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Critically discuss the ability of UK planning processes to deliver positive environmental outcomes.
If one considers the most profound changes in the social and physical conditions attached to human existence, one would have to suggest that the land use dimensions, including the shift to sedentary agriculture, the Industrial Revolution and large-scale urbanisation, are the most significant. However, it is important to understand that land is more than a mere material base. Indeed, Gladwin et al (1995) described land as a diverse, contradictory property with both social and cultural meanings that are mixed with human labour, the biotic community and a land ethic. From this it is easy to understand why land use has been the subject of persistent political struggle over the years and why it is challenging in both theory and practice to ensure sustainable development, whilst also taking into account the needs of a growing population. The eco-modernist interpretation of sustainable development encourages the use eco-efficient building materials and heat and power sources, and encourages doing more with less (Banerjee, 2003). Whilst this has shown that there is a theoretical possibility that energy and material intensity can be reduced, therefore reducing the environmental impact of population and industrial growth, this somewhat simplified approach does not take into consideration the relationships between land, the environment and economic activity (Baker, 2007).
The focus on pollution and resource consumption by many ecological modernist theorists has failed to address the intrinsic qualities of the non-human world that are generally the cause of many conflicts over the use of greenbelt land (Hajer and Versteeg, 2005). Part of the problem lies in the way in which the development of land and environmental change causes uncertain effects. These effects are generally caused through the multiplicity of direct, indirect and cumulative processes that are difficult to predict (Hudson, 2005). These processes operate within economic, political and legal dimensions, with many crossing over between a number of jurisdictions. Whilst interactions between proximal land uses have historically concentrated on the effects of pollution, odour and noise on the human population, it is only recently that consideration has been taken over the effects of these environmental problems on the local flora and fauna and the wider scale sustainability of vulnerable species (Scully-Russ, 2012). From this it can be seen that land use and sustainability go hand in hand. As such, it is deemed necessary to focus attention on the planning processes and regulations currently utilised within the UK. The remainder of this essay will consider the way in which UK planning processes have been designed to protect the environment before critically discussing the reasons that they fail.
Sustainable development: the need for planning
The concept of sustainable development emerged in the late 1980s with Brundtland et al (1987), followed closely by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), forming the view that it is necessary to consider planning applications as interrelated processes that need to take into account the needs of both human and nonhuman residents (Barkemeyer et al, 2014). This encouraged the development of national sustainability plans, whilst Agenda 21 of the UNCED encouraged the environmentally sound physical planning of sustainable development within urban areas (Jabareen, 2006). These planning and sustainability ideas were rapidly incorporated into local government policy. In the UK, these ideas encouraged a new environmental movement that saw local councils considering the environmental impact on both urban and rural developments (Jabareen, 2006). Indeed, by the start of the 1990s, nearly 75% of all councils within the UK had developed a green charter that recognised the need for environmental planning to mitigate against issues such as global warming, the destruction of the rainforest and depletion of the ozone layer as well as considering the impacts such a development would have on the local environment (Barkemeyer et al, 2014).
The emerging concepts of sustainability and the connections with the planning process were often outside of the statutory domain; however, incentives from central government, which supported sustainable development and controlled land use planning often encouraged the development of local policies (Cowell and Lennon, 2014). These local policies, along with international commitments, were rapidly incorporated into legislation, with the UK’s first official sustainable development White Paper urging planning authorities to consider the environmental effects of all planning policies (Cowell and Lennon, 2014). In the same year, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 ensured that all planning applications considered the conservation, natural beauty and amenity of the land. This act also encouraged improved traffic management and changes to the physical environment within both urbanised and rural areas in order to deliver sustainable land use change.
Despite the UK Government generally falling short of making sustainable development a legal requirement of all planning laws, they have developed a number of Acts that can be called upon in certain situations. These include the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 (Wilkinson et al, 2013). Section 121(1) of this latter act places responsibility on the National Assembly for Wales to set out proposals for the promotion of sustainable development within the Welsh region. However, more recently there has been an international emergence of the ecosystem assessment approach to land planning. This approach is promoted to ensure that the true value of the environment is taken into account during all decision-making processes (Adelle et al, 2012). The key concept of the ecosystem assessment approach is that natural ecosystems provide significant benefit, in both health and economy, to human society. Numerous proponents of the ecosystem services approach describe how the method would benefit the spatial planning of habitats to help deliver ecosystem services (Medcalf et al, 2012), in environmental assessment (Wilkinson et al, 2013) and in order to plan for a more environmentally friendly urban development (Baker et al, 2013). The following section of this paper will consider the problems encountered by UK planners in balancing the needs of an expanding population and the potential impacts on the environment.
In order to highlight the issues associated with planning and environmental protection, it is deemed necessary to utilise a number of case studies in which planning departments have clashed with developers. The first of these cases occurred in the early 1990s in the county of Berkshire and was described by Cowell and Owens (1998). Berkshire County Council received a planning application to expand the capacity of a construction minerals extraction quarry to 2.5 million tonnes per year. The application was supported by central government, who at that time had apportioned a share of projected national demand for construction aggregate to each county. However, Berkshire County Council was concerned about the environmental consequences of this increased carrying capacity and decided that to meet the share of aggregate demand would be unsustainable for their region as it would breach the county’s environmental capacity. In order to reach this decision, the county planning department used a methodology that involved an assessment of environmental suitability at the quarry. This methodology included a traditional sieve analysis, a process of strategic choice and public engagement. In their report, Berkshire Planning Authority stated that the protection of environmental features within the county was vital and the conservation value of the broader environment outweighed the economic benefits of such a development. The planning authorities stated that the environmental capacity of the area would be breached and that this environment capacity was based on the county council’s judgements about the compensatable and critical environmental capital within the county. As such they framed sustainable development by identifying the environmental limits of the area. Indeed, Berkshire Planning Authority asserted that the level of aggregate supply should fall by 3% per year from 1996 to 2011.
As was expected, the quarry company appealed the decision and the planning enquiry inspector sided with industry. The appeal report criticised Berkshire Planning Authority for ignoring the economic, local and national need for aggregates. The enquiry inspector did find the planning authority’s explanation of environmental capacity and the need for sustainable development persuasive; however, the report suggests that there is lack of demonstration on why the county could not maintain production of construction aggregates at 2.5 million tonnes per year. As such, the enquiry inspector agreed with the objections made by the quarry company that the concept of critical environmental capital and environmental capacity carried no weight within current realms of planning policy. The planning decision was therefore overturned.
The second case study also occurred in Berkshire where a major international company applied for planning permission to build its new headquarters in a green field location (Parker and Street, 2015). The plans immediately raised objections from local residents and environmental pressure groups who claimed that congestion and pollution would increase if the company’s headquarters was located in this area as well as damaging sensitive wildlife habitats. These opponents claimed that the government planning guidelines, which sought to reduce dependency on cars, would be flouted if the planning application was granted. However, the Planning Authority was significantly influenced by the company’s ‘green transport’ plan and the potential employment and economic benefits that such a development would bring. Therefore, following acrimonious debate, planning permission was granted without any formal environmental assessment being carried out in the area.
In the Cairngorms, a planning application to develop a tourist funicular railway, to carry passengers to the peak of the mountains, was met with much resistance (Warren, 2002). Initially, the Planning Authority sought to reject the application, claiming that such a development would encourage more visitors to the remote area and damage an ecologically vulnerable area. However, pressure from other council departments, who saw opportunity for economic growth, additional employment and future potential development, forced the Planning Authority to grant permission, regardless of the extensive Environmental Impact Assessment that had been carried out by the Planning Authority proving that the development would cause considerable harm to the sensitive habitats of this area.
Despite these case studies showing significant failures in the UK’s planning regulations, there is one instance where the environmental value of a particular area was successfully defended. This final case study occurred within the cathedral city of Salisbury (Parker and Street, 2015). The Planning Authority received an application from the Highways Agency to construct a bypass that would reduce congestion within the city centre. This was in line with the County Council’s green plans to reduce pollution within the area. However, the route of the proposed bypass would bisect the environmentally important water meadows surrounding the city. These water meadows provided the habitat for a large number of migratory wading birds and were considered environmentally important areas. However, the subsequent public enquiry supported the application, claiming significant benefits for the city if the bypass was built. As such, a number of government advisory bodies on nature conservation and landscape protection were consulted in order to find ways in which to mitigate the impacts of the bypass on the wetland areas. These advisory bodies found that there were no measures that could be adopted that would effectively protect the sensitive habitats and mitigation, for the damage could not be advised. This led the Planning Authority to refuse the application and forced the Highways Agency to consider alternative routes.
In conclusion, it can be seen that, despite sustainable development being at the forefront of the planning regulations, pressure from industry and the need for economic growth has a tendency to sway Planning Authority decisions. Despite all local and county councils now having green plans and sustainable development plans which encourage protection of the local landscape and environment, many are not being fully utilised. It is considered that until sustainable development is incorporated into national policy and regulations, then the needs for economic growth will always outweigh the needs of the environment. In addition, it is considered that whilst there are ways in which human impacts on the environment can be mitigated against, in many instances these opportunities are not fully taken due to the cost implications associated with adopting many of these mitigation measures. Therefore it is concluded that current UK planning regulations do not hold enough weight to successfully protect the environment.
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