Mike Pollard - Curlew Recovery Project Lead
Last year I worked on a planning application for a biodiversity scheme at Bicester Wetland Nature Reserve, managed by Banbury Ornithological Society in partnership with Thames Water. The plan is to create new pools and flower-rich grassland to offset the impact of a nearby development. Great idea, in principle. But working through the application reminded me how much the whole planning system is designed around the needs of development, not nature.
A nature conservation project with a tiny budget was in many ways treated the same way as a major new housing scheme, not least the planning fee - upwards of £2,000 for ‘engineering work’. If I applied for a football pitch I might have qualified for a concessionary fee! Of course, good planning for nature is as important as it is for new housing or roads, but overall, the balance of consideration it gets in the planning system is comparatively small.
This got me thinking about what local plans and the planning system might look like if they were led by the need to put nature into recovery. Waiving planning fees for purely nature recovery proposals would be a great start! But what if, alongside housing allocations, local plans called for proposals for new nature areas to meet the needs of local people and help address the biodiversity crisis? New government funds and innovative green finance could then be used to establish imaginative new Wild Belts for our towns and cities.
What if the plan also set out areas for new woodland creation, where regenerating trees help slow the flow, reduce flood risk, and enable lost woodland nature - Willow Tits, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Wood Whites and much more - to make a comeback?
What if the plan established big nature areas where habitats are created at scale and where nature shapes the landscape with less intervention from humans? Imagine how our most threatened wildlife might flourish and enable long lost species to return.
These ideas are not new, in fact they are drawn from the current thinking on nature recovery networks. The nature crisis compels us to act more quickly and to innovate. Can the planning system make a step change to help put nature into recovery? As the moment this seems a fair way off – for example, the latest Planning White Paper does not mention Nature Recovery Strategies. This is a great opportunity for the Environment Bill and Local Plans to establish an influential platform for Nature Recovery Strategies in the local planning system.