CPRE Sussex responds to Clean Air Strategy consultation
Our response concentrates on the questions that Defra asks about its proposals to improve the natural environment.
In our response to the Government consultation on its proposed Clean Air Strategy whilst we welcome the principles underlying the strategy to reduce the level of harmful emissions into the atmosphere, we take the Government to task for focusing its strategy too heavily on air quality impacts on the urban environment and for not paying enough heed to wider rural impacts. We call on the Government to undertake further scientific study of the effect of diesel and other emissions on wildlife, pointing out that the an effective improvement strategy for the natural environment is not possible in the absence of robust scientific evidence as to the potential harm to the full range of rural biodiversity.
We focus the rest of our response on a loophole in the Habitats Regulations, which are designed to protect the most sensitive designated habitats (Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation) from harmful development. The purpose of those regulations is to protect biodiversity by requiring planning authorities to take measures to conserve or restore designated vulnerable natural habitats and bird sites. They do so by prohibiting planning authorities from giving effect to any new development plan, or approving a planning application, that may affect a protected site unless they have ascertained by an appropriate assessment that the plan or development application (considered on its own and in combination with other plans and projects) will not adversely affect the integrity of the site after taking account in their assessment of any proposed mitigation measures.
The importance of protecting these special sites (of which there are 20 in Sussex alone) is highlighted by the Government itself in the consultation document, which tells us that “Around 80% of Special Areas of Conservation in England by area are estimated to receive damaging amounts of atmospheric nitrogen. Once soil quality and the balance of species is changed, recovery is slow and costly to achieve.”
The loophole that concerns us arises because the Regulations do not make it clear whether a new local authority development plan is required to contain policies intended to restore the air quality of a designated site whose condition has already become degraded through the failure of its previous plan to achieve its statutory duty of avoiding harm to the site.
CPRE Sussex’s mind has been concentrated on this point by the adoption of a new district Plan in Mid Sussex, which borders on two sites on Ashdown Forest that are designated for the purpose of the Habitats Regulations. The formal assessment of their proposed new Plan concluded that the sites were already significantly harmed by diesel emissions from traffic on the roads crossing the Forest and that the Plan would do nothing to restore their condition back to that required under the Regulations; the Plan would just not make their condition any worse.
Disappointingly, both Natural England and the Planning Inspectorate agreed that the new Plan was sound and could be adopted by the Council on this basis, as it duly was. Other local authorities in the county, including those in Arun and Wealden, could well exploit this loophole to get their forthcoming Plans adopted whilst leaving their most vulnerable nature sites degraded and unrestored.
CPRE Sussex argues in its representation to Government that this loophole in the protective regime for special nature sites was not intended and that Government guidance to local planning authorities on how to improve their local natural environment which is promised as part of the new Air Quality Strategy should include a requirement for new development plans to include a policy designed to ensure that the condition of already degraded sites must be restored as part of the new Plan in order for it to be sound. This simple measure would be an appropriate and tangible step would demonstrate that the Government is indeed committed to fulfilling its environmental pledge to “hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it.”
For the full text of CPRE Sussex’s response to this consultation, email firstname.lastname@example.org