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4% of Devon faces a new threat: but it doesn't have to be this way

Posted: Wednesday 25th April 2018 by DevonWildlifeTrust

Devon's 2,200 Local Wildlife Sites face a new threat. Photo, Andy Roe

The Government's National Planning and Policy Framework doesn't include Local Wildlife Sites. This oversight threatens some of Devon's most precious landscapes. We must reverse this oversight but we all need to act now, says DWT's Chief Executive Harry Barton

I’m standing a few miles south of Dartmoor and looking into a steep wooded valley. At this time of year the trees are a myriad shade of yellow, brown and green, with the odd shot of bright blossomy pink, as their billowy canopies envelop the landscape. You can distinguish each individual tree, from the bare brown skeletons that have yet to shrug off winter to those that have already burst into full leaf. It’s raucous with birdsong, the ground is peppered white with wood anemone and wood sorrel, and the river tumbles through moss laden boulders into deep black pools.

30,000 hectares of Devon faces a new threat

This woodland is one of 2,200 Local Wildlife Sites in Devon. Along with the better known Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), these are the best areas of wildlife we have. As well as woodland, they include Culm grassland, meadows, coastline, heath, mires and a wealth of other habitats. They range in size from a couple of acres to whole valleys and are spread right across the county, covering 4% of its land area. Or 30,000 hectares, which is six times the size of Exeter. The Devon Biological Records Centre estimates that the true amount of habitat of this quality is probably twice as much – if only we could get to it and survey it all.

Local Wildlife Sites are the “bits in between”, having escaped conversion to highly productive farmland, commercial forestry, or being subsumed under concrete. They are where most of our wildlife still resides. But unlike SSSIs, they aren’t legally protected. Last year alone we know of ten sites that were destroyed and another five damaged in Devon. There are lots of reasons for this destruction – agricultural improvement, built development, neglect. The level of damage would be much higher if it weren’t for the fact that they have some protection through the land use planning system.

Modest safeguards for our wildlife are about to be removed

But even this modest protection is now under threat. The draft new version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the government guidance to which local authorities and developers must comply, has removed all mention of Local Wildlife Sites. This would mean that developers could damage or destroy any number of these sites with total impunity. There would be no requirement for mitigation, no obligation to find alternative sites.

Built development isn’t the only threat to Local Wildlife Sites in Devon. But think of how many houses are scheduled to be constructed in the coming years. Across the UK, more than 2,000 square kilometres of countryside was built upon between 2006 - 2012 alone. Over the next 25 years it is likely that another 250,000 houses will be built in Devon – equivalent to a city the size of Plymouth. It’s frightening to contemplate just how many more Local Wildlife Sites could be lost if there is no requirement to take them into account.

Why is this happening?

Why is this recipe for environmental destruction being proposed? Some of the less scrupulous building companies have lobbied government hard for the removal of Wildlife Sites from the NPPF. Perhaps they feel that protecting the natural environment stifles economic growth. But that isn’t born out by the facts. After publicly claiming that wildlife protection rules were placing “ridiculous costs on British businesses” in 2012, the then chancellor George Osborne set up a review. The results were not what he expected – less than 0.5% of the 26,500 land use consultations received from business each year ended in rejections. The figure is low because most development proposals can quite easily make space for wildlife if they plan for it, as the current rules require.

Viewing wildlife protection as a constraint on economic growth is very short-sighted. There is ample evidence to show that people want to live in areas with high quality, accessible green space, and that people are less stressed and learning outcomes for children are better when they have access to these spaces. And many of these sites help protect our soils, purify our water, shield us from flooding and lock up carbon. Protecting our wildlife sites is not an expensive luxury, it is good for us all, and if we take the trouble to think long term, it’s good for the economy too.

We can all make a difference by acting now

Fortunately, the NPPF is only in draft form, so this isn’t a certainty. The government is currently consulting on the new version. If enough of us respond to the consultation and tell our local MPs that we want our Wildlife Sites protected, then the policy-makers in Westminster will have to listen. We can reverse the decision to remove mention of Wildlife Sites. Perhaps we could do even more and demand higher levels of protection than what we currently have. Because without our Local Wildlife Sites there is little chance of us leaving the natural environment in a better state than we found it.

The Govenrment’s consultation on the NPPF closes on 10th May 2018.

You can make your views known to Government.

or by writing to:
Planning Policy Consultation Team
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
3rd floor, South East
Fry Building
2 Marsham Street
London
SW1P 4DF

And if you want some guidance on how to reply we've pout together this useful short guidance.

Whatever root you take, please act swiftly to help wildlife by the 10th May deadline. Thank you. 

Read DevonWildlifeTrust's latest blog entries.

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