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 would be wonderful if climate and nature were at the forefront of the Bill. A modern planning system ought to have environmental recovery embedded in its very purpose. Some of the things in the Environment Act 2021 moved us forward in thinking about compensating for environmental harm, and indeed things like biodiversity gain set a precedent, but actually some of those big sectors have a role not just in offsetting the harm that they do, but in contributing to improvement.

I know that there is some suspicion about purpose clauses in Bills, and that those are not something we do in UK law, but what you could do is to set a requirement that plans and individual decisions are compatible with nature’s recovery under section 1 of the Environment Act and with climate change mitigation under section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008.

More locally, you could take a real step forward by bringing into statute some of the things that the Government have already promised. For example, we have this excellent commitment to protect 30% of land and sea for nature. Would it not be great if the Bill were to bring that into statutory form by setting an aspiration, or a requirement on Ministers, to ensure that all sites of significant importance for nature are properly designated by 2030; and to bring in some of the exciting new proposals for things like a wild belt, a new planning designation not just to protect what we already have for nature, but to provide areas where nature could recover?

On your question about the growing environmental risks that come from climate change and nature degradation, that comes back to the question of natural capital. Really, we ought to be thinking about levelling up not just geographically, but temporally: we ought to be thinking about the concerns of future generations. This is about making sure that geography does not define destiny. If you are more likely to be flooded, less likely to breathe clean air, or going to be in a place where you cannot access clean rivers or access a positive natural environment, there ought to be something of the past; that the length, quality and happiness of your life are defined by the physical environment around you. Surely that gap, having natural capital and a healthy natural environment as one of the missions that came in the White Paper, should be filled by a clear duty in the Bill—to set that as one of the missions, when they are formally set in statute.

My final point is that with some of the questions about, for example, flood risk mitigation versus housing development and space for agricultural land, there are inevitably trade-offs. It is really difficult. We know that if we are to meet net zero, a third of that effort has to be delivered by nature-based solutions—so, finding space for land to sequester more carbon through better agricultural soils, and through more trees and wetlands.

If we are going to do that at the same time as ensuring that we have space for business and development, and space to grow enough food, we have to improve how we do spatial planning and we have to make those trade-offs explicit, and a planning system that is still weighted towards housing numbers over those other considerations is one that will never make those choices properly. A spatially explicit planning system that has nature’s recovery and climate change mitigation at its heart is one that would make a real boon of this Bill.