MPs urge stronger protection of environment in planning decisions
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Councils and planning inspectors must ensure that they give equal weight to environmental and social issues when deciding planning applications, a cross-party group of MPs said today.
The recommendation follows an inquiry into the effectiveness of the national planning policy framework (NPPF) by the communities and local government committee.
The MPs report a “recurring concern” among respondents to its investigation that greater emphasis was being given to the economic dimension of sustainable development than to environmental and social aspects.
The problem is caused by the application of the NPPF rather than the policies in it, since it spells out clearly that economic, environmental and social issues should be given equal weight in decisions, the MPs said.
To ensure an equal balance between the various dimensions of sustainable development the MPs recommend that the government publicly stress to both the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities the importance of each aspect . Planning decisions should state clearly how all three elements have been considered, they suggest.
NPPF policies regarding the natural environment are also not being met in practice, MPs found. The committee heard evidence from the RSPB that local plans drawn up by councils did not properly take environmental protection policies set out in the NPPF into account.
An analysis of a sample of local plans by the non-governmental organisation found that they did not set out a “coherent, strategic and spatial vision” for biodiversity.
The RSPB’s evidence states: “This was true even in one plan area which is rich in biodiversity. The plans focus primarily on traditional development management, as opposed to facilitating the spatial integration of the various land use demands which would be expected from modern spatial planning.”
Local authorities should make the natural environment an important theme in their local plans, the committee recommended. A lack of clear policies could make it harder to resist the economic aspects of development taking a more dominant role over environmental considerations, it said.
The committee also recommends that the government strengthen the NPPF to state that any loss of ancient woodland to development should be “wholly exceptional”. Currently, the NPPF says development on ancient woodland can be justified if the benefits of the development outweigh the loss.
MPs on the committee added that the government should work with Natural England and the Woodland Trust to establish whether more ancient woodland could be designated as sites of special scientific interest, which would provide stronger protection.
The committee also considered the intervention by communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles in onshore wind planning applications. Between June 2013 and October 2014, Pickles took over decisions on 45 wind energy projects from the Planning Inspectorate. Out of 18 cases where decisions have been made, Pickles has refused consent in 16.
The committee found no evidence that Pickles’ decisions had not been in line with government policy. However, it recommended that Pickles speed up decision-making “in line with his own expressed views about the importance of reducing planning delays”, so as to prevent uncertainty for investors in renewable energy.
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