When the Government launched its World Class Places strategy almost a year ago, it enshrined a commitment to publish new planning policy on green infrastructure.
Despite the then Communities & Local Government (CLG) secretary Hazel Blears being reshuffled after the MPs' expenses scandal, the department has pressed ahead with the pledge and is now consulting on draft policy.
The draft planning policy statement (PPS) Planning for a Natural and Healthy Environment follows a surge of calls from landscape and public space specialists for recognition of the importance of green infrastructure. But while it may put green infrastructure firmly at the heart of the planning system, there are some inconsistencies, experts argue.
The draft policy demands that local authorities take a "strategic approach" to the creation, protection and management of green infrastructure, but it does not require local planning authorities to produce green infrastructure strategies.
This is a major flaw, warns landscape planning consultant Ian Phillips, a member of the Landscape Institute policy committee. "We will be raising a query about this and strongly recommending that local authorities do produce a strategy," he says.
The draft policy - open for consultation until 1 June - is an attempt to bring together several planning regulations. In its final form the natural environment PPS will replace statements and guidance on biodiversity and geological conservation (PPS9), open space, sport and recreation (PPG17) and sustainable development in rural areas (PPS7).
It will also replace guidance on coastal planning (PPG20) and take account of the commitment in the 2007 white paper Planning for a Sustainable Future to streamline existing policy.
At the launch of the draft policy, housing and planning minister John Healey pledged that "overhauled planning policies will act as a new green planning rule book".
Phillips admitted that while there are some problems, the changes seem to be "good news, by and large". He explains: "My immediate reaction is it is good news to see green infrastructure so clearly and formally on the Government agenda and being given weight in planning policy."
Capita Lovejoy consultant Patrick Collins adds: "It is certainly a positive way forward. It is long overdue but we have to start somewhere."
A year ago, the Landscape Institute produced a position statement on green infrastructure that called for greater policy support and a more collaborative approach.It highlighted a lack of awareness concerning the value of green infrastructure assets and concerns over a land-use planning system that gives priority to grey infrastructure at the expense of the natural environment.
Landscape Institute policy officer Stephen Russell explains: "It has taken a long time to come to this stage. It is about planning more strategically, but we need to look at the detail to ensure that CLG has actually got it right."
CABE Space is now working on its own response to the consultation on the draft PPS. Having launched its Grey to Green campaign in November 2009, which aimed to stimulate debate on a shift in investment from grey to green infrastructure, the new PPS should chime with some of CABE's goals.
Indeed, the recognition of green infrastructure's role in improving public health and helping adapt to climate change, which feature in CABE and Landscape Institute publications, is reflected in the PPS.
It notes: "Strategic networks of green spaces, commonly referred to as green infrastructure, can provide a wide range of environmental benefits in both rural and urban areas, including flood water storage, sustainable drainage, urban cooling and local access to shady outdoor space." It also points out that green infrastructure plays a "vital role" in promoting healthy living and providing wildlife habitats.
Landscape architect Peter Wilder - whose firm Macfarlane Wilder is designing the masterplan for the BRE Innovation Park in Scotland - points out: "It is a complex issue because so many different organisations feel green infrastructure is their role, but the answer is that it is in everyone's interest to enhance green infrastructure."
The urgency of ensuring that green infrastructure is central to the planning system has been further strengthened by the publication of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report Adapting to Climate Change last month. It recommends that the Government delivers green infrastructure that supports adaptation by working across departmental boundaries.
It is probably no coincidence that the draft natural environment PPS has been launched in conjunction with a PPS on climate change. The Planning for a Low Carbon Future in a Changing Climate PPS will be a supplement to PPS1: Delivering Sustainable Development. Of particular note across the policies is the need for local authorities to take more of a cross-boundary approach.
In some places this is already happening. For example, the Mersey Forest brings together seven local authorities as well as Government bodies and private businesses in environmental regeneration initiatives. In addition, Natural Economy Northwest is a regional partnership programme led by Natural England, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the SITA Trust aimed at optimising the contribution of the natural environment to the regional economy and quality of life.
"It would be good to see local authorities coming together in more regional partnerships," says Phillips. "After all, there are so many cross-boundary issues such as biodiversity, water management and climate change that it is difficult not to imagine co-operation." Collins agrees: "There needs to be a co-ordinated approach." L
- The new PPS on the natural environment will be published later this year.
- To comment on the draft, visit www.communities.gov.uk