Today, a consultation closes on the Government's proposed planning reforms, an area of great importance to us. Director-General Hilary McGrady outlines her thoughts on the proposals, and what this means for the future of nature, beauty and history.
Nature and heritage lift our spirits and bring us joy. Rarely have we needed these places of calm as much as we do now.
But these precious national assets are at risk. Nature is in sharp decline, and cash-strapped councils sometimes struggle to protect our local heritage and green spaces. And now these councils are also at the front line of tackling coronavirus.
The UK planning system for development has always mattered to the National Trust. Our founders fought to protect the breath-taking natural beauty of the Lake District in an age before planning controls. As national protections for heritage and nature evolved, we grew our focus to protecting country house estates and the UK’s coastline. At the heart of our work is the simple belief of our founder, Octavia Hill: ‘the need of quiet, the need of air… the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all’.
Places change. We recognise that development is necessary – we need to build many more new homes for people to live in. We also rely on the planning system for visitor centres and green energy projects. Benefactors occasionally give us land for investment purposes, and where the local circumstances are right, we sometimes release sites for housing to pay for conservation work.
The current system does need some reform. Councils need more power to tackle climate change, plant trees, restore nature, and increase access to green space and culture in our towns and cities. But we can’t rush into this without careful consideration. What’s proposed is too dismissive of what currently works, and we have concerns about the scale and pace of change.
What should we make of the proposed growth, recovery and protected areas? They shouldn’t lead to concrete deserts with no green spaces, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel. Or urban developments that unnecessarily sacrifice historic character. And if they're to work, they'll need genuine public scrutiny along the way, not just at the planning stage.
This new system would rely on a quality of data at a local level that simply doesn’t exist. How will it deal with unrecorded archaeology or the discovery of unexpected species? Where these are discovered, or there is a lack of data, councils should still be able to insist on site specific assessments.
Centrally-set housing targets should be agreed with care to avoid overwhelming areas with rapid population growth. To allow communities to thrive, they must take account of the full spectrum of green spaces needed, woven through urban infrastructure.
More tree-lined streets and a ‘fast track for beauty’ sound good, but how will this happen? We must not take a skin-deep approach when nature is in meltdown and we're at the height of a climate crisis. Beauty is so much more than how a place looks now. It's about taking a long-term view, and should carefully consider landscape, environment, economy and people’s quality of life.
We're one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. This makes our landscapes all the more precious. That's why, over our long history, the National Trust has worked with successive governments to uphold the interests of nature, beauty and history as we plan for the future. We stand ready to do this again.