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Rosalind Skillen

Nature’s voice must be heard in the planning process

Rosalind Skillen


Serious engagement is essential to boost public confidence

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The Sperrins feature in the short film by Friends of the Earth

The Sperrins feature in the short film by Friends of the Earth

The Sperrins feature in the short film by Friends of the Earth

At the weekend, environmental charity Friends of the Earth screened its short film Nature’s Keepers at the Ulster Museum.

Nature’s Keepers documents the tireless environmental campaigning efforts of different ‘keepers’ based across Ireland. These keepers are part of a network of (extra)ordinary individuals who are protecting our land, air and sea.

Whether it be protecting Larne Lough from a huge landfill site or saving the Sperrins from a proposed gold mine, the film highlights multiple incidents where the keepers say planning permission is being granted at the expense of nature and human health. Time and time again, we see a lack of community consultation, extraction being privileged over environmental protection and a continuation of ‘business as usual’.

The central message, put forward by the keepers, is that our planning system is currently dysfunctional because it favours economy over environment.

Some of the campaigns led by these keepers are ongoing and the battle has not yet been lost. However, the documentary raises serious questions about the devastating consequences of planning systems driven by extraction and exploitation.

The planning system is a fundamental part of any civilisation: it protects resources and it protects our health.

In fact, the planning system has delivered huge health gains over many years. For example, we no longer think about sewage and cholera in the 21st century because the planning system in the 19th century carefully engineered that problem away.

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The challenge for town planners and architects now is to do exactly the same thing, not only for public health, but also for nature and biodiversity.

However, in many ways, this was what planning systems originally set out to do. Planning has deep roots in health, welfare, air quality and our lived environment. It is only in relatively recent times that planning has become driven by extracting development value.

But this same ‘value’ does not seem to reach the environment or communities from which it was extracted. As one keeper points out, development ‘value’ is often granted in the name of the community, but monetary value is not returned to them. It goes instead to the person or company which owns the land.

Without significant policy changes, planning systems and authorities will have damaging implications for our natural environment and its resilience to climate change. Poor development in the wrong location could seriously stall green recovery.

However, climate-proof planning would instead future-proof our natural world, mitigating climate risk and contributing to biodiversity recovery.

To achieve this, environmental protection and restoration must sit at the heart of land use and planning decisions.

In Northern Ireland, we currently have no independent environmental protection agency (EPA) and any plans to establish one have been on hold for more than a year.

This means there has been a significant gap in oversight and environmental regulation in Northern Ireland.

An independent EPA would provide a strong regulatory framework for planning decisions and delivery and would also align with global targets such as 30x30 — the commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. Protection for biodiversity and wildlife could, therefore, be strengthened and enhanced in a strong planning system. However, we need planners to work with, not against, nature.

Good strategic planning also involves working with local communities. Many of the keepers talk about how they were ignored by authorities in the early stages of planning and explained that they were not even consulted by developers.

Community consultation and response provides the very basis for planning systems, yet all too often planners see communities as an obstacle, rather than potential, for development.

Where the community provides local environmental expertise, the planning system should also be founded on high-quality, accurate information.

We are very lucky in Northern Ireland to have a wealth of well-resourced and expert bodies who regularly provide us with rigorous environmental data. When these bodies raise concerns about planning proposals, this should be enough to make people stop and think.

Planning should ultimately be a democratic process that mediates differences: the interests of the local and the global; the concerns of present and future generations; and the impact on the economy and the environment. However, in a complex, imbalanced system not all these differing factors are weighted equally.

None of the keepers considered themselves environmentalists at the beginning of their campaigns. They only set out with a vision to protect their homes and community. Their stories remind us of a simple question, sometimes overcomplicated by a deeply political system: who speaks for nature in the planning process?

Fortunately, there are countless individuals across Northern Ireland who dedicate their lives to protecting and safeguarding nature and wildlife.

If planners want to move forward with their proposals, they need to engage seriously and meaningfully with these people, our ‘nature’s keepers’. This will not only boost public confidence in the planning system, but it will also help to give nature a voice.


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