we have attended the Lewes, Rother and Wealden Local Plan Examinations, meaning we’ve had to produce a stack of written statements, each dictated by strict word limits and deadlines. If the inspector provides an opportunity to discuss the environmental aspects of a Local Plan then we want to be there to make sure we push for the best possible outcome and put forward our position to ensure the polices for biodiversity are robust and deliverable. This means making sure biodiversity policies deliver net gains for biodiversity and require planning applications to be based on up-to-date information. We push for internationally, nationally and local designated sites such as Local Wildlife Site to be protected and enhanced. Alongside all of these factors is the importance of habitat connectivity in decision-making and how this has to flourish in both urban and rural areas.
Although the latest Examinations are now almost over, this will not be the end of the story. The inspector will make a decision about each Plan and, depending on the matters raised, they may suggest a number of modifications before the Plan can be adopted and formally used.
Local Plans are often reviewed every five years and you too have the opportunity to comment during the consultation process. If you’d like to find out more about your local authority’s Local Plan, what stage of the process they are at or how their polices stand up for wildlife, check out their website and either search for strategic planning or local plans. If you need any further information or advice, you can contact our WildCall service on 01273 494777 (weekdays 9:30 – 13:00) or email [email protected]