David Bainbridge, director in the planning team at Savills Oxford, assesses how the requirement for biodiversity is being achieved, particularly in this region.
The Thames Valley area contains rich and diverse environments, ranging from Sites of Special Scientific Interest through to local wildlife sites and priority locations for habitat and priority species.
The distribution of water voles, farmland birds and the almost ubiquitous great crested newt are just some of the species within the location.
For the foreseeable future, an average of more than 15,000 new homes along with employment land and infrastructure provision will need to be delivered within Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
This will need joined-up planning to deliver with co-ordination across local authority boundaries during a time when the Government is looking to change the planning system.
The overarching aim of planning is to achieve sustainable development. Planning considers the environmental, economic and social aspects of development. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says that these are interdependent but need to be pursued in mutually supportive ways so that opportunities can be taken to secure net gains across each of the different objectives.
As with many decisions, whether planning or political, a balance has to be sought and justified. The NPPF requires planning policy and decisions on planning applications and planning appeals to minimise impacts on, and provide net gains for, biodiversity including by establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures.
The Government has produced a metric for calculating impact on biodiversity from development which indicates whether a positive or negative impact will arise.
With a standard method and a reasonably clear national policy, achieving positive gains in biodiversity as a result of development should be readily achievable but the local policy approach is not consistent because it varies across local authorities.
Oxford City’s Local Plan requires at least five per cent improvement on biodiversity over the existing situation. The emerging Windsor and Maidenhead Local Plan which is expected to cover the period to the year 2033 seeks a net gain in biodiversity but it does not propose a specific target.
The slowly emerging Environment Bill proposes at least 10 per cent improvement, albeit with some conditions and potentially a transitional period.
In a recent planning appeal for a distribution site at Milton Keynes, the Planning Inspector gave greater weight to the local level planning policy, adopted last year, which does not set out a specific level of biodiversity net gain.
Responsible landowners and developers ensure they have up to date ecology surveys and have assessed the potential impact on biodiversity of development, responding to the policy context.
In some locations this might mean a minimal net gain, whereas in other locations, it could be significantly more. A market in land to be set aside for biodiversity associated with development has emerged and looks set to flourish.
The Environment Bill is a major piece of environmental legislation. This bill might become an Act of Parliament next year and should help bring in a clear target for biodiversity as well as many other important measures such as a nature recovery network, a framework for legally binding targets and a new domestic environmental governance system following exit of the UK from the EU.
Planning for biodiversity is not easy but it is essential to ensure targets are clear and achievable. None more so than in the Thames Valley area where development will need careful planning.
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