Ensuring National Parks benefit from planning reforms

Our Policy and Research Manager Ruth Bradshaw writes:

In the last six months National Parks have demonstrated their value to the nation even more clearly than ever, with huge numbers of people visiting both immediately before and after lockdown, seeking fresh air, tranquillity, and opportunities for relaxation or exciting physical challenges. And, of course, these areas continue to have a crucial role to play in addressing the ongoing ecological and climate emergencies.

These many benefits of National Parks are highlighted in Julian Glover’s Landscapes Review which makes a series of proposals for ensuring these areas deliver even more for nature, people and climate in the future. But as we have just seen the first anniversary of the launch of the Glover report (on 21 September 2020) and await the Government’s response to it, there are signs that not everyone appreciates the importance of National Parks despite the increased profile they have had recently.

On 6 August 2020, the Government published Planning for the Future which sets out plans for a major reform of the planning system in England. These include proposals to change key aspects of the current system which have been in place for decades and which play a critically important part in the protection and enhancement of our National Parks and the well-being of the communities who live in them. But this document (which uses the same title as our own 2016 report on planning!) makes almost no reference to National Parks, a worrying omission given that National Park Authorities (NPAs) have responsibility for both plan-making and planning decisions in their area.

We have lots of questions about the proposed changes. How will National Parks be treated under the new system for allocating land to one of three categories – growth; renewal; and protected? Will all land in National Parks be designated as ‘protected’ areas where planning permission would still be required in recognition of their 'particular environmental or cultural characteristics'? There is no mention of National Parks here even though they currently have the same level of planning protection as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), which are listed as one of the examples of the kinds of area that would be protected. And even if most parts of National Parks are designated as ‘protected’ land, what will happen in their settings if adjoining areas become ‘renewal’ areas where a more limited permission process will apply, or even ‘growth’ areas where  there will be automatic permission for certain types of development?

While there is insufficient detail to judge some of the Government’s proposals, what is clear is that they are missing an opportunity to address weaknesses in the current planning system, which means that National Parks are not always delivering as much for nature, climate and people as they could be. Reform of the planning system presents an important opportunity to implement key proposals from the Glover Review which would help strengthen the existing protections for designated landscapes, such as ensuring that all relevant partners from all relevant sectors are taking their responsibility towards these areas seriously.

There is currently a statutory duty on all public bodies to have regard to the statutory purposes of designated landscapes when making decisions which affect land within these areas (often referred to as the ‘Section 62 duty’). This means, for example, that a local planning authority for an area adjacent to a National Park should be considering any impacts on the Park when making planning decisions for areas close to the boundary. But the existing duties to ‘have regard’ are the weakest form of duty that can be imposed as they require only that there must be some consideration of the purposes of the National Park, not that any weight needs to be given to those purposes. Given the importance of National Parks to the nation, it is unacceptable that there are such weak duties in these cases. It is also inconsistent with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which requires that ‘[g]reat weight should be given to conserving and enhancing landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to these issues …’ (para. 172 of the revised 2018 NPPF).

We have long been calling for a strengthened Section 62 duty and included a request for this in our submission of evidence to the Landscapes Review back in December 2018. So we were delighted to see that the final report includes a proposal to strengthen the duty of ‘regard’ to National Park purposes to one of ‘furthering’ the purposes. In addition, Glover proposes introducing a statutory requirement on relevant bodies to support the development and implementation of Management Plans for National Parks and AONBs. This is something else we strongly support, as it will ensure that all relevant partners are taking a more active role in the protection and improvement of National Parks.

Adopting these and other relevant Glover proposals would ensure National Parks deliver even more benefits for the nation in future. So if the Government is serious about meeting its commitments to National Parks, including those set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, it really should use the opportunity to introduce these changes as part of its planning reforms.  

 

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue of Harnser, the magazine of the Broads Society.