RSPB Levelling up Blog
This is a really good summary by Carl Bunnage of the RSPB, more on their website
20 Jul 2022
RSPB Senior Policy Officer, Carl Bunnage, reflects on the Government’s new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, and whether it will really do what it says on the tin.
Prior to Boris Johnson’s resignation, the UK Government published its long-anticipated reforms to the planning system in England in the form of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. With the race for the leadership of the Conservative party, and thereby the country, in full flow, much is now up in the air. Whoever the incoming Prime Minister and Cabinet are this autumn, it is important that they make tackling the nature and climate emergencies a priority – and central to that will be their approach to planning reforms and ‘levelling up’.
A key test of whether with the Bill will ‘level up’ by delivering greater opportunities and quality of life for everyone will be how well it enables nature’s desperately needed recovery as well as better access for all communities to enjoy it. As it stands it is unclear whether the Bill will actually deliver this, and the danger is that it may prove be a major missed opportunity for us all.
Planning may seem a dry and technical subject but it touches on every one of our lives and so it is not surprising that our planning system is subject to constant and regular change. During summer 2020 the Westminster Government proposed the most radical changes to the planning system ever in England. Its proposals were published in a document called ‘Planning for the Future’ and contained a number of measures that amounted to a developers charter – it could have been damaging for our precious wildlife when it is already facing so many existential challenges.
The Government received 44,000 responses to its public consultation on these proposals, with 19% of them coming directly from members and supporters of the RSPB by making their voices heard and calling for planning system fit for the nature and climate emergency that we are in. Thank you to everyone who spoke up for nature – you helped make a difference!
No response to that public consultation has been published, but it is now clear that some of the most damaging proposals within the document have been abandoned and are not included within the new Levelling Up Bill. However, how is the Bill shaping up and is it fit for purpose?
Well, in short, it’s hard to tell. Whilst the Bill is over 300 pages long, it is very short on detail. It is really just a broad framework, simply seeking to grant the Government broad powers to change current systems, including for environmental protection, and replace them with new systems which have not yet been designed. These will come forward afterwards through ‘policy and regulations’, which involve less Parliamentary scrutiny than is needed for passing new laws.
It could be that some of these changes could result in better outcomes for nature, but the devil will as always be in the detail. There are however a number of areas where we have real concerns, including:
- Proposals to change our current processes for assessing the impact of development proposals upon nature and the environment (Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment) and replace them with a new, yet to be designed, system of Environmental Outcome Reports. Unless well designed, this could weaken protections for nature.
- Proposals to change the ways in which funding contributions are taken from developers to support the provision of essential infrastructure and other measures. These could reduce the amount of support coming forwards for measures such as to mitigate harmful impacts upon wildlife, and also enable community access to nature-rich greenspaces.
- Proposals for the Government to set national planning policies, without consultation if it chooses, and for this to take precedence over what local communities and communities wish to put into their Local Plans.
It isn’t just about what is in the Bill however, but also what isn’t. Nature’s recovery is barely mentioned in the Bill, and there are real missed opportunities including:
- No proposals to establish a new designation to safeguard land of lower biodiversity value and put it on a journey of recovery. Some have called this ‘Wildbelt’.
- No proposals to ensure that the Government’s introduction of Local Nature Recovery Strategies are properly embedded in the planning system enabling them to make a real difference.
- No proposals to make it illegal to erect netting to deny birds access to precious nesting sites, frequently killing them by accidental trapping in the process.
- No proposals to ensure that all new development is nature friendly.
- No proposals to put into practice recommendations in the Government’s own Glover Review to ensure that our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are equipped to work better for nature.
However, the Levelling Up Bill is in the early stages of the Parliamentary process and it will take at least a year before it gains Royal Assent and becomes law. With the changes in government over the coming months, that could become even longer. Then there will be a long process of changing national planning policies and guidance so that they align with it. Throughout this time the RSPB will work with politicians, officials and other organisations to try to ensure that the proposals and their detailed design really do work for nature. Just as you have helped us before, we may need to ask you to join us once again, giving weight by speaking-up for nature over the coming weeks as the Bill moves through the Parliamentary process. If you would like to add your voice to any future campaigning, please sign up as a campaign champion and we will be in touch!
Then hopefully we will secure a Bill and a planning system that genuinely and without any ambiguity do support nature’s recovery, and levels-up equal access for all communities to enjoy nature-rich green and blue spaces wherever they are.
Surely only then could it be truly and meaningfully be called a Bill for Levelling Up.