Biodiversity and Ecosystems enquiry
This is a response from the Natural Environment Committee of the Romsey and District Society. The Society is a local Civic Society and is a registered charity. Our committee, among other tasks. monitors local planning applications and comments on any adverse impacts on the natural environment.
We have watched in dismay as sites that are supposedly not compliant with local planning policy have succeeded in gaining planning permission either because of weaknesses in the legislation or the cynical behaviour of a minority of developers. There have been occasions where an application for such a site has been refused by the local authority, only to be overridden by an Inspector on appeal. There are also cases where land approved for development has seen delays in building; one local town centre site has been building one or two houses per year to keep its permission alive, whilst lying mostly derelict. The result is that more developments have to be approved to meet the resulting unmet targets. A penalty for not completing a development within a stated time without good reason would be helpful.
Until now sites appear to have been assessed on their individual merits without any reference to the wider implications for wildlife and their ecosystems, nor to the in-combination effects of several sites close together. Although our local authority has now developed policies for a green infrastructure, this mainly identifies sites which currently need to be protected because they have a statutory designation.
There do not currently seem to be the resources to identify the green corridors that would link these with local Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCS) or to identify how local natural greenspace such as farmland managed for diversity could be designated to fulfil this function.
In the meantime, the local plan with its requirement to build new homes is led by landowners and developers who not unreasonably want to maximise their returns. There is therefore no control over when and where sites are developed other than through the local plan and even then there are loopholes which mean that unsuitable developments are sometimes approved on appeal even if they are rejected locally. It is important that policies in local plans include designated routes to be protected to form these green corridors together with a means of enabling them to happen. Locally nitrate pollution of the Solent has held up development projects for several years. We understand that a solution has been found whereby the developers would have to pay a levy which the Wildlife Trust would use to purchase intensively farmed land and to manage it in a sustainable way, thus cancelling out the nitrate effect of the development. This might be an idea that could be extended nationally to create green corridors.
There has been a huge drop in the number of insects and creating natural flower rich grassland would be hugely beneficial to the whole food chain.
There should be a requirement for all large developments to deal with surface water run off via open ditches and ponds to provide opportunities for wildlife and to reduce flood risk.
Trees should be included in new developments to create shade and increase biodiversity. They should be in the public areas so that they are not felled or drastically pruned by the householders without good reason.
Currently new homes are complying with existing regulations and are achieving a B or C rating. This means that every new home is contributing additional emissions at a time when we are supposed to be reducing them. Obviously we need to find a way of improving existing housing stock but we should also be making progress towards building carbon neutral homes. We were hopeful that the new building regulations contained in the Future Homes Standard would start to be introduced this spring but have not heard any more about this.
The government recently announced that it is to sweep away yet more planning ‘red tape’. Any measures to make it easier to build should also require more meaningful measures to compensate for the loss of greenspace and deliver net ecological gain. Net ecological gain is often claimed by the addition of a few nesting boxes for birds and/or bats, or by sowing wildflower lawns. Biodiversity gains need to be sustained; it is all too easy for a householder to treat their wildflower lawn with weedkiller because it looks tidier. Likewise, it is really not sound ecologically to apply weedkiller to an area before seeding it with wild flowers to achieve some sort of biodiversity; far better to leave it to see what emerges.
During the recent lockdown people became very aware of their local environment and the value of nature. This needs to be harnessed to take forward bold proposals to slow and eventually reverse the catastrophic decline we are witnessing.