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Planners need a better understanding of the natural environment

Natural environment

Despite the drive towards a greater appreciation of ecological impacts when making plans and planning decisions, too few planners have the knowledge they need to confidently make decisions about environmental impacts, says Sally Hayns

From an ecologist’s perspective, the increasing visibility and emphasis given to the natural environment in national planning policies and frameworks is a good thing. But how good is it for planners?

I’m not suggesting that planners don’t value the environment; far from it. But it is yet another thing to know/think/make decisions about in a fast-changing policy world. Biodiversity net gain, district-level licensing policies for protected species, natural capital valuation – these are all new ideas that planners need to get their heads around, whether they are involved in planning policy, development control or consultancy. 

I hope these topics are making their way into the higher education curriculum, easing the path for those coming into the profession. But what about those already established in their careers? Fewer than a third of local planning authorities have access to ‘in-house’ ecological expertise. Others buy in advice through a service level agreement or rely on their planners to have ‘acquired’ sufficient knowledge. 

"How many local authorities know the extent to which biodiversity is being inmpacted by policy implementation or development delivery?"

It is a dangerous route to travel. In 2013, a survey of local authority planners in England by the Association of Local Government Ecologists showed that more than two-thirds did not feel sufficiently competent or confident to make sound decisions in respect of the biodiversity issues they are expected to deal with. There is no evidence that planning consultants are any more comfortable with their advice to clients.

This means that many planners lack the knowledge and support needed to do their jobs properly. It leaves your profession exposed to criticism and challenge from residents, community groups and developers, which is wearying, time-consuming and expensive to deal with. It also means that biodiversity assets are probably not being managed as well as they could or should be. 

How many local authorities know the extent to which biodiversity is affected by policy implementation or development delivery? What monitoring is done? 

So how to fix it? If budgets allow, the best advice for local planning authorities who do not have access to in-house ecologists is to ‘go get one’. But in an era of cuts to planning services that may simply not be possible.

CIEEM is conducting a survey of planners on what type of help you need and in what biodiversity-related topics, the results of which we hope to share in a future issue of The Planner. Meanwhile, we know a lot is being asked of you, so get angry and demand help. Challenge organisations such as CIEEM and the RTPI to provide that help. 

Sally Hayns is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM)

Photo | iStock


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