UK: The Natural Environment White Paper: Necessary Protection Or A Threat To Development Deliverability?

Last Updated: 28 September 2011
Article by Michelle T. Davies and Paul Maile

Originally published 16th September 2011

The Natural Environment White Paper, "The Natural Choice: securing the value of Nature", states ambitious aims: to halt overall biodiversity loss by 2020, to support the recovery of 'healthy, well functioning' ecosystems, and to establish coherent ecological networks increasing areas for priority habitats by at least 2,000 km2.

The proposed initiatives are largely voluntary and designed to mesh within the existing legislation. However, if this white paper represents a precursor to more binding legislation and targets – such as has been the case with climate change – then this could have significant ramifications for project deliverability across the board in terms of land use planning including renewable energy.

Background

The white paper, published by Defra on 7 June 2011, is the UK's first environment white paper for over 20 years. Its bold goals are set against a backdrop of ongoing biodiversity loss and degradation, with an estimated 30% of environmental services in decline and where the natural environment in England is fragmented and unable to respond effectively to climate change, demographic shift and other pressures.

Key initiatives in the White Paper

The white paper sets out a range of proposals from Local Nature Partnerships ("LNPs"), designed to drive green economic growth, through to research into soil degradation. Among the most important from a renewables planning perspective are the following:

  • National Ecosystems Assessment – through which the Government will support a further phase of research and investigate future measures to secure ecosystems benefits and prevent decline.
  • A landscape scale approach to planning – designed to provide a more integrated approach to ecological restoration of landscapes 'for local authorities, communities, businesses and landowners', based on the proposals introduced by Defra in Making Space for Nature 2010.
  • Nature Improvement Areas ("NIAs") – these are one way in which the 'landscape scale planning' is proposed to work. Natural England will set up a competition to identify 12 areas, with a fund of £7.5 million over the current Spending Review Period and it is proposed that they can be identified in local plans, provided this avoids "deterring sustainable development".
  • Green Areas Designation – these would allow local people an opportunity to protect green spaces that have 'significant importance' to their community. A consultation is planned later in 2011 and designation in April 2012.
  • Voluntary Biodiversity Offsets – these are defined as conservation activities designed to deliver biodiversity benefits in compensation for losses in a measurable way and are considered in more detail below. Defra will establish a 2 year pilot into voluntary offsetting to 2014.

However, although some details have been given, the extent of these initiatives and how these complement existing land use planning (and the changes introduced by the Localism Bill) remain unclear.

Potential impact on development deliverability

White papers, although themselves not binding, are frequently followed by legislation. For example, the 2007 white paper, 'Energy: Meeting the Energy Challenge', was followed in 2008 by the Climate Change Act 2008, which looks to reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 of 80% compared to 1990 levels. This has, in turn, been followed by the UK Renewable Energy Strategy (July 2009) which imposes a target of 15% of all energy consumed in the UK to be produced by renewable energy means by 2020. Alongside policy statements such as PPS 22 (Renewable Energy), such changes are already having a profound effect on land use planning.

The majority of initiatives in this white paper rely on the existing policy and legal framework with a voluntary local approach is preferred for their implementation. However, if proposals were to become binding, this could potentially lead to an even more profound shift in land use planning law and policy. For example, biodiversity offsetting could be used to significantly extend the Habitats Regulations. These currently only requires developers to provide compensatory habitat for their impacts only on certain lists of species and habitats under the Habitats Directive, and apply this to developments. At present, for the majority of biodiversity impacted upon by development, there is no legal requirement for mitigation or compensation. If the white paper were to lead to obligatory offsetting, this could lead to delays in deliverability, undermine commercial viability, and even see a sharp rise in projects refused planning permission which would previously have secured consent.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that this white paper immediately heralds as radical a shift for biodiversity as the 2007 white paper did for climate change. It is currently best considered as an aspiration document, seeking to work within existing policy and legal frameworks with only a material consideration in planning decisions. For some proposals, such as Green Areas Designation, there is simply insufficient detail on how they will work alongside the existing planning system to comment on their impact. However, should some of the more radical proposals follow the trajectory of other white papers which have led to binding legislation, then there could be significant ramifications in terms of the deliverability of projects across the board in land use planning. Developers should, therefore, watch progression in this field with vigilance.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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