Thursday, 5 March 2015

Counting birds - how we ask too much of our local plan system

Where the birds fly!

Out there in the world of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, planning is a thing you sometimes need to deal with in order to get your conservatory, dormer or little extension. On occasion you might rant and rail - even organise and campaign - against proposals for a major development on your doorstep. But the details and intricacies of the planning system pass most of us by - we don't touch the occult world of housing need models, biodiversity assessments, health impact assessments and a host of other expensively procured reviews and studies intended to inform the plans our local government might make.

Yesterday marked the first day of the 'Examination in Public' for Bradford's Local Plan Core Strategy - the Council describes this as:

The Core Strategy is a key planning document for the Bradford District. It translates aspirations from the Council’s Community Strategy, key technical evidence and outcomes from previous consultations into an overarching and strategic planning framework for the District, guiding where development is to be permitted, how much we should have, what land should be protected from developed and how places should change up to 2030.

Colossal grammatical error aside, this document is the daddy of what will be a suite of linked plans and strategies that, in the end, will tell you whether you can put a garage in your garden, whether the local farmer can build a hay store for his sheep and where the big housing developers will be allowed to build their little boxes for future families.  And the reality is that most people don't know much about this 'Local Plan Core Strategy' and even if they'd all been presented with a copy and asked for comment the answers wouldn't tell us whether or not the Council has a plan that makes sense.

And worse than this, there's a whole library of documentation that most of us simply haven't the time to read and understand - they're listed here and list some seventeen separate studies, reviews and assessments. This, dear reader, is the "evidence base" and once we've written and decided on the plan it will be forgotten about (until it is poured over by some planning lawyers in the search for a loophole permitting their client to do the development he wants). On top of this library of documents there are other important background documents - most notably on housing - as well as a set of assessments relating to sustainability, health and habitat regulations.

And this is where the matter of counting birds comes into the discussion. In order to prepare a 'Habitat Regulations Assessment' (HRA) for Bradford's 'Special Areas of Conservation' (SACs) and 'Special Protection Areas' (SPAs) the council appointed consultants who, among other things, went out and counted birds. Not every bird but certain types of bird so as to arrive at an idea of how many of them are nesting on the protected moorland and where those birds are getting to in their daily wanderings for food and fun.

The HRA screening assessment identified a range of likely significant effects on the North and South Pennine Moorlands that could result from the Core Strategy for Bradford district. This list has been reviewed and rationalised, with new impact categories added as part of the Appropriate Assessment procedure.

Now if you own land within the protected area or (and this is more important) on the fringes of that protected area then the chances are that the birds nesting there will, at some point in their foraging, look for food on your land. So the regulations (courtesy of the wonderful and caring European Union) require the people drawing up the plans to find out where those birds are scratting for seeds, worms or (in the case of Merlins and Peregrines) swooping for larger and juicier prey. So some ornithologist sorts are sent out with binoculars and a clipboard to count the birds.

The problem is that there are different views as to how you count birds and, just as importantly, how you work out from how many birds you see how many birds there actually are. So the EU provides a convenient cop out:

If a preliminary scientific evaluation shows that there are reasonable grounds for concern that a particular activity might lead to damaging effects on the environment, or on human, animal or plant health, which would be inconsistent with the protection normally afforded to these within the European Community, the Precautionary Principle is triggered.

“Decision-makers then have to determine what action to take. They should take account of the potential consequences of taking no action, the uncertainties inherent in the scientific evaluation, and they should consult interested parties on the possible ways of managing the risk. Measures should be proportionate to the level of risk, and to the desired level of protection.

Helpful eh? It's clear to me (as a result of the entirely circular argument in the regulations) that we're quite simply asking the planning system to do something that the system cannot do. Or rather something that can't be done at the level of the strategic plan. At the level of the individual scheme it is possible to establish whether the damage from development can be mitigated (or better still prevented) - we saw this recently in Denholme where the quarrying development at Buck Park was designed in such as way as not to disturb a peregrine nesting site or in Cullingworth where an orchid site was relocated.

The Council is placed in something of a dilemma - after all the regulations require that the impact on SACs and SPAs is assessed and that this assessment will inform the decisions about future development in affected areas. The problem is that we cannot assess every possible development on every possible site - not just because it would be onerous but because it is, in effect, impossible. As a result the bird counters are sent out, they count birds and using this data an estimation is made about whether any development at all would result in that 'damaging effect'.

Clearly there's a long line from complete loss of habitat through to no change. The Council has to guess where on this line is the right point to set the degree of protection especially for sites that aren't within the actual boundary of the SAC or SPA. As ever with planning this judgement is much better done at the level of the individual application but unfortunately the love of grand strategy results in assessments that are, to all intents and purposes, meaningless. We commission expensive studies that can only tell us that there are protected species and a protected eco-system on the moors, that the birds concerned leave the moors to feed and that development might have a negative impact on their behaviour.

This is just one example of the problem with the local plan system - the same problems are repeated across the system. Matters that would be better left to the individual application are instead dealt with through complicated models and systems that don't get close to the true picture - not because the people creating the models and systems are stupid or wrong but because we're asking for something that can't really be appraised at the scale in question.

I am not a fan of strategic planning - we need a policy framework that is accessible locally but the process of second guessing the market or the development of the economy really doesn't work. This, of course doesn't stop planners wanting to try and square the circle - here's Andrew Lainton explaining why, in planning, black is white:

...more and better planning leads to more land for growth, and growth that benefits everyone rather than just the rentier elite that funds bodies like the Policy Exchange.  An elite that doesn’t want planning to succeed as its main income stream is through restricting access to land and charging everyone else for the privilege. 

Now Andrew is a planner so we might expect an argument for more planning. And that's an interesting debate. But planning is always and everywhere about control - about the "possibility of a planned and shaped market" as he puts it. This means that access to land is restricted to the uses determined in the plan - precisely the things that 'rentier' elite want. Andrew is right when he attacks the degree to which our economy is warped by property prices and accompanying speculation but this system is in large part a consequence of the very planning that he wants to promote.

There is an important debate going on here that isn't served by simply dismissing planning in its entirety or by saying that liberalisation is a bad route to allowing the "land for growth and growth that benefits everyone" to which Andrew alludes. Some want a strategic approach where the Whitehall planner's pen circles the places for expansion and a new generation of new towns - they'll call them "garden cities" of course - is born. Others want a more organic approach based on making it a little easier to develop on a small scale, to permit the negotiation of human scale extension to smaller communities and to use the value from those developments as capital for the re-use of now redundant land elsewhere.

The counting of birds tells us that the strategic planning approach doesn't work. We knew that, of course, as we saw the repeated failure of housing need assessments to recognise choice or the dynamics of human behaviour. But the little tale of Bradford's HRA reminds us again why the local plan system isn't fit for its purpose and why the result of strategic planning is a good living for planning consultants and a fine feast for lawyers. Nowhere in all of this are we really considering the birds or the humans who live in the same space as those birds.


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