Umbrella group The Wildlife and Countryside Link has published its third annual report measuring the government’s progress against green pledges it made when it came to power.
The link is a coalition of campaign groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife Trusts and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
The report says that one area of concern for the coalition is the protection of designated areas such as the green belt and sites of special scientific interest. The right planning policies are in place, it believes, but are not being backed up by decisions made by the secretary of state.
The coalition points to examples such as Dover District Council’s approval of 521 houses partly within the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The secretary of state’s refusal to call in the application was in contravention of government policy on designated areas, the coalition complains.
The report also points out that local plans have taken much longer to put in place than the 12-month transitional period that local authorities were given and highlights research by the Local Government Association and National Trust which showed that over 40 per cent of councils do not have an adopted plan.
A growing number of decisions suggest that the presumption in favour of sustainable development is being used to prioritise the allocation of greenfield land for housing over the interests of the environment, the coalition says.
More than 30 major planning applications for new housing have been allowed at appeal in the countryside since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the report states. These are "based on a facile exercise of prioritising benefits over harm," the report states.
The report also highlights concerns that:
- Planning guidance on onshore oil and gas and renewable energy was published without consultation.
- The government has allowed large-scale development on Best and Most Versatile agricultural land, which is safeguarded under the NPPF.
- Neighbourhood plans are being undermined by inconsistent support from local authorities and lack of funding for advice for communities.
Wildlife and Countryside Link’s director Elaine King said: "We’re told an economy in crisis is a higher priority than nature in crisis. Yet the government is missing a huge opportunity – a healthy environment helps the economy and enhances people’s health and wellbeing."
A Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesman said: "While this report acknowledges some of our achievements to date, many of the criticisms are unjustified and based on opinion, not facts. Our ambitions are long term and we are making good progress."