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Biodiversity in planning in post-Brexit Northern Ireland

Joanna Drennan MRTPI is a Policy Officer at RTPI Northern Ireland

The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is both a challenge and an opportunity for environmental protection in general and biodiversity in particular. All parts of the UK have made, or are in the process of making, changes to their biodiversity laws in the wake of Brexit. These changes will have considerable implications for planning. More extensive changes to biodiversity law have been made in England and are likely to follow in Scotland and Wales. There is little opportunity at present to make similar changes in Northern Ireland, where no Executive has been formed and the Assembly has not sat since the March 2022 election.

In September 2023, RTPI NI and the University of Ulster organised a roundtable discussion on planning and biodiversity in post-Brexit Northern Ireland. Participants discussed the current and potential contribution of planning to biodiversity conservation and enhancement, with a focus on generating ideas for practical measures for improvement. A range of perspectives were represented, including devolved government, local government, environmental NGOs, private consultancies and academia, with areas of expertise covering planning, ecology, sustainable development and infrastructure.

Whilst the implications of Brexit were by no means absent from this Brexit-inspired discussion, these stood alongside a range of other issues of equal or greater (and often longer-standing) importance.

Participants argued that Northern Ireland’s planning system has become fragmented, with regional planning policy statements in the process of being replaced by local development plans, which are going through a slow process of approval. With no regional strategic plan and only a very limited statutory biodiversity duty, there is a risk that nature will be sidelined in favour of other priorities.

Secondly, participants noted that knowledge of and investment in biodiversity is limited, notably among councillors, who are now key players in the planning system. Training for elected representatives and public education are required, but this needs to be on a rolling basis as decision-makers come and go. Planning officers should also be able to draw more easily on the expertise of biodiversity officers.

Thirdly, biodiversity net gain requirements should be approached with caution. They can be a useful tool, but there is a danger that over-emphasis on overall biodiversity metrics may distract attention from conserving the species and habitats that exist on a site prior to development. There was not an outright rejection of biodiversity net gain as a tool, but participants were clear that heavy reliance on it would come with risks that must be managed.

Fourthly, climate change is now taken seriously at all levels of government. This can crowd out biodiversity when decisions are made, but also provides a model for raising the profile of biodiversity. Climate change was repeatedly referred to in the roundtable as both competition and model for the biodiversity agenda.

Fifthly, Brexit brings particular challenges for biodiversity in border areas due to uncertainty about whether planning decisions in the Republic of Ireland need to take account of impacts on protected sites in Northern Ireland. Clearly, neither government nor civil society in Northern Ireland has any direct control over what is or is not a material consideration for planners in the Republic of Ireland. However, some recognition of the importance of the former Natura 2000 sites in Northern Ireland, and of any Special Areas of Conservation or Special Protection Areas that are designated in the future, would be in keeping with the spirit of the Natura 2000 network.

And finally, participants argued that appropriate monitoring and enforcement are essential if improvements to planning legislation and policy are to result in better biodiversity outcomes in practice. This led to a recommendation that local government should develop monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with biodiversity-related conditions for planning permission, and the role and powers of the Office for Environmental Protection should be strengthened.

Northern Ireland faces specific challenges following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union - in politics, environmental law and planning. The roundtable discussion and recommendations resulting from it, reflect research participants’ views of how some progress might be made towards addressing some of the challenges identified. It is hoped to be just the start of a conversation on how biodiversity concerns can be better integrated into planning in Northern Ireland.

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