Recognising that the natural environment plays a key role in capturing and sequestering carbon, and with the objective of reversing environmental harm and enhancing biodiversity, the government has committed to “safeguard our cherished landscapes, restore habitats for wildlife…and adapt to climate change, all whilst creating green jobs” through plans that include the planting of 30,000 hectares of trees.
What is proposed?
National Parks, AONBs and Landscape Recovery networks
The government proposes to create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) by designating and safeguarding “beautiful and iconic” landscapes across England from 2021. In addition, ten long-term “Landscape Recovery projects” will be established between 2022 and 2024, which are intended to restore wild landscapes in England, potentially creating “over 30,000 football pitches of wildlife rich habitat”. This is to help sequester carbon and establish the Nature Recovery Network (NRN), which was announced as part of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and launched on 5 November 2020. The new National Parks, AONBs and Landscape Recovery projects are intended to protect up to an additional 1.5% of natural land in England, playing a “key role in meeting the Government’s commitment to protect and improve 30% of UK land by 2030”.
Green Recovery Challenge Fund
The government has committed to inject a further £40 million (already having committed £40 million) into the Green Recovery Challenge Fund in 2021, aiding the immediate creation of green jobs to work on conservation and restoration projects across England. This increase to the Fund is expected to deliver over 100 nature projects over the next two years.
Environmental Land Management Scheme
As the UK leaves the EU, the government’s Environmental Land Management Scheme published earlier this year, (the Scheme) is an important part of the UK’s efforts to combat climate change, deliver clean air and water, protect the natural environment and protect from environmental hazards. The pilots under this Scheme are expected to be rolled out next year, with a full roll-out before 2024. The Scheme runs alongside the already existing Productivity Grants available to farmers, to encourage investment in technology to reduce emissions, while making their businesses efficient and profitable.
The government has also committed to invest £5.2 billion over six years from 2021 to protect homes, businesses and communities from flood risks, while also protecting the environment. Such improvement in flood defences is expected to deliver up to 20,000 jobs and protect over 336,000 properties from risk of flooding.
What will the impact be?
Businesses which require environmental permits for their operations may find more stringent conditions imposed on them or permits refused where their operations have the potential to negatively impact one of the newly protected areas. They may be more likely to face local objection to the issue of a permit and a greater likelihood of challenge of the decision to grant a permit.
In planning terms, National Parks and AONBs are protected areas, subject to strict development controls respecting the sensitivity of the landscape. The recent Planning White Paper proposes to preserve such controls, noting that, for example, AONBs would be designated as “Protected” areas within the proposed new local plan system and subject to a presumption against development. Whilst beneficial for environmental protection, existing development controls in National Parks have created an imbalance between housing need and supply. This is acknowledged in the Planning White Paper, noting that the proposed new standard method for establishing housing requirement figures would have to take this into account to avoid undermining the purpose of National Parks. However, if the number and area of National Parks and AONBs significantly increases, the area of land subject to stricter development controls, and therefore not available for housing development, will also increase. The potential impact of this on the government’s ability to meet its ambitious housing target of 300,000 new homes per year (1 million by the end of this Parliament) is not clear. Designation of land as a National Park or AONB will certainly help those objecting to new homes in such areas.
The Environment Bill, which has resumed its passage through Parliament, includes a requirement that “responsible authorities”, including National Park authorities in England, must prepare and publish local nature recovery strategies. This will support the creation of the NRN. These proposals to protect the natural environment, safeguard landscapes and restore habitats also repeat existing commitments in the 25 Year Environment Plan to conserve and enhance the beauty of the natural environment, meaning that they will be capable of scrutiny by the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to be created pursuant to the Environment Bill.
The government’s plans are a welcome step towards protecting natural landscapes and restoring wildlife habitats. However, they are effectively only a partial implementation of the much wider ranging commitments made in the 25 Year Environment Plan issued in 2018, which covers additional aspects of environmental protection such as waste, water and clean air in a much more comprehensive fashion than those aspects showcased in the latest Ten Point Plan.
Progress against the 25 Year Environment Plan to March 2020 was reported on by Government earlier this year and scrutinised by the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) which advises government on the natural environment and implementation of the 25 Year Environment Plan. The NCC highlighted in their October response to the progress report that the majority of England’s natural assets (air quality, marine environment, soils and land) examined by the NCC, five out of seven were still “deteriorating”, while no natural asset group was making progress in meeting existing targets and commitments. However, the NCC’s role with regard to progress under the 25 Year Environment Plan ends this year, and will pass to the new OEP once it is established in 2021. Of key importance therefore will be the new body’s confidence and enthusiasm for continuing to hold the government strictly to account.