Seminar encourages housing development that is fit for people and the natural world

Speakers at the East Anglian PLanning and Biodiversity Seminar 2018 held at the University of Suffol

Speakers at the East Anglian PLanning and Biodiversity Seminar 2018 held at the University of Suffolk Waterfront building (from left to right) Lindsey Wilkinson, Philip Isbell, Mike Oxford, Colin Hawes, Paul Cantwell, Gavin Siriwardena, David Dowding. - Credit: Archant

The East Anglian Planning and Biodiversity Seminar sought to share the latest thinking around building design and planning that conserves natural assets and promotes healthy living.

The encroachment of new housing developments represents a potential major threat to our natural places and the look and feel of our communities.

But, like it or not, it seems the houses are coming - in 2015 it was estimated Suffolk will need an additional 70,000 new homes built by 2031 to accommodate the county’s growing population. That’s to say nothing of the accompanying infrastructure - the schools and roads - as well as the new spaces for workplaces to meet current and future requirements.

Mitigating the impact of all this construction and ensuring nature and wildlife are given a high priority before the diggers move in was the theme of the East Anglian Planning and Biodiversity Seminar, which saw planners and ecologists congregate for a day of presentations at the University of Suffolk’s Waterfront building in Ipswich on Thursday.

Host, Mike Oxford, a consultant ecologist from the Association of Local Government, introduced the event by pointing to some of the key moments of 2018 including the publication of the revised draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which includes extra protections for “irreplacebale habitats” such as ancient woodlands and says planning authorities and developers should look to provide “net gains for biodiversity” with any development, considering upfront how a project can boost natural assets.

Mr Oxford said this change of emphasis was “hugely positive” and “could be a game changer”.

Ground rules

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For an example of how a progressive nature-friendly approach to development looks, landscape architect Lindsey Wilkinson was on hand to advise on the ingredients required to make sure “natural potential is fulfilled in schemes”.

Ms Wilkinson said it is important that “natural assets are thought about at the beginning and are embedded in schemes, and not added at the end as a tick-box exercise.”

Traditionally, many developers have preferred to work from “a blank slate and produce a development with a wow factor that looks good in a brochure,” she added.

What’s more: “developers have prioritised the viability of the scheme and whether it is delivered on time” over conserving any natural assets in a location.

But Ms Wilkinson said there was a growing understanding of how sites themselves can shape development and a greater creativity among some designers who are looking to create “bespoke and site specific developments that build a sense of place”.

It is to be hoped that much of this thinking influences the Suffolk Design guide - a document that is intended to lay out the ground rules for development in Suffolk in the future. Philip Isbell, acting chief planning officer for Babergh and Mid Suffolk Councils, gave an overview of the project, which is currently a work in progress that is due to be published spring/summer 2019.

He said the guide will take in the views of professionals and communities alike and replace a previous “aged document that doesn’t refer to biodiversity”.

He added: “We want to ensure that development responds better to the context [of a location] - that hasn’t always been the case in the past”.

Designing for climate change

The ability or inability to access green and blue spaces from your home, and how that can impact human health, was the subject of a fascinating presentation by Carl Petrokofsky of the Healthy Places team at Public Health England.

His talk was enhanced by numerous statistics - that in the UK men living in the most affluent areas are likely to live over nine years longer than those in the most deprived; and that people in the most affluent 20% of areas in the country have access to five times the amount of green parks and spaces nearby compared with those in the most deprived 10%.

Living near green spaces can boost the immune system, and reduce noise and air pollution - “the largest environmental risk facing society today”, said Mr Petrokofsky, who said people who can’t get to green spaces easily exercise less - a problem that costs the NHS up to £2billion annually.

He also called for housing design that takes into consideration climate change such as homes that can be kept cool without air conditioning and living spaces that enable older and vulnerable people to feel more comfortable in the heat.

“This will be a significant challenge going forward and this is the time to look at it,” he said.

Reflecting on the content of the presentations, host Mike Oxford said he has seen a lot of progress toward more nature-friendly developments in the decade or so since this annual event was first held.

“When we first started this seminar, the presentations were more aspirational but now were are hearing about people actively doing things - that is incredibly encouraging,” he said.

Speaking after the event, Nick Sibbert, an associate at Woodbridge-based landscape architecture practice The Landscape Partnership said; “Much of what has been said today is still aspirational but we are edging toward changes in culture [in development].

“Events like today won’t change the world but they are a steps in the right direction.”