Examination of Witnesses

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:10 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Dr Benwell:

It is definitely not a missed opportunity yet, because we are only at the start of the process. I would say it is a huge opportunity to tackle two important environmental problems associated with planning and levelling up.

The first of these is environmental inequality. We think of the levelling-up agenda as being about economic inequality, but we live in a country of really deep environmental inequality. We have probably all heard the statistic that there are 40,000 premature deaths a year from air pollution, but it can vary street by street, let alone town by town. It goes deeper than that, because there is environmental inequality in things like access to natural green space, which has been brought to the fore over the past couple of years when so many people have depended on it. Those inequalities are, again, really deep. People from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are nine times less likely to have access to high-quality natural green spaces, which is hugely important for our physical and mental health. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are twice as likely to live in places that are bereft of access to natural green space.

At a wider level, there are deeper environmental inequalities still. Think, for example, of folk living in areas where degraded uplands mean that water flows more quickly over surfaces, flooding homes and businesses. Think of the same in urban areas, where densification and the use of impermeable surfaces is increasing flood risk and other environmental risks. There are huge levelling-up aspects to environmental inequality, which this Bill is an opportunity to fix.

Secondly, the planning system can help us environmentally through its impact on nature. We know that more than 40% of species are in long-term decline, and 15% of species here in Great Britain are at risk of extinction. The last “State of Nature” report made it clear that planning and unsustainable development play a big role in that. The Bill is a chance to make sure that, in future, the planning system is not imbalanced as it so often has been in the past when it focused on things like housing numbers alone. We need to balance that with the need for spatial planning and careful development that contributes to nature’s recovery. At the moment though, those opportunities have not been realised. On the contrary, some provisions in the Bill will do quite the opposite and bring in new environmental risks.

I will quickly address how to grasp those opportunities. It would be excellent if, among the levelling-up missions set in clause 1, you included access to a healthy natural environment. I was really surprised to see that the levelling-up White Paper’s list of capitals included human capital, financial capital, intellectual capital and social capital but not natural capital. Not to list environmental capital as one of those fundamental assets reflects a 1980s philosophy, really. So we should have access to a good-quality natural environment as a levelling-up mission, and a duty on public bodies to help people achieve that with access to natural green space.

On improving the planning system, there are some obvious missed wins there, such as making sure that planning and development decisions are in line with section 1 of the Environment Act 2021 and section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008, to meet our carbon budgets and halt nature’s decline by 2030. You could go further, with things like implementing the findings of the Glover review to improve the contribution of national parks to restoring nature here in the UK. So there are some really missed opportunities for positive planning.

On the negative side, I do not know whether we will touch on this later, but although the environmental outcome reports proposed in the Bill sound positive in principle for the natural environment, the way they are framed risks undermining some of our most important conservation laws. Those clauses and that part of the Bill need some attention to make sure they do what I think they are intended to do, which is to add a new layer of protection, not to weaken our long-standing, important environmental protections in this country.