The Countryside Agency's valuable seven-year reign is over. From this month, its sustainable development remit will be split between the regional development agencies (RDAs), the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) and Natural England.
DEFRA's draft statutory guidance to Natural England on regional planning matters is now out for consultation until 6 December. The guidance, required under section 15 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, is intended to be "strategic, light touch and based on what DEFRA expects of Natural England regarding its involvement in regional planning".
A strong regional voice is seen as important in achieving the agency's purpose. Broad sustainable development objectives are replaced by a focus on seeking solutions which, while achieving environmental benefits, should also provide long-term economic and social advantages.
Natural England will be expected to improve understanding of the natural environment by promoting its research findings to a wide audience. It will also monitor and report on the state of the environment in each English region. This arrangement complements the annual state of the countryside reports to be produced by the CRC.
The draft guidance urges Natural England to advise regional decision-makers on how to maximise the positive aspects of their decisions on the natural environment. But it remains unclear whether the agency will focus solely on environmental sustainability or on wider sustainability issues.
The agency will make an important input to spatial, housing, economic, transport, environmental and sustainability strategies. It will be a statutory consultee on regional spatial strategies and on certain, as yet unspecified, planning applications. It will also be asked to get involved with significant regional or national applications at an early stage.
The draft stipulates that Natural England will work closely with the RDAs and the Forestry Commission on the England Rural Development Programme.
It will advise on preparation, implementation and strategic environmental assessment of EU programmes at regional level.
The agency is also being asked to work across both rural and urban agendas, which should encourage closer links between them and other agencies, notably the DCLG. But while rural delivery frameworks are already in place, it is unclear what urban equivalents will be used to identify economic, social and environmental priorities.
At this stage, DEFRA is simply inviting the agency to "consider how best to co-ordinate its representations at sub-regional and local levels".
Perhaps funding shortages could be avoided in the short term by the use of planning delivery grant. Local authorities could pay for Natural England expertise to strengthen the environmental component of local development frameworks.
Natural England is expected to work closely with the RDAs and the CRC "to ensure that the environmental, social and economic agendas are joined up". Regular meetings between these bodies might ensure that the former Countryside Agency's integrated approach is not lost.
The high-level strategic approach proposed in the consultation draft should be supported. But Natural England should also have its feet firmly on the ground in sub-regional and local issues. Its predecessors have played important roles in supporting local planning authorities with practical guidance.
At this stage there is a need for more clarity. Natural England should find out what local planners want before deciding the best way forward.
- Statutory Guidance for Natural England on Regional Planning and Associated Matters is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.
- David Alexander is a freelance planner specialising in countryside and environmental issues.