New rules, long in the making, are being introduced into the planning system in England, requiring developers to demonstrate that their projects provide benefits to biodiversity. Over a series of four articles, Ben explores how these proposals have evolved and examines their potential to make a difference.
For years, the planning system in England has operated on the basis that development projects were expected to achieve as a minimum, in all but certain exceptional circumstances, ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity. This was in order to achieve something called ‘sustainable development’ – a concept created by an extraordinary polymath called Gro Harlem Brundtland[i], a Norwegian politician who, in her time, served three terms as Prime Minister of Norway and a stint as Minister of the Environment, has been Director General of the World Health Organisation, and has chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED).
It was during her leadership of WCED that Brundtland brought into being the very concept of sustainable development itself, enshrined in a 1987 report entitled ‘Our Common Future’ which went on to provide a key tenet for the agreements reached at the subsequent United Nations Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Brundtland defined ‘sustainable development’ in deliberately anthropocentric terms in order to emphasise human dependency on the natural world, as: “Development which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
Although the development sector has caused rather less harm to ecosystems and biological diversity than other modern human influences, such as the intensification of agriculture (at least in the UK), there can be no denying that this policy expectation for the planning system has, overall, nonetheless still not been achieved.
Modern development is usually a biodiversity-poor land use type (above), but so too is intensively farmed land (below), and agriculture presently covers in excess of 70% of the land surface of the UK . Photos ©Ben Kite.
The ‘State of Nature’ Report for the UK (2019), which is the most comprehensive overview of how the country’s wildlife has fared and is based on the best available data pertaining to thousands of individual species as well as habitat types and coverage, reported an overall 13% decline in average species’ abundance and a 5% decline in average species distribution since 1970. Although the report points the finger at a number of key drivers, noting in particular the insidious issue of nutrient and agrochemical pollution from farming and a 150% increase in agricultural productivity coinciding with, for example, a 54% decrease in farmland birds, increasing urbanisation is nonetheless listed as a contributing factor to some of the declines. The picture with respect to urbanisation is a complex one, with some species, for example those sensitive to human disturbance such as the Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis being negatively affected, but other species that have suffered significant declines in the countryside, such as the Hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus, doing surprisingly well in low-density urban environments.
Winners and losers in the urbanisation stakes: Hedgehog (above) photo ©Rob Read/Nature Photographers Ltd and Sand Lizard (below) photo © Ben Kite.
The reason for the failure of the ‘no net loss’ policy for planning, in my experience, is that for every example of good practice (and there are many, believe it or not), where a developer has conscientiously pursued opportunities to support and enhance local biodiversity objectives through their proposals, there are other cases where scant regard for wildlife has been shown, where this has somehow survived scrutiny, and where, as a result, newly built form has ridden roughshod over irreplaceable and diverse habitats or fragile ecological networks – sometimes unknowingly but often just uncaringly.
Part of the problem with tightening the screw, is that well-meaning attempts to force better outcomes from individual developments on a ‘case-by-case’ basis have often just resulted in increased cost and delay, as developers have struggled to reconcile other legitimate demands placed upon development (such as the provision of expensive new infrastructure) with the needs of wildlife, within what are often limited shrink-wrapped parcels of land within their control. In effect, the wholly human notion of land ‘ownership’ means that a developer is not necessarily free to create new wildlife habitats (or indeed anything else) wherever they might best be located – they must often be shoe-horned into whatever land is actually available, along with everything else that the development is required to provide; housing, sheltered accommodation, roads and parking, utilities, shops and employment space, floodwater attenuation, schools, children’s play space and doctor’s surgeries to name but a few. The wholly artificial constraints of land ownership thus intensify the competition for space and unnecessarily bring human and ecological objectives directly into conflict with each other.
In the face of the growing housing crisis[ii], which disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in society and is causing justifiable public concern, those of us who love the natural world and wish to convince others to care for it, must in my view signal clearly that our motivations are pro-wildlife and not anti-human, if we wish to win support for our cause rather than just harden opposition. We must I think, as Lord Byron appeared to advocate when he exclaimed that[iii], “I love not Man the less, but nature more,”, reject the false dichotomous choice that has hitherto been presented to us, between prioritising either human needs or the needs of the nature. We somehow need to find a way to satisfy both.
The concept of ‘sustainable development’ advocates exactly this sentiment when it cleverly brings into focus the consequences for future generations if those alive today do not live within their environmental limits. Whilst the sentiment behind the objective is therefore sound, the achievement of it has fallen short, through the failed implementation of the ‘no net loss’ policy.
So how can we, as a fair and compassionate society, provide the required ‘habitat for humanity’, whilst also reversing the precipitous loss of our native wildlife and its habitat?
Is it even possible to bring about the paradigm shift in planning philosophy that would enable us to perceive the built and natural environments as having the potential to be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to each other?
In Part 2 of this series of articles, I will outline how the first attempt made in the UK to address what is now recognised as the failure of the ‘no net loss’ policy in planning – an approach called ‘biodiversity offsetting’ – was flawed and has failed. Parts 3 and 4 of the series will however then examine the newly emerging and perhaps promising approach that is intended to replace it.
 State of Nature Partnership (2019) State of Nature.
[i] Brundtland G (1987) Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development.
[iii] Lord Byron (1788-1824) Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage