When the planning system leaves sites empty, it also blocks money that is urgently needed to enhance local biodiversity, says Jaquelin Fisher

In all the furore about the National Planning Policy Framework, nobody has really analysed what the impact will be on environmental enhancement. The large-scale enhancement of major areas of landscape and ecological importance are principally funded by the taxpayer, with assistance from European funds such as DGXI. But with public spending stretched to breaking point, an increasing number of interest groups are fighting for an ever-decreasing slice of the pie.

One key area that rarely qualifies for this funding is biodiversity enhancement in the urban/suburban and semi-rural context delivered through the planning gain mechanism. In this case, enhancements are funded by contributions resulting from development, effectively securing the future of a network of natural habitats. Developers are acutely aware of the need for this, and the onus falls on them to deliver. As well as being a non-negotiable part of the planning process, the enhancement of these areas is also critical to the retention of key species and habitats.

With nearly a decade of ‘go-slow’ in the development industry, primarily driven by planning complexity, environmental enhancements are simply not happening

The planning gain mechanism is long-established and well understood within the building industry. A typical example might be a medium-sized residential or mixed development on the urban fringe. The development footprint would consist of both hard development and areas of open space and semi-natural habitats, created and maintained by the developer. The developer would fund the cost of the design, habitat evaluation and any potential enhancements. Most importantly, all costs are borne directly by the developer as part of the submission for planning permission.

Once permission has been granted, the developer enters into an agreement with the local authority to maintain the natural areas. This win-win situation for developers and local authorities has much wider benefits than are currently being seen.

The current issue of delay has nothing to do with unwillingness on the part of those who would ultimately be responsible for the enhancement. Unfortunately, it is a problem entrenched within the planning process itself. With nearly a decade of “go-slow” in the development industry, primarily driven by the planning complexity the NPPF wishes to rectify, such enhancements are simply not happening.

Sites with enhancement potential stagnate and degrade, often losing what conservation value they have and making enhancement in the future more problematic and potentially more costly. One site, under consideration for development for over 12 years, has the enhancement of grassland habitat as part of the proposals. Over this time, the grassland has lost species and its intrinsic interest as habitat has measurably declined. The result is the loss of a significant area of unimproved grassland and a key local biodiversity habitat.

Another example of ongoing decline can be seen on woodland edges next to a development site where outline planning permission was granted in 2006. The funding and management of this important local habitat has been delayed by protracted arguments about the layout of housing, to the detriment of the many species it supports. As such, the biodiversity will not be as great as it would have been had development occurred sooner. Many more examples can be found up and down the country, all of which contribute to a growing map of unmanaged habitats and lost ecological opportunities.

There can be no doubt that enhancement funded by development is an effective mechanism for improving the environment. In my view, development is actually necessary to protect the natural environment, providing the planning gain method is utilised effectively and expediently. When the complexity of the system slows down development, enhancement measures suffer as a result. The NPPF is no threat to protected areas, but a failure to reform the planning system will irrevocably retard a proven and highly-effective mechanism of enhancement.

Jaquelin Fisher is chairman of JFA Environmental Planning