With all the furore over the NPPF and just how bad it will be for the environment, it is easy to forget that the current planning system is still failing to protect the very best surviving areas of nature, for wildlife or anything else.
Heading up to London on the train a couple of weeks ago, to what was the last England Biodiversity Group meeting in its current moribund form, I was talking to a Butterfly Conservation colleague about the NPPF and he mentioned a planning case they have been involved in.
The case revolved around the last surviving fragment of countryside within the boundary of Bicester, a market town just on the Oxfordshire side of the border with Buckinghamshire (and home to what may become an ecotown though it has lost that moniker). The area is called Gavray Drive Meadows and is a large Local Wildlife Site principally for Lowland Meadow – a priority habitat legally defined in the NERC Act.
That area of Bucks/Oxon is known for its lowland meadows and has some very special sites like Otmoor and the Upper Ray valley meadow restoration project, which I helped germinate when I was working at BBONT 20 years ago. The wildlife value of Gavray Drive Meadows had been recognised by consultants working for the council when they were developing their local plan, but that advice was ignored and the meadows were zoned for employment use in the late 1990s. After a failed attempt to build a factory on part of the site, the zoning was then altered to housing in the early 2000s. After a long and controversial planning process, an outline application for 500 homes and associated infrastructure was approved on appeal in 2006.
This permission lapsed after 5 years earlier this year and an application was made to renew the permission. Meanwhile survey work by Butterfly Conservation had found evidence that European-protected species Marsh Fritillary were using the site. They also found all five native hairstreak butterflies present on the site – something they think may be unique in England. Brown and Black hairstreak are both rare but are not “priority” species; white-letter hairstreak is in freefall as it depends on elm; it is a priority species under the NERC Act.
As well as destroying marsh fritillary habitat, BC contend that the proposal will seriously affect the scrub habitat which the hairstreaks depend on, as well as destroying nearly 6 ha of lowland meadow habitat (over half of the area of Local Wildlife Site within the development boundary). And some of these meadows are the extremely rare (around 1000ha left in the UK) and Habitats Directive-listed floodplain meadows grassland. The Floodplain Meadows Partnership is an excellent national grassland project working to conserve these wonderful meadows
Although the proposal states that under half of the meadows within the devleopment will be retained within the development, it is difficult to imagine how the special qualities of the grassland will be protected, especially the hydrology of damp and flood meadows, which is intrinsic to their wildlife value. In reality these fields will become public open space and everything that that implies – eutrophication from dog walking, councillors requiring neat regularly mown grass etc. It will certainly be a challenge to manage these meadows in a way that does maintain their current wildlife and ecosystem services values.
Now this all happened at a time when the Cherwell LDF core strategy (policy SD8) has policies stating that development causing damage or loss of a biodiversity site would not be permitted “unless the benefits of the development clearly outweigh the harm it would cause to the site” and the loss can be mitigated to achieve a net gain for biodiversity.
So when Cherwell District Council approved the application, one of the conditions they placed on it was that there should be a “net gain in biodiversity”. How can a planning development achieve a net gain in biodiversity, when it causes the destruction of 6ha of priority grassland habitat and the loss of a site supporting one possibly 2 priority butterfly species and two other rare ones? And there wasn’t even any mention of requiring mitigation through biodiversity offsetting or anything else. The Council and developers argue that, because the meadows have been neglected while the arguments over development have raged for the past 15 years or so, destroying half of them and turning the other half into public open space will somehow mitigate that loss. Is is hardly even worth bothering to point how this is so wrong.
There is no debate now, as far as I can see, that the NPPF will significantly weaken the policy context in which Local Wildlife Sites can be protected through Local Plans. This is because everything has to be seen through the lens of “promoting [sustainable] development”. Yes those are my brackets, because until Sustainable Development is clearly defined, it will be just mean development. But we shouldn’t forget that the current system is failing to protect our very best wildlife either.
If anyone wants to look at the detail of this case the reference number of 10/01667/OUT
Thanks to Dominic Woodfield at Bioscan for information about this case.