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

North Devon & Torridge Joint Local Plan

What is this case study about?

This case study illustrated how the development of the North Devon and Torridge Joint local plan can incorporate an Ecosystem Approach and embed an Ecosystem Services Framework to help shape the statutory framework for the future development of the area.

What is its contextual setting?

The Joint North Devon and Torridge Local Plan is presently being prepared under the provisions of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 by North Devon Council and Torridge District Council. This forms the statutory plan for decision-making, involving a wide range of audiences in its creation. Publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in March 2012 recognised the value of ecosystem services to the delivery of sustainable development as central to the Government’s growth agenda.

The local plan preparation process also drew together a number of other work streams which also centred on a recognition of the value of ecosystems services to plan making and decision-taking; these included participation as a pilot authority in a county wide biodiversity offsetting programme, involvement in the Ecosystems Knowledge Network and contribution towards other spatial strategies such as the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve at Braunton Burrows and the Nature Improvement Area on the culm measures.

How has the Ecosystem Approach been used?

The approach taken was driven by Section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which states that a local authority exercising their plan-making functions must do so with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. The NPPF sets out a presumption in favour of sustainable development (paragraph 14) and advises that the planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by a number of measures that include ‘recognising the wider benefits of ecosystems services’ (paragraph 109). The authority responded by mapping the different ecosystem services across its area as a baseline assessment. The local plan process necessarily embeds many of the principles of the Ecosystem Approach in its consideration of policy options and sites.

For example, Principle 1 reflects the acquisition and requirement for legitimacy through tests of soundness that include a preferred option in response to community engagement and its adoption through democratic processes. Principle 3 is relevant through the duty to co-operate across boundaries in plan-making thereby recognising impacts beyond plan boundaries and necessitating partnership approaches and policy prescriptions. Principle 5 will be central to the policy wording and accompanying justification and also in terms of process through the evaluation of alternative policy approaches at consultation stages of the Development Plan and its explicit recognition in the Sustainability Appraisal process. E.g. “Policy ST11: Enhancing Environmental Assets: The quality of northern Devon’s natural environment will be protected and enhanced by: … (g) conserving and enhancing the robustness of northern Devon’s ecosystems and the range of ecosystem services they provide;” (North Devon and Torridge Local Plan, 2013: 54) The Ecosystem Services Framework was also embedded within a baseline assessment in the proposed masterplan for Westacott, a major housing development near Barnstaple. Here, a simple ecosystem assessment was able to assess ecosystem services against key criteria. An ecosystem approach is also being embedded into the master planning of the Ilfracombe southern area extension.

What is the added value of using the Ecosystem Approach?

  • It helped planners and elected members think of the environment as an asset for development rather than as a traditional constraint.
  • It identified new environmental opportunities as part of the spatial vision theme for a world class environment in the local plan.
  • The baseline assessment incorporating an Ecosystem Services Framework identified environmental opportunities and ecosystem service trade-offs that hitherto may not have been realised.
  • The Joint Local Plan manages land use impacts of other infrastructure and service delivery partners; e.g. education, highway, health spending bodies as well as organisations developing other strategies that will have a land use impact on the locality; these include Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and private landowners.
  • It allowed consideration of the impacts and opportunities at a landscape scale 'across the map'.

What are the key barriers to progress/mainstreaming?

  • Business interests via the Local Enterprise Partnership still view the environment as a traditional restriction on development.
  • Some elected members are reluctant to embrace the Ecosystem Approach as it imposes a new and complex vocabulary and takes people outside their traditional comfort zones.
  • There are major concerns that Planning Inspectors may not ‘get’ ecosystem services and may find a plan unsound. This is a key perceptual barrier to overcome.
  • Raising awareness of the value of an ecosystem services approach to audiences.

What are the lessons learnt?

  • Pro-active (imaginative) and inclusive engagement with delivery partners using the same language early enough in the plan preparation so as to make a difference and demonstrate added value.
  • Need for consistency across different strategies drawn up by different organisations – as far as is realistic – so these at least point in the same direction.
  • Acquiring the necessary evidence from authoritative and up to date sources to underpin any policy prescription together with the need to secure councillor support (perhaps even a project champion) to ensure ecosystem service delivery is not compromised by the challenges posed by a less open and perhaps more traditional perspective on the Government’s growth agenda.
  • The need to look beyond traditional plan boundaries in order to recognise the complexity and multi-layered character of ecosystems services (including a cultural dimension) and to market the environment as an asset with benefits to a wide range of potential users.
  • Close working with external national organisations on developing the Ecosystem Approach added legitimacy to what might otherwise have been viewed as too parochial a focus; this was enhanced by active participation in the TABLES project and Ecosystems Knowledge Network.

What next?

The consultation draft responses are currently being worked through with a view to submit a revised plan in the winter. The master planning of Westacott, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe southern area extension is presently being progressed using an ecosystem services approach working with other organisations, including Natural England, the Environment Agency, English Heritage and North Devon AONB Partnership.

Case study authors: M Kelley and A Austen