Nature’s Arc – new principles to protect and restore nature, and set ambitious environmental standards, must be at the heart of any new housing developments

Dog walking - Ben Hall/2020 Vision

A group of the UK’s leading nature conservation charities have produced a set of principles called Nature’s Arc for putting nature first if the Government is determined to press ahead with development in the Ox-Cam Growth Arc.
We amended this press release on 22 June 2020 to clarify our position on the Growth Arc and associated Expressway plans. The original release on 15 June 2020 should have set out our position more clearly and we apologise for any confusion it caused.

Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (WTBCN), the RSPB, and the Woodland Trust have jointly published a set of principles for protecting and restoring nature and tackling climate change if large-scale developments get the go-ahead in the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Arc.

Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust has long campaigned against the Government’s proposals to build an Expressway between Oxford and Cambridge and has also fought plans to build a million new homes across the area without the proper public consultation and assessments taking place. 

However, as the March 2020 budget indicated, the Government plans to press ahead with some level of growth. The nature charities have published their set of principles, Nature’s Arc, to highlight their concern that growth must not be at the expense of wildlife and precious natural greenspaces.

The key principles are:

  • Existing nature must be protected. Government must carry out an environmental assessment of the Arc proposals as a whole, protect existing sites and avoid the loss of irreplaceable habitats.
  • Nature must be restored across the arc. Government must establish a Nature Recovery Network to create bigger, better, and more connected places for wildlife. 
  • New standards must be set for sustainable development. It must all be carbon neutral, nature-friendly, and improve the lives of residents.

The charities are calling for any plans within the Arc to be subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment involving public consultation, so that the full impacts of plans can be seen and discussed. To date, the plans have developed in a piecemeal way preventing proper scrutiny. Nature’s Arc principles require plans to be made public so they can be challenged where necessary and nature put first. Any development that takes place across the Arc must avoid damaging nature, and instead be actively beneficial.

The Nature’s Arc principles emphasise the importance of access to nature and natural greenspace for the health, well-being, and resilience of people and communities. Using these principles, Government can make a commitment to a new standard for sustainable development that will benefit wildlife, tackle climate change and build healthier neighbourhoods for people. 

Investing in nature and increasing and enhancing the region’s “green infrastructure” – its parks, trees, woodlands, nature reserves and other natural green spaces – would benefit local people, the economy and the environment, making the Arc a better place for people to live and work, and for businesses to invest.

The Nature’s Arc principles can be downloaded on the RSPB website.

Sustainable development

Matthew Roberts

Notes

BBOWT's opposition to the Ox-Cam Expressway and Growth Arc

BBOWT has campaigned against the Expressway and Ox-Cam Growth Arc proposals for one million homes since they were first announced. 

In 2018 we launched a legal challenge against the Government for their failure to assess the environmental impact of their plans for development in the area. Our judicial review hearing was on 19 and 20 June 2019 and written judgement was received from the High Court in August 2019 which unfortunately found in favour of the Government. You can read more about the legal challenge here.

In spite of the disappointing outcome of our court case, we continue to campaign against the Expressway and the lack of proper assessments, consultation and scrutiny of the Government’s proposal to build up to one million new homes. 

Bernwood meadows

Bernwood meadows by Rhea Draguisky

The Growth Arc

The Government’s Road Investment Strategy 2, published in March 2020, states that the Expressway has been paused. A number of MPs and councillors have stated that the plans for the Expressway and one million homes have been all but dropped. However, until a formal announcement is made by Government scrapping the plans we will remain vigilant and be ready to challenge the Government again.

Whether or not the specific target of one million homes is pursued, it is clear that there will be some level of development in the area between Oxford and Cambridge. The Government have said they will develop a "long-term spatial framework to support strategic planning" in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and “examine and develop the case for up to four new development corporations in the OxCam Arc at Bedford, St Neots/Sandy, Cambourne and Cambridge, which includes plans to explore the case for a new town at Cambridge, to accelerate new housing and infrastructure development.”

How BBOWT are protecting wildlife and working to influence plans in the Growth Arc area

We strongly oppose the Government’s current approach to development across the Arc. We are not opposed to development in principle and recognise the need for housing in our area, but the Government’s proposals for the Oxford to Cambridge Growth Arc, as they are currently being planned and delivered, simply won't work. We fundamentally question whether the area can support one million homes without serious damage to the natural world. Without proper assessment, the Government cannot know how many homes the area could support and stay within environmental limits for nature, carbon and water. 

Even if we are successful in getting the Government to formally drop its plans, it is clear that there will be some level of investment and development in the Arc to meet housing need in the area. We know that plans for the Arc are being made now and there is a real risk that they will be drawn up without any proper consideration for the natural environment or people’s well-being if we do not make our views known. 

Development in the Arc cannot be allowed to trash our natural environment. If a piecemeal approach is taken to development, it will be impossible to ascertain the actual impact of Government proposals on the Arc. This is why a Strategic Environmental Assessment must be carried out for the combined proposals within the Arc so the full potential impact on the wildlife, water stress, traffic, air quality, carbon emissions and the environment more broadly can be seen and, where necessary, challenged.

Nature continues to decline, so the same old approach to conservation and the same old approach to development is not working to protect wildlife. We need to fundamentally change our country’s approach to development, and Nature’s Arc is the first step in doing that. It is our attempt to show that a unified approach to the Arc is needed if it is to have any hope of benefitting nature. We hope both local authorities and the UK Government will see Nature’s Arc as principles their proposals must meet before any development can proceed. If the principles are not met, development should not go ahead.

We will continue to campaign against damaging developments across the arc, but where development happens anyway, we will seek to influence it to make it as beneficial, or least bad, for nature as possible.

BBOWT’s position on development 

We are not anti-development per se, we are pro-wildlife. This means that we are against developments that harm wildlife, and we consider that all developments should deliver benefits for wildlife. 

We review thousands of planning applications every year and object to those that are most damaging to wildlife. We also seek to influence local plans and object to allocations made in areas where precious habitat will be adversely impacted. 

As part of our science based approach we are monitoring the creation of habitats on one small development (25 homes) and how such habitats provide benefits for wildlife in the long term. The results from the monitoring will help inform us on whether habitat creation on housing developments works in the long term. This development is not part of the Ox-Cam Growth Arc project.

Is biodiversity net gain (or restoring nature) in the Arc possible?

Restoring nature across the Arc is possible if the principles of Nature’s Arc are followed, namely that (i) a nature recovery network is established, (ii) a strategic spatial plan for the whole of the Arc is made public, (iii) there is a duty on local authorities to deliver a nature recovery plan, (iv) the area managed for nature is doubled, (v) environmental assessments are undertaken and (vi) all development achieves a minimum 20% biodiversity net gain. 

What is also clear is that not all damage can be compensated for and biodiversity net gain achieved. Designated sites and irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland, fens and ancient meadows cannot be compensated for. Biodiversity net gain cannot be used as a licence to destroy them.

Why an assessment is vital to measure increased pressure on natural resources, such as water, that the area will face

As the Government’s plans for the Arc have not been brought together in a single proposal and have not been subject to a strategic environmental assessment, it is impossible to know what the impact on natural resources, such as water, will be. That is why we are calling on the Government to make their plans public and carry out the proper assessments so the full impact of the plans can be seen and challenged where necessary.

Traffic must not be allowed to increase

All proposals, including for transport, must be carbon neutral. Rail and cycle networks should be at the forefront of the plans, with interconnected public and shared transport services designed to integrate with renewable energy sources. 

We are clear that an Expressway must not form part of the transport plans for the Arc.