‘Green thinking’ must lead infrastructure design, says watchdog chair

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Instead of blaming protected newts for thwarting the “build build build” agenda, politicians and developers must incorporate green thinking into the design of new infrastructure, according to the chair of the government’s conservation watchdog.

Natural England’s Tony Juniper called on the government and planners to change their thinking to ensure environmental considerations were designed into new housing estates, as well as road and rail projects, at the beginning, rather than being a hasty “add-on” or “mitigation” at the end.

“When I hear ‘build build build’, I say ‘nature nature nature,'” said Juniper. “None of this should be controversial any longer because we’ve had a succession of reports telling us that healthy nature is an asset, not a burden. We need healthy nature to catch carbon, to clean up rivers, to reduce flood risk, to improve public health and wellbeing, to attract tourism. All of these have economic upsides, which I fear until relatively recently have been invisible in the development planning process.”

Juniper, the former director of Friends of the Earth, who was appointed chair of Natural England by Michael Gove 18 months ago, took issue with the prime minister’s “build build build” speech in which Boris Johnson claimed “the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country“.

Juniper said the real problem was that developers seeking to reduce the environmental impact of housing or roads usually only considered how to do so after a project had been drawn up.

He likened the planning system to the “end of pipe” approach to cleaning up pollution, with society belatedly realising it was better to use technology to prevent pollution at the start, rather than have an expensive cleanup at the end.

“So it goes with built development,” said Juniper. “What we need to be doing is truly green, ecologically sustainable designs at the start then we wouldn’t have to have all that end of pipe stuff that is making so many people apparently frustrated, with newts being the icon of that.”

Last month Johnson announced a new Project Speed taskforce led by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, with the aim of “scything through red tape” and delivering key infrastructure projects, such as new prisons, more quickly.

The government’s environment bill, which is going through parliament, will enshrine a principle of “biodiversity net gain” with new development required to deliver an improvement in “biodiversity value” through, for instance, the creation of wildlife areas alongside new housing.

It follows the government’s 25-year environment plan, which minister declared in 2018 would “leave the environment in a better state than we found it”. Some environmental campaigners criticise “net gain” for enabling protected or ancient wildlife habitats to be destroyed as long as developers create new habitat.

Juniper said Natural England was seeking to “feed ideas into so-called Project Speed” to ensure the government and policymakers “lift up the ambition around net gain and put that into major infrastructure as well as housing”. For instance, he said net gain should apply to latter stages of HS2, which only pledges “no net loss” of biodiversity across its entire route.

Asked if the government was hearing his message that environmental health was inextricably linked with the country’s wealth, Juniper said: “Government is a complex and multifaceted process and this sometimes takes some time to land these arguments.”

He added: “We should have this more deeply embedded at the level of general understanding. If we are going to look to change the way we do development, hopefully this is the moment when we choose to do things differently.

“I don’t know exactly where different interests in government are on this in terms of the Department of Transport and the Housing Department but I’m very hopeful that over these coming months we will be able to shape the agenda, to build this in. The opportunity does seem to be there right now.

“If we’re going to say ‘build build build’, let’s just make sure we keep saying ‘nature nature nature.'”

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