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Uk Planning System Not Fit For Purpose

Although this is particularly relevant to the UK, I am sure aspects of the article will strike a more global chord.
For all the Biodiversity Action Plans(BAP’s), EU Legislation, Planning Policy Guideline Publications etc……. our countryside is being rapidly degraded as a consequence of the increased uptake of green field sites for development purposes. These green field pockets are often considered to be of ‘no ecological value’ by technical officers with no ecological background, supported by Natural England officers with no local knowledge and not the manpower to gain this local information. To quote from an excellent article by Robert Gillespie and David Hill on Habitat Banking (Town & Country Planning. Habitat Banking - A new Look at Nature and Development Mitigation. Vol: 76. No. 4. Pp. 121-125. April 2007)
“For sites of subregional nature conservation importance this ‘balance’ often favours development, but the fabric of the countryside and the biodiversity resource can suffer dramatically through piecemeal fragmentation - through death by a thousand cuts. There is no mechanism for cumulative restoration of landscapes in association with such piecemeal development.”
If a landscape is poor and impoverished to start with, whether naturally or as a consequence of human activity, mitigation, within the planning system, is rarely used to improve the situation. In fact, the opposite occurs compounded by a central government planning appeal system with a remit to overturn local objections for the greater good (the building of more affordable - read here throw away - homes - designed for replacement in 50 years - a developers quote here not my own- a totally short term unsustainable approach to the UK’s housing needs).
To quote a regional planning office

“ if we had to consider the protection of bats there would never be any development”

Why is there is no unified local authority databases cross referencing ecological findings from previous planning applications to aid in decision making with regards to future planning applications ( habitats and the species they nurture do not follow our maps). This omission fosters the piecemeal development of our countryside, as per the above quote, to the detriment of us all. ( except for those developers that have made enough money to buy themselves a bit of ‘natural england’)

To put all this in context (see:- D.A. Hill, M. Fasham, G. Tucker, M. Shewry andP. Shaw: The Handbook of Biodiversity Methods:Survey, Evaluation and Monitoring. Cambridge University Press, 2005: MBA. Eaton, M. Ausden, N. Burton, P. v. Price, R. d. Hearne, C. m. Hew son, G. m. Hilton, D. g. Noble, N. Radcliffe and M. m. Rehfisch: The State of the UK’s Birds 2005. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BTL, WWW, CC, EN, EH and UNH, 2006)Since the Second World War

Britain has lost:-

50 per cent of its ancient lowland woodland,
150,000 miles of hedgerows,
95 per cent of traditional hay meadows,
80 per cent of chalk down land and
80 per cent of wetland fens and mires.
Five species of wildflower are lost per county every ten years;
five species of butterfly have become extinct since the 19th century;

500 species of invertebrate are classed as endangered;
most amphibian species are in decline;
eight of the 16 bat species in the UK are now endangered or rare;

since the 1970s some 50 per cent of song thrushes,
53 per cent of skylarks,
94 per cent of tree sparrows,
72 per cent of starlings and
89 per cent of corn buntings have been lost.

Alongside these declines, 42 per cent of the 1 million or so hectares of SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) are considered to be in ‘unfavourable condition’, as are 69 per cent of rivers and streams, 65 per cent of upland grasslands and heaths, 35 per cent of fen, marsh and swamp, and 33 per cent of lowland broad-leaved woodland.3

It is not all doom and gloom BAP’s are necessary and an important strategic tool in assessing and preserving our countryside.

Natural England are a developing organisation that could become a real force for preserving our natural heritage if they can maintain their independent integrity in spite of political pressure. However they are understaffed with little statutory power, and a tendency to use incomplete GIS databases (info mainly on SSSI’s, AONB’s, LNR’s etc… irrelevant to the potential local greenfield site earmarked for development) to advise local planning authorities.

Now as to the other players :-
The Environment Agency:- started off with no teeth in the 90’s, and I was sceptical as to how effective an organisation it could be. I was wrong. It, in partnership with DEFRA, has developed a powerful role with regards to the protection of our natural environment
However their staff profile has become top heavy with the young academically adept but practically inept. The consequence has been an accumulation of potentially poor decisions based on an increasing reliance on the use of mathematical models (cheap option) of questionable efficacy and reliability (the cost of which will not come to light until those that set it in motion have retired). Also the increasingly cosy relationship with DEFRA has compromised their independent integrity and put them in the same bed as the politicians.

Some Useful Links

BRE research into sustainability in the built environment


NHBS Environmental Bookstore


Environment Agency:-


Natural England:-


Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA):-


US Environment Protection Agency - A very user friendly informative site:-



As an aside there is  proposal to change the planning laws to more easily allow the construction of land based wind farms - conservation is not just about habitat preservation , but also our appreciation of it, lose its intrinsic beauty by covering it with turbines and we may cease to fight for its preservation.


by JN Honeyman -


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