Sue Halliwell, joint chair of ADEPT’s South East Board and Director for Planning and Place at Oxfordshire County Council, discusses how local authorities are responding to the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and what is changing at ground level.
Published in 2018, the 25 Year Environment Plan sets out the government’s ambition for putting the environment at the heart of planning and development. The Plan aims to create better places for people to live and work, contributing to the overall goal of leaving the environment in a better state than we found it. It puts local authorities firmly at the heart of delivering these objectives.
The Oxford to Cambridge Arc is the swathe of land stretching between Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, described as ‘an area of significant economic potential’ in the OxCam Arc Ambition document.
The aim is to invest and develop the area to create a place that demonstrates the very best of British business and innovation. The Arc Ambition document is a joint declaration between the government and local partners and sets out ambition around embedding ‘natural capital’ thinking into the project.
In addition, the government has allocated £1.2m to produce a Local Natural Capital Plan (LNCP) for the growth arc, which will be the first plan of its kind in the country. It is important to note that the Arc is a large area, crossing a number of local authority boundaries, so partners are working closely together and have formed an environment board to help lead on this work.
Protect and enhance
Currently in production and being led by the Environment Agency and Natural England, the LNCP has two main objectives: to both protect and enhance the environment.
Environmental protection is about understanding the current state of the environment and avoiding or minimising negative impacts on the area in the Arc.
Environmental enhancement is about taking opportunities to invest in environmental assets to deliver benefits – for example, sustainable flood management, environmental land management and local nature recovery statements.
It is an ambitious plan, embedding the environment into development. It recognises that it is critical that we invest in the natural environment in the same way that we invest in infrastructure and schools, to ensure habitats are robust and resilient.
The LNCP will assist with this, by mapping and assessing the natural capital across the area, giving clear information on the assets that need protection and identifying challenges and opportunities that exist.
Once published, the Environment Agency will coordinate delivery of the LNCP on behalf of Defra.
Furthermore, the local environment board has adopted biodiversity net gain as an objective.
Although this is not currently mandatory within the planning system, in February 2019 the government signalled its clear intention to make net gain mandatory through the forthcoming Environment Bill.
This approach will ensure the delivery of infrastructure and housing is not at the expense of biodiversity.
In Oxfordshire the biodiversity net gain approach is already being trialled. Local planning authorities are working with a local partner, the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment. As part of their wider fundraising and local grant-making role, this organisation is well placed to act as a ‘broker’, matching up funding from developers who have not been able to fully mitigate the impacts of their development onsite, with landowners and land managers who can use the funding to create new habitats.
A practical example of this approach was the Great Western Railway electrification programme, where Network Rail was not fully able to mitigate the impacts of the project on habitats adjacent to the railway lines.
Local authorities, the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment and Network Rail worked together to set up funds for habitat creation elsewhere in the local area.
The biodiversity net gain approach allows local authorities to ask developers for additional funds to pay for long-term environmental projects.
Although the 25 Year Environment Plan puts the environment at the heart of planning and development, the concepts and objectives outlined in the plan also need to be integrated into legislation and national planning policy ensure successful local delivery.
In order to deliver on the 25 Year Environment Plan investment is critical as well as integrating environmental gain into planning decision making, and having robust evidence bases. Financial investment will lead to action on the ground, for the benefit of both people and for the environment.
Ultimately, the OxCam Arc LNCP will seek to trigger environmental investment, creating greener, healthier and more productive places and communities across the area. These will in turn ensure that we protect and enhance our natural environment for the benefit of future generations.
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