Red lines, green lines

I was interested to hear this morning’s reports that the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust are saying they could urge their millions of members “to take to the streets in demonstrations” over the Government’s attack on nature.

It strongly takes me back to 2011-12, at a time England was threatened with having its planning guidance scrapped and replaced with a 50-page framework giving developers a much freer hand and scrapping important things like brownfield-first for house building. A “practitioners’ draft” of the framework in the spring of 2011 had already shown just how dangerous the move could be.

Then, as now, the wildlife bodies with their huge membership led the opposition. Early in 2012, a group of wildlife and conservation bodies published a set of “red lines”, beyond which they warned the Government not to go.

The 2012 red lines, published by the Wildlife & Countryside Link umbrella body, were as follows:-

  • Sustainable development must be defined in line with the current UK Sustainable Development Strategy;
  • The presumption in favour of sustainable development must be designed to promote development that is sustainable, rather than development at any cost;
  • The natural environment must be properly and consistently protected;
  • The NPPF must achieve Smart Growth, meaning growth that makes efficient use of land, utilises existing infrastructure and reduces the need to travel.

They warned that proceeding with the then draft National Planning Policy Framework would take decision making away from town halls and put it in the hands of inspectors.

It was good to see Smart Growth included as a number environmental bodies were strongly and publicly committed to it. Some still are.

But when the final NPPF was imposed in March 2012, it had had some fine words about sustainability and conservation added, but important things like brownfield-first had gone.

Powerful prescriptions to make councils release greenfield land for house building were firmly in place and these have pretty much trumped the NPPF‘s fine words ever since. Today, inspectors pack far more punch than local planning authorities; councils know it and often don’t bother fighting.

The NPPF’s Orwellian “presumption in favour of sustainable development” proved to be what it remains – a perfect way of undermining sustainable development. One or two bodies hailed the final version of the NPPF as a great victory at the time. It wasn’t and the red lines achieved very little.

Fast forward a decade and we have a new set of “red lines”:-

  • The Government should prioritise green growth (including the 440,000 green jobs promised in the Net Zero Strategy);
  • Any changes to existing laws must not water down critical protections for the environment and heritage;
  • New investment zones must not create grey zones devoid of nature or historic character in which people have no say about the development that impacts them;
  • New farm payments must keep the same level of commitment to reward farmers for public goods, from cleaner rivers to healthier soils and protecting our cultural heritage;
  • Government should listen and collaborate with the public, as well as conservation charities, farming groups, businesses and others who can inform decision making on what they propose;
  • Any changes to Government and its agencies must not adversely affect their ability to deliver on manifesto commitments, such as protecting 30% of the UK’s land for nature by 2030;
  • The Government must stay true to its net zero legal obligation and strategy – but fracking is not the answer.

I leave it to readers to compare the two sets, though the absence of Smart Growth policies is plainly a significant loss.

I will limit myself at this stage by repeating what I said last month – that the environmental opposition needs to go far beyond “nature” (however broadly defined) and must take in transport, water, wastewater, flood control and many housing, agricultural, energy and heritage issues.

These are all central to the way we use our land and are potentially under serious threat.

Jon Reeds