Time to Rewild the Planning System

Experts are calling for ‘wildbelts’ to become part of UK planning strategy.

In September, prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to bring an additional 400,000 hectares of England’s countryside - equal to the combined size of the Lake District and South Downs national parks - under protection by 2030. This would mean 30 per cent of the UK’s land would be protected.

The prime minister was among the group of more than 60 world leaders who signed the ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’, and made the announcement at the pledge’s launch last month. “We cannot afford to dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today and it is happening at a frightening rate,” Johnson said.

Unfortunately, the figures used in the announcement are misleading, as the government is including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in this figure – these are landscape not wildlife designations. Only about 8 per cent of land in England is designated as a protected area for conservation.

So, experts at The Wildlife Trusts have a new proposal to increase this. The charity has suggested a new designation of land, ‘wildbelts’, which would offer protection for plots that are of ‘low biodiversity value’ and invest in them to help wildlife populations recover.

“What we want to do is reach 30 per cent of land restored for nature by 2030,” explains Elliot Chapman-Jones, public affairs manager at The Wildlife Trusts. “The wildbelt concept is trying to create a new designation that goes beyond the sites we already have and protect the nature that we need for the future.”

One of the aims of the wildbelt concept is to increase access to nature, which is “deeply unequal across the country at the moment, and that’s really increasing health inequalities”, says Chapman-Jones. “What wildbelt can do is allow local authorities or communities to identify bits of land near them - whether it’s brownfield land, poor agricultural land - and transform it into a nature reserve,” he adds.

In reference to the government's inclusion of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in their 30 per cent figure, Chapman-Jones says “Many of these places are severely depleted of wildlife because of overgrazing, poor management or intensive agricultural practices and won’t deliver the recovery of nature. In fact, on average, the condition of sites of special scientific interest [a biodiversity designation] inside national parks and AONBs is worse than it is outside.”

Ultimately, the aim is to see wildbelts become a key feature of planning new developments. Chapman-Jones points to an example of how incorporating wildbelt areas into new projects might look in practice. At Cambourne housing development in Cambridgeshire, the developer left 60 per cent of the site, which was formerly agricultural land, to nature.

Making such practices part of planning policy would show the government is serious about improving the UK’s biodiversity, and “make sure that its domestic agenda matches the words it’s saying on the international scene”, he says.

Wildlife Trusts believes the planning system should protect and help wildlife - but it's not.  Their website says: We have wanted to see changes to the planning system for some time, so nature is given more priority. But it looks like proposed changes that have been put forward will only make a bad situation much worse: failing nature, people, and local democracy too. 

The changes are set out in the Government's Planning White Paper 'Planning for the Future' which is currently under consultation. Our assessment also shows they fail to address climate change, the ecological emergency, and growing health inequalities. They need some underpinning principles to set them on the right track, otherwise they will make a wilder future impossible!

The campaign is asking members of the public to respond to the government’s consultation on proposed planning reforms by calling to introduce a wildbelt designation for land. If you want to lend your support, and find out more, click here

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