Balancing the need for housing development with environmental protection is crucial for sustainable growth. By working together to find common ground, we can ensure that we create living spaces that are not only functional but also ecologically responsible. Let’s keep in mind that we have a responsibility to future generations to preserve and protect our planet while meeting the needs of our communities.
The House of Lords Built Environment Committee recently published their 2nd Report of Session 2022-23 titled “The impact of environmental regulations on development”, the central thrust of which is an investigation into the interaction between two central government policies: the drive for development of infrastructure and housing; and the commitment to protect habitats and halt the decline of species.
Whilst the Lords do not investigate the validity of these currently conflicting policies, and merely take them as givens, the conclusions and recommendaons of the report seek to provide what the committee sees as mechanisms for balancing these competing targets.
There are a series of recommendations within the report that profess to set out how government should address the supposed conflict requirements, including:
To balance policy decisions more effectively, the Government should commission a review into the cost implications of satisfying environmental regulations for both housebuilding and large infrastructure projects.
It is somewhat telling that the focus for the Lords here is the cost implications and not the benefits derived from a healthy environment.
I believe that the approach presented fundamentally fails to grasp the issue at hand. Rather than trying to find a balance between potentially ‘competing targets’, our focus should be on meeting the infrastructure and housing needs while providing the most efficient protection for our valuable habitats and native species.
Indeed, the much-anticipated Land Use Framework (LUF) purports to seek a balance between these and other issues, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stating that the LUF would “ensure we meet our net zero and biodiversity targets, and help our farmers adapt to a changing climate, whilst continuing to produce high quality, affordable produce that supports a healthier diet”. The development of the LUF must surely include identification of support for our beleaguered protected sites and safeguarding of our vulnerable species core sustenance areas.
There is a thread running through the report which seeks to give housing development the same statutory basis as environmental protection. This would give planning authorities the ability to take a more balanced planning view of proposals, enabling them to readily decide that the requirement for development outweighs the protection of designated sites and priority habitats and species, with recommendations such as:
The Government should place the need to deliver housing on a statutory footing equal to that of environmental protection. This will help to ensure balanced decisions can be taken.
In July 2023 the Secretary for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced a long-term plan for housing which contained initiatives relating to relaxing planning control. No detail on how this would be delivered was published alongside the plan. I struggle to see how the relaxation of planning controls is a proportional or sustainable answer to the stated aims of delivering more housing and protecting our environment for the future. How can we support such an approach in the current biodiversity and climate crisis?
The UK is one of the 188 signatories of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KGBF), signed in December 2022. Among the 23 targets to be achieved by 2030 are a 30% conservation of land and sea, 30% restoration of degraded ecosystems, reduction of excess nutrients lost to the environment by at least 50% and around £400 billion per year reduction in harmful subsidies. Somewhat disappointingly, the KGBF is not legally binding, merely requiring reporting against progress on these targets.
The Lords conclude:
There are legitimate concerns that the Government will not meet its environmental or housing targets on time. The deliverability of its environmental ambitions is particularly drawn into question owing to the limited time afforded to meet them.
Acknowledging that many of our most protected sites are in unfavourable condition the Lords posit:
The condition of protected areas in the UK has a direct impact on development. When not maintained, their poor condition can cause an immediate halt in housebuilding. Statutory bodies and others have known about the poor state of some protected areas for several years but there has been no overall improvement.
Given the importance of site condition and classification to the planning process and decision making there should be greater transparency over the assessment process. Natural England should publish its detailed scientific justification for any site assessment in an easily accessible and understandable format.
Natural England’s new Protected Sites Strategy approach should be extended to all protected sites in an ‘unfavourable’ condition. These strategies should include a time-bound action plan for restoring its condition in line with the environmental principles policy statement.
One presumes that the ‘others’ referred to in that first paragraph include the UK government, and yet we still do not seem to have a properly funded national programme for the care of our protected sites.
There is no call for the onerous requirements in delivering on such strategies to be funded by government, nor for Natural England (NE) to be given the additional resources needed to manage such a process. It is sad to see the arms-length body being made a scape-goat once again, NE already publish their site assessment data, and giving a clear, easily followable status from favourable, down through unfavourable – recovering, unfavourable – no change, unfavourable – declining condition to part destroyed or destroyed – I’m not really sure how they could be clearer than this – it’s not detailed technical language after all!
Very much front and centre of the national debate on housing today are water/nutrient neutrality and recreational impact zones, with these requirements being championed by NE and pilloried by lobbyists for housing developers.
Water neutrality describes a situation where there is a need to balance the use of water for our needs with the natural systems which rely upon the water, be it groundwater or surface water. When we remove more water from a system that comes into that system, we place increasing pressure on ecosystems, often to their severe detriment.
Water neutrality has been geographically restricted in its application to date but will increase as an issue as more and more abstraction licenses become due for renewal. The Environment Agency and NE will, quite rightly, ask for Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) of the licence renewal, requiring evidence that the abstraction will not harm protected sites.
Housing developers need to construct homes that have sustainable water supplies, while water companies are required to supply potable water to those houses. At the same time, Local Planning Authorities must ensure the delivery of the homes, while also protecting natural resources. This creates a tension between these three parties.
Providing adequate water supplies from areas where the abstraction of that water would not harm protected sites or sensitive ecosystems is possible. However, the infrastructure to deliver the water from where it is more plentiful to where it is needed is very costly, and water companies are loathe to invest huge sums for little return.
Nutrient neutrality is a term coined to describe a need to balance the output of nutrients (principally nitrogen and phosphorous) from human-related sources and the potential harm excess nutrients cause to valuable ecosystems. This has until recently been predominantly aimed at aquatic systems (e.g., the Solent), but is increasingly being sought for terrestrial sites as well.
It seems unfair to expect housebuilders and buyers to bear the entire cost of nutrient treatment for their homes. The root of the problem lies in decades of inadequate regulation and investment by successive governments, resulting in excessive nutrient flows from agriculture and poor sewage treatment by water companies. The solution is not to weaken environmental laws – which would only create more problems – but to protect these laws and address these environmental problems at a strategic level, providing clear guidance to reduce pressure on natural resources and thus eliminate the problem. Leaving the potential conflict to emerge at individual development determinations prolongs the nature vs development friction which really needn’t exist at all.
The Lords call for several measures to reduce the burden of nutrients on our environment, stating:
The Government must prioritise implementing the Integrated Plan for Water and publish the information sought by its arm’s-length bodies, including setting out the balance of priorities between farming and other sectors in addressing nutrient pollution. In doing this it should be cognisant of the experience in the Netherlands.
We welcome proposals in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill for the Environment Agency to review the environmental permits of plants which discharge treated effluent into catchments impacted by nutrient pollution. This should be expanded to agricultural activity. The Environment Agency should inspect all farms within the 27 catchment areas subject to nutrient neutrality advice by the end of 2024 to ensure they are operating within their permitted pollution levels and enforce standards on those that are not.
However, these measures are again predominantly focused on waterborne nutrients and do not specifically mention airborne nutrients which are damaging sensitive habitats across the UK.
Recreational Impact Zones are areas identified surrounding protected sites, where NE has identified recreational pressure as one of the factors leading to or likely to lead to the deterioration of the protected site. Development within these areas is then required to demonstrate the provision of appropriate mitigation, such as Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANGS), to address the additional visitor pressure which could come from the addition of more housing to the area.
The provision of attractive, well-thought-out, biodiverse SANGS is a great idea, and strategic approaches to this provision are to be applauded. However, some authorities are now seeing difficulties in the delivery of SANGS (e.g., Hart, Rushmore and Surrey Heath Councils) with the availability of suitable land being a prime barrier to delivery.
It appears to me that there is a common thread to these ‘problems’, and that is the lack of a strategic properly funded and rapidly delivered programme of environmental infrastructure.
Some may point to Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS) as a potential solution, hoping that they will fill this void and give us the direction and comfort we need, however, the LNRS, while on the surface a wise strategic approach to biodiversity recovery and protection, have again been launched into a policy ecosystem lacking in joined-up thinking. Taking Point 4 of the Local nature recovery strategy statutory guidance document:
The main purpose of the strategies is to identify locations to create or improve habitat most likely to provide the greatest benefit for nature and the wider environment. The strategies do not force the owners and managers of the land identified to make any changes. Instead, the government is encouraging action through, for example, opportunities for funding and investment.
Once again, we see little to deliver on the underpinning aim of the legislation, and nothing to ensure that the measures proposed avoid conflict with other government aspirations.
To find a more rational and holistic thought process we need to turn to NE’s Green Infrastructure Framework, where we at least see some ideas about how we can seek to provide future generations with a more nature-rich land in which to live. However, as per usual, it is left to planners to strive to deliver on these goals, with limited drivers for developers to move away from dense development maximising short-term profits.
To avoid conflicting policies, the government needs to adopt a comprehensive approach towards the direction of our nation. This should involve creating clear and practical joined-up policies and guidelines for local planning authorities, arms-length bodies, and the entire nation.
Stuart Ireland CEnv MCIEEM
Stuart is a professional ecologist who has provided advice and guidance to promoters of infrastructure and development schemes for over 20 years. He works as an integrated part of multi-disciplinary assessment teams on complex schemes. Stuart is a specialist in Habitats Regulations Assessment and leads the WSP UK HRA technical working group, providing internal and external training in HRA.
Stuart has worked in the charitable, local government and private sectors, and uses his experience of these sectors to find solutions attractive to all parties.
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