Michael Gove has published a 25 year plan to improve the environment. It is wide-ranging, comprehensive and aspirational. If delivered, and the lack of a real delivery programme is problematic, the plan aims for us to leave the environment a better place than we found it.
The plan contains three themes that might lead to a profound change in planning. The first is a principle that development should have a net environmental gain. On a project by project basis this could mean a development having a natural capital account setting off the environmental costs against a compensating balance for either on-site or off-site benefits. If so there will need to be a proliferation of environmental land banks and habitat improvement schemes that development can use to ensure a net gain.
The second theme involves looking at how to improve the environment. Much of the plan focuses on managing, maintaining and enhancing the natural environment. It is clear that we should be seeking opportunities to remedy past mistakes. It might be worth thinking about how this could change attitudes to, for example, brownfield sites. It might lead to a move away from the lazy assumption that brownfield sites in the countryside can simply be replaced by less ugly development. It might, instead, just mean saying “no” to the replacement of development that would never be permitted nowadays and a focus on sites that, although green, can make a better contribution to sustainable growth if carefully planned, designed and developed.
The final theme relates to the Green Belt. The language of the plan talks about making these areas more accessible, almost envisioning them as country parks. That has never been a Green Belt purpose. With changes due to the NPPF it might, however, become a future factor when changing Green Belt boundaries or when designating new Green Belts. Tying back to the first theme it might lead on to a scheme where, in exchange for planning permission, new development has to secure rights of access to Green Belt land as part of the environmental benefit offer. And where that increase in accessibility is itself part of the balance to be struck in release of other Green Belt land.
If the plan follows through on these themes it could reshape the foundations of the planning system.