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Local Planning and stewardship of green spaces

Hannah Gardiner

The value of stewardship has been recognised for some time in the farming, land management and conservation sectors. However, in relation to the management of urban green spaces, it was forgotten and is just starting to regain ground.

Green Infrastructure (GI) has risen up the agenda in planning terms. The NPPF now supports the creation of strategic policies for the conservation and enhancement of GI (NPPF, Para 20), and many local planning policy documents include Open Space Strategies, as well as Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) related to GI. Designing, building and maintaining GI presents complexity at every stage, and you can see this in how varied the focus and emphasis is in planning policy. With overworked planners trying to add detail on so many aspects (biodiversity, functionality, etc…) long-term maintenance rarely gets a look in. 

Upon review, the only plans I found mentioning stewardship are; South Staffordshires Open Space Plan, where the concept of the council stewarding its land is mentioned throughout, and Plymouths which lists an aim to support community involvement in stewardship. In terms of maintenance, often the necessity is a clear ‘management plan’ (even as short as five years), without specifying that it must be viable. Commuted sums covering 15 or 25 years are sometimes specified, but that feels like baking in a problem for the future. Keeping maintenance costs low in the design is often written in, this could go further in specifying that designs should be functional; providing proper amenity opportunities for residents, and enabling the potential for income generation to support maintenance (where possible). I found the emphasis to be generally on ensuring maintenance implications are understood but not that appropriate organisation or governance structures should be in place to carry it out.

We already see a growing trend in the development industry towards ‘place-making’ rather than just house building, but it rarely extends to place keeping, despite many interesting examples of alternative models. Berkeley Homes have created a framework for Social Sustainability, and provide ‘community development’ support during the early years of new developments. A new set of standards, Building with Nature, was launched in 2017 to try and support benchmarking at all stages, including long-term management and maintenance. So far, some developers have signed up and it’s included in Cotswolds Open Space Strategy, but it’s early days to know if it will become an industry driver. 

These considerations make sense on larger scale developments, but what about smaller sites? With local authorities no longer adopting civic infrastructure you can end up with a piecemeal set of arrangements across the locale, unnecessary layers of administration, double working, and challenges of fairness for residents who may pay varying amounts of money between taxes, precepts, and service charges.  

Local planning feels like an appropriate place to try and address this and steer the industry towards long-term stewardship thinking. My question is how can it be best harnessed to drive this forward? One suggestion is for assessment of long-term maintenance arrangements to be one of the documents required for a submission. Wording could be strengthened in SPD’s, although some said SPD’s are not strong enough and can be pushed back at appeal, meaning the wording also needs to be in Local Plans. National Government Guidance on GI was updated in July this year, now proposing the requirement for sustainable management and maintenance arrangements and that these considerations must be factored in early (Para 008), so wider policy support is there. It just feels there is not enough knowledge in the industry about what this would look like in practice.

I want to untangle this and produce some guidance to support planning officers to ensure stewardship thinking is embedded across their strategies. My next step will be holding an online roundtable discussion on October 30th 12.30-13.30. If you would like to be involved in this or have thoughts to share please get in touch!

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