I recall several years ago participating in a workshop where, to my dismay, a local authority planning officer characterised the Environment Agency as the organisation that liked to ‘say no’. I’d like to think that today he would describe us as the organisation that likes to say ‘yes if’.
‘Yes’ let’s see how we can help you achieve what you want, ‘if’ we can find the right solution for the environment at the same time. It’s an approach that permeates every aspect of what the Environment Agency does.
So what does that mean for our role as a planning advisor? It means working in partnership with local authorities and developers to avoid the environmental risks and capitalise on opportunities for environmental enhancement so that, collectively, we enable sustainable growth that benefits communities now and into the future.
It’s no mean task, however. The Environment Agency is the largest statutory planning adviser in England, last year handling 31,431 planning applications and pre-application enquiries and providing expert advice on issues as wide ranging as flood risk, protection of land and water quality, waste regulation and fisheries.
We responded to 96% of those within the statutory 21 day time limit or such period agreed with the local planning authority. The average response time from our teams was 15 days. In the few cases where we needed more time to resolve the environmental issues with the local planning authority or developer, the average extension was only eight days. I’m proud of the way in which our officers have risen to the challenge, taking pressures on resources in their stride to provide the kind of timely, high quality service that is key to our aim of enabling sustainable growth.
Take for instance our role as a planning advisor on flooding issues. We help local authorities by painting the picture of flood risk so that they can plan for and adapt to climate change. With fewer than 4% of developments in the last year going ahead contrary to the Environment Agency’s advice, the evidence shows we are a trusted and respected adviser.
The outcomes are clear. Over the last ten years, the vast majority of new development has been outside the floodplain. Where development has been permitted in flood risk areas, in the majority of cases it has been in locations that are well protected by flood defences or where our advice on higher standards of resilience has been adopted, such as raising floor levels.
The ‘yes if’ approach means we avoid objecting where we can. Of the 10,980 planning consultations we received last year which required flood risk advice, we were able, through on-going dialogue with developers, to resolve the vast majority of issues with the result that we sustained objections in only 748 cases.
We also stand ready to help local authorities as they update their strategic Local Plans following the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework. Through our expert advice and information, we can help to ensure that Local Plans protect the environment, account for climate change and rely on policies that ensure that development remains safe over its lifetime. We are also working with Local Enterprise Partnerships and Enterprise Zones to help facilitate sustainable development and avoid any blockages or delays to growth.
We are listening to our customers and are not complacent. That is why, in response to the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, we published an Improvement Plan. One of the many improvements we are taking forward this year is to offer to work with developers to parallel track planning and permitting applications for complex sites which should provide greater flexibility and certainty for new developments.
We recognise the current economic challenge facing the country and we want to do our bit to enable growth whilst also delivering local environmental improvements for people and the environment. We are a key deliverer for green growth. The ‘yes if’ approach is our way of demonstrating we can work together to achieve this end.
Julie Foley, head of sustainable places, Environment Agency