The biggest environmental news story in the past month has definitely been about planning. Way back in July the UK government released a draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which outlined proposed changes to planning policy. Since then environmental NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns over the new plans and over the last two weeks a row has broken out, mainly between the National Trust and the Government but other NGOs have been getting involved too.
So what is it all about?
First let look at what the changes actually say. The current system tells local authorities to oppose any development that damages sites of particular environmental or scientific importance. This includes sites protected by UK, European or international laws (e.g. SSSIs, protected species, protected habitat). The only way this sort of development can be approved is if the site isn't specifically protected under law already (if it is you really can't damage it) AND if the benefits of the development outweigh the negative impacts it will have. That seems like a pretty sensible system. You must prove that you won't damage the environment, and if you do the benefits are much much better than the damage.
The new NPPF now puts much more emphasis on the importance of economic growth. It says that local authorities should support developments "unless the adverse impacts of allowing the development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits". Now this sounds quite similar to above, if the damage is greater than the benefits then you can't build, but it's more subtle than that. I read a good explanation on another blog, the difference between the old and the new policy is the difference between innocent until proven guilty and guilty until proven innocent.
This is a HUGELY simplified version of the debate. There is lots of case-law, legislation and previous protection to be taken into account and how the policy will be used will vary from place to place so it's not simple. But the above seems to be the key issue people are fighting about.
Now, whose actually fighting and on which side?
On the Yes side: The Government (Bob Neil the minister for Communities and Local Government, George Osbourne, Eric Pickles and even David Cameron have all spoken on the issue) and some developers and business (although I can't find any specific names anywhere on the internet at the time of writing!)On the NO side: Environmental NGOs (The National Trust in particular as well as RSPB, Woodland Trust, Friends of the Earth, Buglife and others) and the lobbying group 38degrees.
This gives quite a clear image of whose fighting for which issue. Those saying yes are looking to improve the economy first and worry about environmental sustainability second. George Osbourne even said “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” While the environment charities are doing what it's their job to do- raise awareness of possible threats to our ecosystems, wildlife and environment that doesn't have a voice of its own. And to be honest, the seem to be making their points a lot more calmly and rational than government.
Both environment NGOs and business are fighting for their specific interests, but surely government shouldn't be fighting. Government should be listening to all sides then deciding what's best for the country, both in the short and long term. Yes, that might mean arguing point out with people but not actively going out to fight specific groups.
This one blog doesn't contain enough information to draw conclusions about the new planning policy. If you want more information have a look at this, this, this and this. There are several campaigns and petitions you can sign if you want changes to the current proposals. You can find them here and here. Also there is the official government consultation website here. Get involved and have your say, either on this blog, oen of the petitions or the government site.