Unlike rural Britain, one of the key influences on London’s nature is planning and regeneration. Huge areas of natural greenspace have been lost to the development of London since the 1850s. Despite successful campaigns to save some iconic sites, such as Wimbledon Common and Epping Forest, the continual loss of wildlife habitats through development in the 1960s and ‘70s made it imperative to put in place plans and policies to protect nature, not only for its intrinsic interest but also the benefit of people.
The key frameworks are national planning policy (currently the Town & Country Planning Act 1990, the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, Planning Act 2008, and the changes put in place through the Localism Act 2010), The London Plan, and their articulations through borough Unitary Development Plans (UDPs), the more recent Local Development Frameworks (LDFs) and the emerging Local Plans.
National planning policy for biodiversity was until recently largely articulated through Planning Policy Statement 9 (Biodiversity and Geological Conservation, 2005). However, this – and other relevant policy statements – have been superceded by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in March 2012. The NPPF has attempted to streamline previous planning policy guidance into one document, and places a new emphasis on the presumption in favour of sustainable development. It constitutes the guidance for local authorities in drawing up plans and as a material consideration in determining planning applications.
The NPPF recognises the need for biodiversity suggesting that sustainable development “involves moving from net loss of biodiversity to achieving net gains for the future.” Local Wildlife Sites (e.g. SINCs) are recognised as forming components of ecological networks and Nature Improvement Areas are now included in the Framework. The NPPF maintains the earlier priority of development of brownfield land before greenfields and, retains a strong commitment to the protection of the Green Belt. It also provides a new means for designating Local Green Space to protect some land from development.
The key task now is to ensure Local Plans, which form the cornerstone of the new system, address ambitions in the NPPF for landscape-scale conservation and improvement, and identify local ecological networks and sites of local wildlife importance. As many local authorities no longer have ecologists on their staff, this is a critical issue to address if the planning system protects and enhances wildlife rather than damaging it.
UDPs and/or LDFs identify sites for the protection of biodiversity (local wildlife sites, or SINCs), policies for their protection, and if they see fit additional guidance for specific issues, such as green infrastructure, through Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs). Overlaying these LDFs in London is The London Plan (2011), the regional spatial strategy for London, and from this year, the NPPF.
Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) are made by local planning authorities, to help safeguard trees of significant amenity value. New regulations came into force in April 2012 to make the TPO system simpler for local authorities to administer and fairer for tree owners, but retain the level of tree protection.
Planning decisions need to take account of UDP/LDF policies and national guidance – and can be a difficult process for planning officers to balance a number of often conflicting needs and demands. In addition, confusion over the value of wildlife on a site hasn’t been helped by planning language, for example the presumed benefits of greenfield sites compared to brownfields. Ensuring that decisions robustly recognise policies for biodiversity requires vigilance.