Wildlife Trusts calls for ‘Wildbelt’ as part of planning strategy

“Planning needs to identify where nature can be restored and recover, and then protect the places where this is happening.” Dr Sue Young, Head of Land Use Planning and Ecological Networks at The Wildlife Trusts, proposes a ‘Wildbelt’ – areas of protected land that allow nature to recover – to be integrated into the UK Government’s planning reforms. 

Hedgehog in a field
Dr Sue Young

The Wildlife Trusts wants a planning system fit for the future, that enables nature to bounce back from the catastrophic declines of recent decades and protects new wild areas that are in recovery as part of a ‘Wildbelt.’

The Government’s planning reform proposals for England are sweeping. The Government makes it far easier for developers to get permission to build but does little to tackle the looming problems of the 21st century: climate emergency, nature crisis and increasing health inequalities. These problems are interlinked, and a healthy natural environment is vital to help tackle them. Natural habitats soak up carbon and woods, peatland and saltmarsh are some of the most important and cost-effective means of storing atmospheric carbon. But their destruction releases carbon and makes climate change worse.  

The planning system enables local governments to decide how land should be used to provide the things communities need, including the land for nature that provides these natural solutions to climate change. Nature’s recovery must be at the heart of planning reform.

If the natural world is to thrive once more, the work can’t just happen on nature reserves.  We need a network of spaces for nature interlaced across towns and the country. This is beginning to be created, but there is little protection for wild places that are in recovery.

At the moment, local plans protect only the places that are most important for nature. This isn’t enough: planning needs to identify where nature can be restored and recover, and then protect the places where this is happening. The Wildlife Trusts is proposing a new designation to make this happen called Wildbelt.

It is vital that these Wildbelt areas are close to where people live.

During lockdown in the spring, walks in local green spaces brought many people closer to nature. For some, this was a lifeline; for others, especially children, simply a chance to burn off energy. Whether people particularly notice nature or not, research by the World Health Organization shows that time spent in places full of nature is good for you and makes you feel better. Such places are different to parks – instead of mown grass with the odd tree, wild places are more diverse, with a range of habitats – full of birdsong, the possibility of encountering a kingfisher skimming over water, the buzz of bees or the dart of a dragonfly.

Air pollution costs lives and is a big contributor to health inequalities. In a report by the Air Quality Expert Group to Defra, as well as to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, it was revealed that strategically placed vegetation barriers can be very effective to change the way pollution is dispersed, reducing local people’s exposure to pollution by up to 50 per cent. A 2009 report by Natural England found that by weaving a network of nature through the places where people live, giving everyone access to nature and green spaces, we could help tackle preventable illnesses such as obesity and heart disease, saving millions for the NHS.

The Wildlife Trusts believes the planning system must deliver the development that people want without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  

Planning reform should:

  1. Support nature to recover and ensure people have easy access to nature.  A Nature Recovery Network must be integrated into all areas.

  2. Maintain and strengthen protection for nature and environmental standards.  Assessment of environmental impact must take place before development is permitted.

  3. Help to address the ecological and climate crises. A new designation – Wildbelt – is needed to secure the future of the land that we are putting into recovery so that we can reach at least 30 per cent of land for nature by 2030.

  4. Enable people to engage with the planning system at the point where it is meaningful to them and sufficient information is available to understand the impacts on nature and on local communities.

  5. Ensure that local plans and development proposals are informed by accurate ecological information so that development avoids damaging our fragile environment and contributes to its recovery.

The Wildlife Trusts is urging members of the public to back our principles and add their own views to the consultation, found at this link, before it closes on 29 October.

Dr Sue Young is Head of Land Use Planning and Ecological Networks at The Wildlife Trusts