Investment zones with “liberalised” planning laws to accelerate development could be designated within national parks and in the most environmentally protected areas of the UK, government documents reveal.
Details of the government’s new zones to increase housebuilding and commercial development reveal councils can apply for zones in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, (AONBs) sites of special scientific interest, (SSSIs) and green belt land.
The deadline for councils to apply to host an investment zone is 14 October. The government says the zones “will benefit from tax incentives, planning liberalisation and wider support for the local economy” and will be granted after a “rapid” selection process.
Councils applying for the zones are asked: “For each proposed investment zone please provide details about whether the proposed development would be on land which is in:
A national park.
An area of outstanding natural beauty.
A site of special scientific interest, or equivalent designation.
The buffer zone of a world heritage site.
Designated green belt.
The document states: “Key planning policies to ensure developments are well designed, maintain national policy on the green belt, protect our heritage and address flood risk, highway and other public safety matters along with building regulations will continue to apply.”
Councils will also have to answer one question, with a yes or no, on whether they agree to mitigate environmental impacts of the investment zone and have to agree to accepting “a streamlined overarching planning system” within the zones.
There is no mention of environmental constraints on building in protected habitats under the habitat regulations, which provide protections for some of the most vulnerable habitats and wildlife in a network across England. The regulations also aim to prevent water pollution from excessive nitrates and phosphates, for example from sewage discharges and ensure that new developments do not lead to over abstraction of water from rivers.
Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the documents showed environmental protections being removed and downgraded. They also went against the government’s proposals to make every new development provide a “net gain” for nature, he said.
“There are countless examples of where mitigation is simply inappropriate or ineffective. You can’t mitigate for the loss of an ancient woodland or wetland. In many cases, supposed mitigation simply fails. Sometimes, where precious nature is at risk, you simply have to say no. The false philosophy that everything can be traded or replaced would be seriously damaging for nature,” he said.
“If large swathes of the country were made investment zones where environmental planning rules were weakened, all the government’s hopes of reversing the decline of nature could be dashed.”
The documents say the investment zones, which are being organised by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will benefit from “planning liberalisation”, remove “planning matters impeding delivery” and will be “streamlining the planning system”.
The government says the zones will focus on bringing growth, housing and commercial development to “undeveloped and underdeveloped areas”.
Joan Edwards, the director of policy for the Wildlife Trusts, said: “Pursuing unsustainable development on some of our most important sites for nature is a disgrace. We cannot have a thriving economy without a thriving natural world. This government has committed to protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030 – the minimum required to give nature a chance to recover. How can we achieve that if developers are given the green light to build all over our last strongholds for wildlife?”
The RSPB said the guidance published by the government further confirmed the charity’s fears that ministers were embarking upon an attack on nature. A spokesperson said: “There is no requirement to avoid impacts on nature, abandoning the mitigation hierarchy which places priority on avoiding – rather than mitigating or compensating for – losses. Furthermore, the government could have specified that investment zones should avoid protected sites for wildlife, national parks and AONBs.”
The zones are currently only applicable in England but the document says the government will work with devolved administrations and local partners to introduce investment zones across the UK.
A government spokesperson said: “This is completely inaccurate – there are no plans to build on national parks. We have also been clear investment zones will keep national green belt protections and successful areas must agree to mitigate any environmental impacts.”