|Study of Environmental Planning|
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on proposals for a study of environmental planning. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience of these environmental issues.
The proposed study is to be welcomed. Measures to combat pollution have been successful in the UK especially in urban, commercial and industrial sectors, and the operational integration between the national Environment Protection Agencies with Town and Country Planning authorities seems to be working well. However, the large number of bodies involved in environmental planning can sometimes lead to inefficiency or conflict. If environmental aims are to be achieved then an integrated approach must be taken, recognising that new developments can be addressed more easily than long-established practices.
There is also the need to take a more holistic view, not just of a single site but of its environs. Planning that relates to development in one place may have an effect on the whole of the catchment within which that development is taking place, including major areas of freshwater within the catchment. The use of freshwater resources does come within the orbit of environmental planning structures but these are largely orientated towards the land, and may not be appropriate for the freshwater environment. The shore-line may mark a sharp break between one set of environmental planning structures which are pretty comprehensive and another which are extremely weak. This is an important concern in Scotland which has more than 90% of the UK’s freshwater resources.
It is worth noting that the Commission’s study may have some difficulties in Scotland and Wales, which are adjusting to the effects of devolution, in areas in which legislative and non-legislative arrangements are in flux. Further consideration of the subject in these regions may, therefore, be desirable at a later date
Comments on the broad topics to be covered are addressed below:
How democratic control should be exercised over land use decisions, and priorities established, in the light of subsidiarity and devolution, regard for people's values, openness, transparency and accountability;
Consideration should be given to the interplay between the various levels of democratic control over land use decisions and environmental strategies. Both national Parliaments and local Councils are democratically elected bodies, but their policies and decisions in regard to land use and environmental protection quite often conflict, How should such differences be resolved and which level should have precedence? Certainly there must be regard for local interests, people's values and risk assessments, but local politics are such that quite often sectoral interests (e.g. in respect of development, employment or transport) take precedence over environmental quality and sustainability.
The potential conflict between national environmental strategies and local interests, and when private rights are limited in the public interest (including the interest of future generations);
The conflict between the private interests and public responsibilities of landholders is becoming a major issue and very evident in the present Scottish land reform debate. The top-down cascade from strategic goals to local operations should permit some local flexibility and perhaps the trade of, for example, environmental improvement in an area (e.g. better local sewage treatment work) could recompense for some amenity loss or disruption.
How environmental planning systems take account of needs for particular types of development as well as the need to manage and conserve resources; concepts of 'national needs' and their alignment with local and regional environmental aspirations; the use of Parliamentary procedures to examine, and where appropriate sanction, decisions of national significance.
This is an important and complex group of problems, as has been demonstrated by a number of high profile instances in Scotland where developments which it was agreed would benefit the local economy have been 'blocked' by national concerns about protection of the environment. There is a major underlying issue about the degree to which rural areas should be constrained in their development to meet the priorities of a predominantly urban population. There is widespread feeling in areas that are rich in environmental resources that local views are not sufficiently taken into account in policy development.
Such ‘conflicts of interest’ are perhaps inevitable, as there will always be local arguments for ‘Not in My Backyard’. Care must be taken to ensure that local interests are articulated at higher levels and that national priorities are fully explained at a local level. At its lowest, this is an argument for improved communications and public relations as well as ‘more transparent democracy’.
The proper roles for statutory procedures and less formal arrangements in environmental management, the appropriateness of the present statutory framework, and the extent of public confidence in the appeals systems;
Whether or not there are statutory procedures for environmental management, it needs to be recognised that the vast proportion of environmental management actually takes place through the informal decisions and actions of private land managers.
In terms of the appeals system, present arrangements are generally cumbersome and often too expensive for the proper representation of the public, including voluntary bodies, when there is conflict with powerful development firms or agencies. Public confidence in the system is correspondingly relatively low. There should be alternative mechanisms of conflict resolution other than the resort to drawn-out public inquiries.
The extent to which the quest for 'sustainable development' might jeopardise the effectiveness of present arrangements for achieving environmental objectives;
This question is similar to question (c). Here, perhaps, the emphasis should be focused on the practical implications of the quest for 'sustainable development', and whether the continuing emphasis on 'development' per se is always justified. "Sustainable use and management" of resources might take the place of "development" where environmental objectives are involved. The problem is that development often causes the irreversible loss of countryside, wildlife habitats and other environmental resources.
The extent of gaps, duplication, co-ordination and conflict in present arrangements;
There are unquestionably areas of overlapping responsibility in the present arrangements, and these are probably growing as legislative control is extended. Whether there is 'duplication' is less certain, since multiple consideration by different communities of interest is part of the democratic process. There is some conflict in objectives between agencies, but again it can be argued that this is justified as part of the democratic process.
Perhaps an issue for consideration is the development of a culture of concern for the environmental consequences of proposed action in all areas of Government responsibility (industry, trade, transport, etc.) as well as in those departments most directly involved (planning, environment, agriculture, etc.)
The resilience of present arrangements in coping with foreseeable major developments such as climate change;
At present, there is little public evidence of a co-ordinated policy with regard to arrangements for coping with major environmental problems (such as climatic change). As in question f), an important issue will be how to get Government, at all levels, to accept the seriousness of the problems and the urgency of taking effective action.
The relationships between underlying environmental processes and the geographical areas to which plans and decisions at present relate;
This is important, especially in view of the fact that areas affected by environmental processes (including, for example, tourist pressures or marine and freshwater pollution) often fall under a number of different authorities, between whom co-operation is sometimes difficult or lacking. An example is the difficulty in getting an agreed integrated management strategy for the Cairngorms area into operation, at least until such time as a National Park authority is constituted.
The knowledge base, including the location and availability of expertise, training, the use of environmental impact assessment, and the adequacy of data.
In general, our knowledge and understanding of environmental impact assessment is not sufficiently complete and needs to be further developed through continued investment in objective and appropriate scientific research, both fundamental and applied, and education. In addition, there are interface problems between the scientific disciplines operating in this field, not so much in principle but in practical matters like compatibility of, and easy access to, databases. The interface between scientists, planners and other users of such information also needs to be improved, with particular regard to jargon-free communication and recognition of the needs and aims of the different parties involved.
Other significant topics
One further important topic concerns the interaction of land-use planning decisions, and their implementation, with the marine environment. The latter is exploited by society for fishing, fish farming, energy, minerals, defence, leisure and waste disposal matters. Traditionally, the various laws regarding planning only extend to the low water mark of ordinary tides. There is therefore a discontinuity between the land, which includes the intertidal strip, and subtidal areas. The need for a holistic approach is particularly important in the estuaries, coastal zones and shallow seas, where the natural processes in operation impact on both the on-shore and off-shore environments, and where anthropogenic inputs can be critical. Consideration of measures to bring the marine environment more within the scope of environmental planning structures would therefore be a valuable addition to the Commissions study.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: National Parks for Scotland (November 1998); People and Nature: A new Approach to SSSI Designations in Scotland (November 1998); National Scenic Areas Review (April 1999); EU policy on Biodiversity (May 1999) and National Waste Strategy: Scotland (July 1999).
Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands