‘Wild belt’ land must be saved from development, say nature campaigners
PUBLISHED: 17:30 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 06:27 18 September 2020
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A new “wild belt” designation is needed to protect land from development if it has the potential to restore nature or link up existing wildlife sites, said Norfolk conservationists.
The Wildlife Trusts claim the government’s proposed planning reforms – which ministers say will tackle a shortage of quality homes, boost wildlife and support sustainable growth – could be biased towards development and weaken environmental protections.
The trusts called for an additional designation which would mean land of low biodiversity value could be preserved for the recovery of nature or “green corridors”, even if it does not currently meet the criteria for existing protections such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
John Hiskett, people and wildlife manager for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said: “We feel this is necessary because the existing wildlife sites are already protected and attempts have been made to map ecological connectivity between these sites in local plans, but they don’t have any real clout in preventing development.
“The sort of areas we might think of are land between two ancient woodlands, or land between two broads on the Norfolk Broads. The transition zones between one habitat and another are very important.
“We are aware there are people in government who are really interested in these ideas so we think it is a good time to put these ideas forward.
“Although some of these new planning reforms seem to go against what is good for wildlife, the idea that every local authority should map nature recovery networks in their area is part of the government’s 25-year environment plan. So we felt that it was time to raise the bar so that these areas in the networks which are not already protected have got more of a priority.”
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Mr Hiskett said one example of where a “wild belt” could have been valuable was at Racecourse Plantation, which forms part of the Thorpe Woodlands on the edge of Norwich.
Plans for 300 new homes were initially refused by Broadland District Council in June 2017, despite opposition over the loss of woodland, but the decision was overturned in January 2019 after a planning inspector ruled the development would not have an adverse impact on biodiversity.
“As well as being a County Wildlife Site it lies on a green corridor identified in the Greater Norwich local plan,” said Mr Hiskett. “But the inspector didn’t see that argument as having much weight. So wild belts are an attempt to find some extra assurance that sites which could fulfil nature restoration and improve connectivity between habitats can get some kind of protection.”
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Mr Hiskett added that “wild belts” could potentially be introduced as an opt-in designation which landowners could choose to secure public funding for nature recovery work under environmental stewardship schemes.
The call from The Wildlife Trusts comes after a UN report warning that countries are failing to halt “unprecedented” declines in nature, missing all 20 targets agreed a decade ago to protect biodiversity by the deadline of this year.
Conservation charity the RSPB released analysis this week showing how the UK has missed most of the targets, including failing to protect or manage enough land for nature.
A government spokeswoman disputed the assertion that the proposed reforms set out in its Planning for the Future white paper this month could increase threats to wildlife.
“We disagree entirely with these claims – the government is placing community engagement, environmental protection and sustainability at the heart of our reforms,” she said.
“We will put an end to unnecessary building on green spaces by prioritising brownfield development and all new homes built under the Future Homes Standard will be ‘zero-carbon ready’ to meet our climate change and environmental objectives.
“Our Environment Bill will also ensure that the new houses we build are delivered in a way which protects and enhances nature, helping to deliver thriving natural spaces for local communities.”
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