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The planet vs planning

Planning has long been an area for debate and February signalled a great deal of change, with Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) legislation coming into force and new proposed guidance from Michael Gove relating to the regeneration of brownfield sites. Here, Paul Staley, managing director of leading single-family-housing build-to-rent provider Wise Living, discusses the new challenges that arise from mixing biodiversity and planning.

The unfortunate planning officer under more pressure

It’s no secret that the built environment has been facing tough times recently with a mixture of national and international factors all combining to create supply chain issues, material shortages, and a recession. Generating momentum that will push applications through the planning pipeline to build more houses is always welcome and could result, in part, from Michael Gove’s recent proposals.

The continued challenge for planning officers is the balance of National initiatives with local sentiment as well as the opinion of numerous advisory bodies that require input into all planning decisions such as highways, environmental agencies, agrobiologists, archaeologists, and more. It’s unclear which parts of the bureaucracy Gove is planning on reducing in his consultation, but I expect many of the current reports that are required by those parties will need to remain. It’ll be interesting to see which lines are drawn with this new legislation in place.

As in most public services, planning departments have been underfunded and undervalued for many years and countless government initiatives and meddling in planning has only increased the pressures on an already overworked and under resourced department.  Additionally, more resources and training for all levels within planning departments is much needed, increasing staff retention and output. A fast-track appeals process to help unblock existing schemes is also a good idea to ease the tension as well. The trouble is a growing number of Local Authorities are facing financial issues and are therefore having to run on limited resources. This is naturally widening the gap between what they hope to, and what they realistically can achieve.

The planet vs planning

Add to this the recent Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) legislation that finally came into effect in February. There is no doubt that the BNG requirements that have been introduced are of benefit to the environment. However, we also can’t deny that it gives another layer of consideration to developers and planners who are already under pressure while navigating the red tape wrapped around the planning pipeline. This could turn into both initiatives clashing with each other providing more opportunity for pontification and delays.

It may feel counter intuitive, but there are also multiple cases where brownfield sites are more bio-diversified than greenbelt locations. Sites that have been disused for a long time often are reconquered by nature, with many micro habitats forming for bugs, birds, wildlife and fauna. Because of this, it can be more difficult for biodiversity net gains to be made when redeveloping, more so than a greenbelt field that’s only used for pasture, for instance.

Which should take precedent?

Half of CO2 emissions come from the built environment so to meet our ambitious net zero goals change needs to happen here. However, change won’t occur if we’re hampered and hamstrung from immobility. There is cause for hope – the situation isn’t as dire as some headlines and soap box speakers make it out to be. The data is starting to tell us that a revival in planning applications across residential and commercial properties is starting to occur. But as we now know 2023 was a recession, it’s not a time for half measures.

I’ll be the first to admit I have a vested interest. I anticipate we will see a flurry of new entrants to the SFH BTR market in 2024, alongside increased activity for those already involved as investors re-address and re-balance their portfolios. Many of these sites will be under the effect of what I’ve discussed above. Climate change is not the only crisis the UK is facing today; the housing crisis should deserve equal consideration because only when people have a home will they consider the best course of action to protect not just their own interests, but their planet’s as well.

The majority of homes in the UK are more than 60 years old, with around one in five being built more than a century ago. The energy inefficiency levels of these properties have an astoundingly far-reaching effect on their occupiers’ finances, health, and wellbeing. Comparative to new build properties, the difference is night and day.

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