Reports rule out green risk

A set of assessments published by the government into its decision to scrap regional strategies have concluded that their revocation is "highly unlikely" to result in any significant adverse environmental effects.

Countryside: studies argue that rural areas should benefit from local planning decisions as these will look to maximise green gains
Countryside: studies argue that rural areas should benefit from local planning decisions as these will look to maximise green gains

Last month, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) launched a 12-week consultation into the eight strategic environmental assessments (SEAs), having originally pledged to consult on the final reports over the summer. Environmental campaigners have questioned the findings of the assessments.

Each SEA states that the revocation of regional strategies would "remove certain current policies which present a threat to local environments". For example, they contend that the regional strategies' abolition would "remove the top-down pressure on local authorities to review the extent of their green belt".

The SEAs also argue that it is "reasonable to anticipate that decisions taken locally will look to maximise positive environmental outcomes for the local area". They say that, in circumstances where this is not the case, "strong protections for the environment set out in national planning policy ... mean it is highly unlikely that there would be any significant adverse environmental effects resulting from the revocation".

But Gerald Kells, regional campaigns coordinator at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said that this claim would be "hard to test" as the final National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is yet to be published and less than half of councils have up-to-date local plans.

He said: "Our concern is that the main (premise) in the environmental assessments is that the NPPF will pick up environmental protection and that local authorities will protect their areas better than under the regional strategies. Both of these things have yet to be tested."

Paul de Zylva, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said that the assessments were "largely about overcoming a legal hurdle", rather than learning the lessons from "all those years of hard graft" put into preparing the regional strategies.

In April, planning minister Bob Neill revealed that the government would "voluntarily" carry out the SEAs into the effect of axeing the strategies (Planning, 21 April, p8).

His announcement came six months after the CALA Homes (South) Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Anor [2010] case, in which the revocation of the regional strategies was declared unlawful. The presiding judge in the case supported two grounds of challenge advanced by housebuilder CALA, including one that contended that the environmental effects of revoking the strategies should be considered in line with European law.

The assessments were published on the same day as Northern Ireland's environment department announced that the European Court of Justice had ruled that it is lawful for the department to prepare an environmental assessment of its own plans and policies.

But a DCLG spokesman said the timing was coincidental, saying that the assessments were merely puiblished "when they were ready".

The assessments are available via PlanningResource.co.uk/go/referencesection

 

Expert Opinion

Dr Hugh Ellis, Chief planner, Town and Country Planning Association

"The recent environmental impact assessments of the revocation of the regional strategies do not offer an in-depth analysis of the loss of a strategic planning tier, particularly around key issues such as housing, climate change and resource pressures. It cannot be assumed that the sum of local decision-making will add up to the necessary level of action needed nationally on housing growth and climate change."

Michael Gallimore, Head of planning, Hogan Lovells

"In view of the current debate around the NPPF, the SEAs give the government a convenient opportunity to reinforce its commitment to the green belt. The conclusions of the SEAs is that the revocation of the regional strategies will place greater control in the hands of local communities and thus the pressure for green belt reviews will diminish. So, there is, from the government's perspective, a happy coincidence of events on this issue."

Ian Ginbey, Partner, Clyde & Co

"Although the secretary of state alleges that the ongoing exercise is voluntary, he clearly acted precipitously in purporting to revoke regional strategies some 14 months ago. The conclusions of the assessments are not surprising given that the revocation of regional strategies remains the key part of the government's overhaul of the planning system. It remains to be seen whether those conclusions withstand detailed scrutiny in due course."


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