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The future of environmental planning

10 December 2018 Author: Tom Kenny

The planning system currently has relatively little influence over environmental issues related to land, for example landscape damage, soil quality, biodiversity loss, or greenhouse gas emissions. With Brexit and a new Environment Bill on the horizon, it is time to take another look at environmental management through the planning system.

Rural land use: problems and challenges

Many people are concerned about the damage caused by ‘permitted development’, for example allowing offices to be turned into flats without full planning permission. Yet, we barely discuss the fact that the majority of changes to rural land use fall entirely outside the planning system, avoiding both public assessment and community control.

This was not inevitable. In her classic book This Land is Our Land and documentary The Power in the Land, Marion Shoard explains that agricultural land was only excluded from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act due to a lack of awareness of how much agriculture was about to change.

We are currently faced with a wide range of issues which force us to think about the way we use and control land:

Brexit: For many years a great deal of our environmental regulation has come from the EU. Now, as we leave the union, we must consider how to update our own laws so as to avoid losing essential environmental protections.

Agricultural subsidies: The Agriculture Bill, which is near completion, is promoting ‘public money for public goods’ andidentifies environmental outcomes as the new target of subsidies. Questions remain about how and by whom the new system should be managed.

Climate change: As the Committee on Climate Change recently identified, land use is at the heart of both tackling greenhouse gas emissions and responding to and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Other environmental challenges: We are approaching a soil crisis with some estimates suggesting a crisis is imminent in just a few decades. The recent Walk for Wildlife was a response to huge declines in the UK’s biodiversity. Many of our landscape features have already been destroyed or are under threat, including hedges, trees, meadows, marshes and moors.

How can we tackle these crises?

In recent years I’ve  been immersed in debates over how to deliver the land use we need for a flourishing natural environment, in particular, discussions around different toolssuch as:

  • Regulation: What boundaries should we put on acceptable land uses?
  • Taxation and subsidies: How should different land uses be taxed and/or subsidised so as to lead to the best outcomes for society?
  • Natural capital accounting: How should we measure environmental value and chart changes in this value?
  • Geospatial data: How can we maximise the land data we collect, make it accessible to everyone, and use it to improve land management?
  • Planning designations: How effectice is protecting land from certain types of development, for example through the creation of green belts or Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

None of these tools can operate on their own. Rather, their use must be strategic and coordinated.

Integrated Land Use Planning

The excellent 2010 report Land Use Futures made a strong case for an integrated approach to land management. CPRE’s 2017 report, Landlines, came to similar conclusions. But is the planning system an appropriate forum for this kind of strategic approach to environmental management? There are a few reasons it might be.

Planning already has many of the structures that a new integrated land use management system would need.

It has a history of balancing national, regional and local policy, and allowing decisions to be made at the most appropriate spatial scale.

The planning system provides an established framework to engage citizens on their views about land use. Putting planning at the centre of environmental management would allow communities to influence how their local environment is used. It also provides a means of coordinating between different groups and interests.

Finally, planning provides a clear way to balance different environmental, economic and social priorities. Through planning, decision-making about the environment could be integrated with planning for housing, economic growth, transport, health and wellbeing and more.

Extending planning to tackle environmental management

There are a number of ways in which the planning system might provide such an overarching approach.

The definition of development could be extended to cover agricultural activity. Policymakers could produce local, regional and national plans for integrated land use management. These plans could combine with site level plans (e.g. for farms) to guide the distribution of public payments (replacing the existing agricultural subsidy system). The planning system could also play a role in creating and maintaining natural capital accounts, and provide space for citizens to feed into environmental decision-making.

The Government has promised to introduce an Environment Bill into parliament in 2019, with a draft to arrive by Boxing Day. Thus there is both an urgent need and an opportunity to set out a new direction. It’s time to re-examine how planning can help to deliver the land use and environment we need.

A more detailed version of this blog is available here. The RTPI is hosting a roundtable on 11 December for organisations keen to develop a framework to lobby for what should be in the new Environment Bill. 

Blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Tom Kenny

Tom Kenny

Policy Officer, RTPI
Tom Kenny leads on housing affordability for the policy and research team at RTPI. You can find him on twitter @tomekenny.