Our thanks to all Partner Members and others who contributed to our survey last month (October 2020). Here now is our response to the Government’s White Paper consultation.
Great Ouse Valley Trust (GOVT) is a charity set up in 2018 whose charitable objective is to promote for public benefit the conservation, restoration and enjoyment of the landscape, wildlife and heritage of the Great Ouse Valley and environs in the county of Cambridgeshire. Future planning applications and processes have a direct impact upon the charity’s objective. GOVT’s ambition is to achieve Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Status (AONB) for this special place in order to protect and enhance its beauty. GOVT has 26 Partner Members which include Parish and Town Councils along the River Great Ouse, as well as national and local wildlife and heritage organisations who support GOVT’s ambition and objectives. In responding to this consultation we asked for feedback from our partner members and supporters, so that our response reflects the views of people who know and value this area.
GOVT welcomes the opportunity to comment on how planning reform can integrate with the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan and Environment Bill as well as the Government’s targets for Climate Change. In Cambridgeshire changes in the planning system could provide a real opportunity to double the area of rich wildlife habitat and natural green space from 8% to 16%. In order for this to happen nature has to be at the start as well as the heart of the planning system, so that every development is nature friendly and achieves an improvement in the overall biodiversity of the area. As it stands currently, GOVT has real concerns that nature is not at the heart of this simplified planning reform. But we would welcome an integrated planning system supporting eco-systems and investment in natural infrastructure, so that we can all make best use of Cambridgeshire’s scarce land resource.
Engagement with the Planning Process
GOVT speaks with experience when it comes to engagement with the Planning System at a local authority level. The ambition to make the planning system more understandable, accessible and opening it up to a wider range of voices is to be welcomed. However, the presumption of only allowing a six-week window for local consultation for a Local Plan does not meet this ambition. Feedback to our questionnaire indicated elected representatives at Parish and Town Councils think they would have less involvement in the planning system, rather than more, if the planning white paper were to become law. There are examples of how local groups such as GOVT have made a difference to individual planning applications and to lose this right to be able to voice concerns is undemocratic. Research from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (May 2020) confirms that 70% of respondents in the Eastern Region believe that rapid economic growth should not be pursued at the expense of protecting nature. And 76% supported the idea that nature could contribute to economic recovery by reducing the risk of other economic challenges, such as flooding, water supply, tourism and air and river quality.
Local communities know their local areas and through the 2011 Localism Act have been able to demonstrate this through the development of Neighbourhood Plans which provide a depth and richness of understanding not seen in the Local Plan. The Neighbourhood Plan policies need to retain some status within the proposed changes to Development Management Policies.
Land use planning (zones)
In GOVT’s survey responses from Partner Members we noted that (naturally) the most valuable aspects relate to where people live. It was strongly stated that what needs to be included in future planning policy is consideration for the natural environment and the protection of easily accessible countryside and green spaces. These concerns were closely followed by the need to support the local economy and the protection of existing heritage buildings and areas.
Whilst the ‘protected’ areas proposed in the White Paper go some way in affording protection to the most valuable green spaces, GOVT does not feel this goes far enough as the degree of protection will depend on the housing requirement. GOVT would support the notion of ‘Highly Protected Areas’ and ‘Nature Recovery Areas’ which supports Cambridgeshire’s target of doubling nature, as well giving the Great Ouse Valley the protection it deserves. Biodiversity net gain must be achieved in all areas, and to have a much better environmental information base upfront to inform decision making in a more strategic manner would be welcomed.
However, strategic approaches to land-use planning can never entirely replace the need for site-specific, historical local knowledge which is aware of habitat sensitivities and possible opportunities not seen from a top-down, desk operation.