The above principles of the Ecosystem Approach are evident (light green) or significant (dark green) within this case study

Much Wenlock Neighbourhood Plan

What is this case study about?

This case study is about planning at the local level and the potential to retrofit Ecosystem Approach and ecosystem services as a tool for evaluation.

The Much Wenlock Neighbourhood Plan has been prepared by the Town Council and members of the community to direct the scale, type and location of development for the parish over the next 13 years. The preparation of the Plan has been through the identification of ideas, extensive survey work and gathering evidence through to the distillation of policy objectives and site allocations. It is currently before an Inspector undertaking assessment which will then trigger a referendum.

What is its contextual setting?

The Plan has been prepared for a small market town within a wider rural parish. The town and parish has a high quality and historic environment; 2 conservation areas and partially within the Shropshire Hills AONB. Its attractiveness is enhanced by a broad mix of housing types, a medieval High Street with good local shops and both a primary and secondary school serving a wider rural area. It is located between the growth points of Telford, Shrewsbury, and Bridgnorth and is within commuting distance of the West Midlands conurbation.

It is, as might be anticipated, under significant pressure from housing developers. The strategic policies for Shropshire set out in the adopted Core Strategy, provide the planning context and in practice the growth ambitions of Telford are equally relevant. The Town Council has become the neighbourhood planning authority and formally driven the Plan whilst Shropshire Council has enabled the progression of the Plan.

How has the Ecosystem Approach been used?

The Plan has been prepared without explicit use of the ecosystem approach or ecosystem services due to perceived barriers of jargon and lack of group familiarity with the concepts; the Natural Environment White Paper and National Planning Policy Framework were being published as the plan was being developed. However, many of the good planning principles underpinning the Ecosystem Approach (principles 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, 11 and 12) informed the method. The Plan was firmly built on the views and aspirations of the community, identified through many road shows, public meetings and surveys; at each stage of the Plan the community was asked to affirm that Plan was reflecting their expectations.

Arising from this, the Plan has addressed a range of ecosystem services – including landscape, flooding, water quality, biodiversity – and the benefits that arise, such as economic gain from tourism helping maintain local shops. Policies have been drafted to help protect these but it would be true to say that the Plan was not prepared through a systematic analysis of ecosystems services. The ecosystems approach would be a useful framework through which to undertake the required review [in 3-5 years’ time]; it may be helpful at that point to understand the economic benefits from services given the pressure on local and neighbourhood plans to deliver economic growth.

What has happened?

The Plan preparation has involved all of the initial stages of the cycles. IDEAS - through road shows, public meetings and on-line commentary the Steering Group generated a rich flow of ideas and aspirations for the structure of the Plan. SURVEY – an all-household residents’ survey elicited over 700 responses and all businesses in the parish were asked to complete a questionnaire; discussions with school students elicited some further structured feedback. A raft of other evidence was gathered to help further understanding of the community and its context. ASSESS – in drafting the objectives and policies the Steering Group assessed a wide range of possible objectives and alternatives for site allocations; this was done through sounding boards of volunteers, environmental assessment criteria and conformity with strategic policies. The PLAN has been drafted and tested through further informal and formal consultation periods and is now undergoing formal, regulatory assessment by an independent examiner. It has already been used as a context for some development management decisions and the Town Council is committed to reviewing delivery and success in due course.

What is the added value of using the Ecosystem Approach?

  • See above.
  • A simple ecosystem mapping exercise could be a powerful visual tool to aid discussion of environmental priorities and in particular to locate areas of deficit requiring more targeted interventions.
  • Applying the Ecosystem Approach to the neighbourhood plan would be especially beneficial if it was also applied in the policy preparation of the Core Strategy; a common understanding at the strategic scale and local level of these services and benefits would be mutually reinforcing. To some extent extant SEA/EIA processes allow this but at a more superficial level.
  • It provides a way of seeing where some ecosystem services are missing in the plan objectives.

What are the key barriers to progress/mainstreaming?

The key issue would be the ability of the community to understand and apply the Ecosystems Approach in an oven-ready format. Feedback from the June workshop quickly found that the technical and academic language was off-putting to many involved at the community level of planning.

There are political limitations in the extent to which local knowledge(s) and plans are able to inform wider processes and decisions upstream which are generally delivered top-down to communities. The requirement for conformity remains one directional but in due course neighbourhood plans could be seen as essential building blocks for the strategic planning layer.

What are the lessons learnt?

  • That good planning automatically embeds many of the principles of the ecosystem approach; therefore there are inherent dangers of portraying the approach as something new. There are opportunity spaces to improve existing plans and the idea of retrofitting the ecosystem services lens for monitoring and evaluation processes is attractive.
  • That locally led-initiatives are very resource intensive requiring considerable inputs of time across the community
  • The need to involve and sustain involvement of all key target groups in the plan process; for example the needs of local youth were particularly challenging to identify. This was partly as a result of having no youths on steering group, the ‘bureaucratic’ process of creating a plan and running it through the formal statutory requirements not being essentially attractive features.
  • The need to present actions justified from evidence and surveys on the identified needs of the community in a clear and transparent way.
  • A culture change is required in the way that local planning authority and the development sectors perceive communities and their planning role if this is to be effective more widely. 

What next?

The most powerful step would be to undertake a robust analysis of local ecosystem services, their significant links to wider sets of services (sub-regional and perhaps global) and a clear catalogue of critical natural capital. On this basis the value of the services and capital could be established and used to drive both planning policy and implementation (e.g. through better management of places, payment for ecosystem services).

Another future option is to consider how the Ecosystem Approach might be retrofitted as a lens to inform the review and evaluation stages of the Plan and the additional value this might provide.

Case study author: Mike Grace