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The Environment Act is a good foundation; now let's do more to protect our natural environment

East Sussex landscape

The new Environment Act 2021 is a good start to providing comprehensive protection for the UK's environment. but it needs to go further with the development of Local Environment Improvement Plans, says the RTPI's Richard Blyth

For the first time in a generation, the UK Parliament has passed an Act on the Environment. 

The new Environment Act makes biodiversity net gain a statutory requirement. Whilst it is encouraging to find ways to support nature recovery,I am concerned that the use of a statute runs the risk of making balanced decisions on planning more difficult, by skewing them legally in favour of a particular outcome. There are also reportedly difficulties in applying BNG to small enterprises. We continue to remain concerned that local planning authorities may not be adequately resourced to handle BNG when it is mandatory. Will this be at the risk of other important activities in planning departments?

"We continue to remain concerned that local planning authorities may not be adequately resourced to handle BNG when it is mandatory"

We welcome the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to replace (in England only) the role formerly held by the European Commission to call governments in the UK to account. We and others called for a single UK-wide body, which was not heeded, and also for the OEP to be more independent of government than has turned out to be the case.

Local Nature Recovery Strategies are a welcome commitment to the idea that local government should be leading on planning for the environment. However, the RTPI calls for Local Environment Improvement Plans to go further than the nascent concept in the Environment Act. In the longer term the aim should be to get Local Nature Recovery Strategies to coherently cover the whole environment (including, for example, water, flooding, soil and air quality), incorporating existing mechanisms into a coherent approach. They might then logically adopt a new title: Local Environment Improvement Plans.

A coherent Local Environment Improvement Plan would develop a shared understanding of the environment including problems and opportunities, including :

  • providing an up-to-date assessment of the current state of the environment, with data frequency appropriate to need
showing where the environment is in a favourable/unfavourable/etc state

  • including modelling of trends where appropriate

  • overlaying other activities/communities where relevant, helpful and feasible

  • assessing causes and drivers for improvement

  • showing designations and other spatial rules.

And it would create a shared strategy to improve the environment by:

  • collating local needs, expectations and preferences from the environment

  • providing a basis for coherently marrying environmental needs with the place-based needs of other parts of government/society/economy

  • showing opportunities for nature’s recovery and environmental improvements

  • agreeing priorities for improvement

  • agreeing plans, programmes and projects, where improvements need to be incorporated into other plans and arrangements for continuous improvement outside local environment plan cycles

  • reporting on where collaboration is needed or measures from higher tiers of government.

"Local Environment Improvement Plans would mean that the environment really counted at the highest level in local government"

LEIPs would provide the rationale for having a lead director on environment sitting alongside a lead director on housing on a Green Growth Board. They would mean that the environment really counted at the highest level in local government. And they would greatly assist the public in getting involvement in environmental planning by contrast with the current multiplicity of plans. Finally, they would make it much easier to ensure alignment between environmental planning and planning for housing and transport.

So all in all, it is very good that leaving the EU has not meant abandoning mechanisms of environmental scrutiny and high environmental standards. And it is good to see a role for local government in the environment. But the proposals could have gone a lot further and we will be pressing for more to be laid on this foundation.

Richard Blyth FRTPI is head of policy and research for the RTPI

Image credit | Shutterstock


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