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Planning system is failing to protect our most important wildlife and green spaces

The planning system is failing to protect some of England's most threatened wildlife and important habitats, new research by leading think tank Policy Exchange has found.

Mechanisms designed to protect England's natural environment and compensate for any damage to it are haphazardly applied and woefully monitored, argues the new report, Nurturing Nature.

There is also considerable potential to improve how subsidies to improve our natural environment under the Common Agricultural Policy are spent. The combined weakness of the planning system and the subsidy regime risks further damaging some of our most iconic wildlife.

Well-known species such as hedgehogs, house sparrows and common toads have halved in number over the past 25 years. There has been a more than 80% decline in farmland birds since the 1960s and 76% of all UK butterfly species have seen their numbers decline since the 1970s.

The report examined England's current approach to protecting biodiversity, and compared it to measures taken in other countries. The research included a Freedom of Information request to all 354 Local Planning Authorities. The FOI aimed to discover, for the first time, whether Local Authorities were taking adequate steps to compensate for damage to important natural environments from new development on or near them.

The report's key findings include:

  • Only 41% of Local Authorities were able to provide evidence that they had taken steps under existing legislation to compensate for damage to important habitats from development which threatens already-endangered species.
  • Of the compensation measures we discovered, in 74% of cases the relevant Local Authority was unable to provide evidence that the sites were properly monitored. There was only one example of legal enforcement for a breach of a planning agreement linked to natural environment protection.
  • Often is was not clear that the compensation being offered was adequate. Where figures were given, only 0.58 hectares of new green space was provided for every hectare lost. In the best international schemes, the ratio is 1.29 new hectares for every hectare lost.
  • Current policy fails to properly value important biodiversity and take advantage of innovative market mechanisms that have been successful in other countries.

The report argued that encouraging development, including the building of new homes, should work alongside natural environment protection. Sensible policy reforms will encourage development and improve, not just protect, our important green spaces. The report's policy recommendations include:

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) should state that all large developments must deliver an overall ‘net gain’ in biodiversity. Current guidelines on biodiversity protection are vague and provide a lack of clarity to both developers and Local Authorities.

Defra's biodiversity offsetting pilot* should set up compulsory offsetting in at least one Local Authority area. Its current voluntary structure will likely fail to stimulate demand for new conservation projects, therefore stifling innovation and making costs for developers higher than they need to be.

A public registry of all offsetting and compensation projects should be set up. This would allow the Government, civil society and the media to more easily assess the effect of existing legislation and highlight cases where agreements have been breached or poorly carried-out.

Defra should use some of its CAP funding to pilot conservation auctions, where farmers, landowners and NGOs can 'bid in' to provide conservation measures. This could improve the cost-effectiveness of CAP money spent on protecting biodiversity.

Guy Newey, author of the report, said: “A failure to properly value biodiversity has led to the decline of many once-common species and the disappearance of important habitats over the past 60 years.

“However, sensible policy steps can encourage development while, at the same time, improving our natural environment. It is crucial that biodiversity protection is part of the decision on how we use land, rather than ignored, as is often the case now.

*Biodiversity offsetting is a tool that allows the negative environmental impact of development or land use change to be compensated for by providing the equivalent level of, or additional, environmental benefit at another location.”

For further information please contact Nick Faith on 07960 996 233 or at


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