Helen Smith: If this is a Climate Emergency, developers can no longer be allowed to destroy natural habitats

Helen Smith, activist with OpenNess in Inverness, contributes to our special week of coverage on Climate Emergency by looking at how the planning system currently does little to prevent the destruction of natural habitats, and offers proposals for a transparent decision-making process on new developments. You can contribute to our special week of coverage by emailing media@common.scot with your thoughts.

DELIGHTED to see your focus on how to actually start getting action by Government taken now that our Climate Emergency has been declared.

We have recently set up a new group in Inverness – OpenNess – to press for greater transparency in the decision-making of public bodies, particularly the Highland Council. The Climate Emergency and how public authorities are going to respond to it is very much in our minds.

We currently have a situation in Inverness where various developments (public art, housing development, new road) have resulted in the felling of trees and destruction of natural habitats. Investigations have revealed that the legal protection of a species of wildlife does not confer it with much actual protection.

A public art project is proposed for the River Ness where the protected species known to be in the direct area include red squirrels, otters, bats, kingfishers, lamprey, ospreys and bluebells, and yet there was no requirement for the applicant (the Highland Council) to undertake any wildlife or habitat assessments for the planning authority (the Highland Council), and the Highland Council was able to decide whether, and to what extent, it wanted to consult with Scottish Natural Heritage, the body responsible for protecting Scotland’s natural environment and wildlife (it decided only to ask about possible effects on wild fish). To make matters worse, the Council decided to delegate the decision to officers under delegated powers, so elected members did not have the opportunity to debate the project.

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The housing development has seen the builders, Robertsons,  fell 167 trees to make way for houses at Craig Dunain on the outskirts of Inverness, despite there being protected bluebells and red squirrels on the site. SNH say they cannot help. They currently have a further application which will see another 64 trees felled if it is approved.

The road development (the Inverness West Link) has seen dozens and dozens of mature native trees felled, and although there has been new planting of trees and native shrubs, it will be years until the wildlife value of these new trees and shrubs is established.

Trees are so important to protecting biodiversity and tackling the climate emergency and yet the law does not protect them.  Here is what we have found out recently:

Here’s a question: You are a tree making up a habitat where protected species like bluebells and squirrels live – are you protected by law?  The answer is – NO, not if the Council gives permission to a builder to cut you down. So how about if you are a tree with a Tree Preservation Order, or a tree in a Conservation Area?  Surely you are protected then?  Well, NO, you can still be cut down if a builder gets planning permission. And don’t think that Scottish Natural Heritage will help you either.  When asked about the devastation which has been caused to trees at Craig Dunain by Robertsons,  an SNH representative said this week: “I do commend  you for your concern for Scotland's wildlife, although on this occasion we don't appear to be able to help…“

READ MORE: Government in an age of Climate Emergency: Is it time for carbon budgets?

We have been giving a lot of thought in relation to these cases and what they show about the problems with the current set-up.  Here are our current thoughts on what we should lobby for in terms of changes to legislation:

  • A requirement for SNH to comment on full implications of all planning applications in terms of the potential impacts on the natural environment and wildlife (not just on aspects which the planning authority decides are relevant), and for there to be more scrutiny of developers’ assessments and mitigation proposals by SNH as part of their consultative role in planning.
  • An amendment to existing Community Empowerment Act to require planning authorities dealing with applications involving the felling of trees to undertake consultation with community councils and other local groups.
  • in the case of planning applications impacting trees on Common Good Land, the need to consult could be added as a specific new requirement under Section 104 of the Community Empowerment Act.
  • A new legal requirement for the committee report covering a planning application to specifically identify, in a prominent position close to the start of the report, a description of the likely impacts of the development on the natural environment and wildlife, details of the mitigating measures proposed by the applicant, and details of the extent to which these are likely to be effective.
  • A requirement to ensure a current flood assessment is included for any riverside or flood plain development even if it is not residential, to include any reasonably foreseeable downstream impacts of the development.
  • A legal presumption that healthy trees should be protected from felling, and that this should apply regardless of whether they stand alone or in a group.
  • A requirement for local authorities to consult fully on Council-led projects (or projects in which the Council is a partner or funder) requiring planning consent, including consulting with local community councils and other interested groups (as recognised under Community Empowerment legislation).
  • A change to current planning legislation to ensure that all planning applications where a local authority is both applicant and planning authority must be considered by the relevant committee of elected members (ie never decided by officers under delegated powers).

More generally, we want to lobby for the need to protect the natural environment and wildlife to have a far greater legal significance in the decision-making process for planning applications.

Picture courtesy of Glen Wallace

CS FORUM 30 MAY: Climate Emergency: How do we turn words into actions?