NATIONAL PLANNING POLICY FRAMEWORK – What does it mean for biodiversity and the natural environment?

Malcolm Steele
Tees Valley Unlimited

As many of you will have realised the Government issued the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on Tuesday 27th March – and it came into effect immediately. It replaces all previous planning policy guidance and statements, including Planning Policy Statement 9 ‘Biodiversity and Geological Conservation’. When the draft NPPF was published for consultation last summer a response was submitted by the Tees Valley Biodiversity Partnership. This expressed a number of concerns, including:
• Lack of definition for the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”
• Too much emphasis on economic growth at the expense of environmental and social considerations
• Need to recognise the value that the natural environment brings to economic prosperity, and quality of life and place
• Too much emphasis on the protection of designated countryside, landscapes and nature conservation sites at the expense of the wider countryside and other sites of biodiversity interest

It is pleasing to note that some of our concerns have been addressed in the final NPPF. A quick summary of the main provisions that affect biodiversity and the natural environment:
• Sustainable development has been defined more clearly and the NPPF now refers explicitly to the 5 principles of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy as well as the United Nations Brundtland definition. The line in the drat that said significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth has been deleted, and the NPPF now stresses that the economic, social and environmental roles are “mutually dependant” and should be “sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system”.
• The NPPF retains the presumption in favour of sustainable development which applies unless any adverse impacts of a development would “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh the benefits; however the policy for a default “yes” to development proposals unless they are unsustainable have been removed.
• There is now an explicit reference to prioritising “brownfield” land for development, provided that it is not of high environmental value
• Decision-takers should recognise the “intrinsic character and beauty” of the countryside – alleviating some concerns about the value of ‘ordinary’ countryside
• The planning system should contribute to enhance the natural and local environment by
– protecting and enhancing valued landscapes, geological conservation interests and soils
– recognising the wider benefits of ecosystem services
– minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing net gains in biodiversity where possible, contributing to the Government’s commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity, including by establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressure
• To minimise impacts on biodiversity and geodiversity, planning policies should:
– plan for biodiversity at a landscape scale across local authority boundaries
– identify and map components of the local ecological networks, including the hierarchy of international, national and locally designated sites of importance for biodiversity, wildlife corridors and stepping stones that connect them and areas identified by local partnerships for habitat restoration or creation
– promote the preservation, restoration and re-creation of priority habitats, ecological networks and the protection and recovery of priority species, populations, linked to national and local targets, and identify suitable indicators for monitoring biodiversity
– aim to prevent harm to geological interests

• As part of the plan-making process the NPPF includes a specific reference for planning authorities work collaboratively on strategic planning priories to enable delivery of sustainable development in consultation with Local Nature Partnerships
• Planning policies and decisions should be based on up-to-date information about the natural environment and other characteristics. Working with Local Nature Partnerships this should include an assessment of existing and potential components of ecological networks.

The NPPF also retains most of the elements from PPS9 about mitigation and compensation; development affecting a SSSI, protection for European sites (existing and potential/possible), and refusal of development resulting in a loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland.

To sum up there are plenty of positive statements in the NPPF about the importance of biodiversity and the natural environment to the planning system, and it is particularly pleasing to note references to the role of Local Nature Partnerships. As a Partnership we now need to look at these in more detail and show how we can help the local planning authorities in the Tees Valley prepare policies for biodiversity and ecological networks and monitor their effectiveness.