Rosalind Skillen: the voice of nature must be heard in the planning process

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

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

Whether it’s protecting Larne Lough from a huge landfill or saving the Sperrins from a proposed gold mine, the film highlights several incidents where custodians say planning permission is given to the detriment of nature and human health. Time and time again, we see a lack of community consultation, with extraction being favored over protecting the environment and pursuing “business as usual”.

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

Some of the campaigns led by these guardians are ongoing and the battle is not yet lost. However, the documentary raises serious questions about the devastating consequences of planning systems based on extraction and exploitation.

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

In fact, the planning system has enabled tremendous progress in health for many years. For example, we no longer think about sewage and cholera in the 21st century because the 19th century planning system carefully eliminated this problem.

The challenge for urban planners and architects is now 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 were originally intended to do. Planning has deep roots in health, wellness, air quality and our living environment. It is only in relatively recent times that planning has become focused on extracting value from development.

But this same “value” does not seem to reach the environment or the communities from which it was extracted. As one gatekeeper points out, the “value” of the development is often granted on behalf of the community, but the monetary value is not returned to them. Rather, it goes to the person or company that owns the land.

Without significant policy changes, planning systems and authorities will have detrimental implications for our natural environment and its resilience to climate change. Bad development in the wrong place could seriously block the green recovery.

However, climate-proof planning would instead protect our natural world for the future, mitigating climate risks and contributing to the restoration of biodiversity.

To achieve this, the protection and restoration of the environment must be at the heart of planning and land-use planning decisions.

In Northern Ireland, we currently have no independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and any plans to create one have been on hold for over a year.

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

An independent EPA would provide a strong regulatory framework for planning decisions and implementation and would also align with global goals such as 30×30 – the commitment to protect 30% of land and seas by 2030. Protection Biodiversity and Wildlife could therefore be strengthened and reinforced 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 custodians say they were ignored by the authorities at the start of the planning and explain that they were not even consulted by the developers.

Community consultation and response form the very basis of planning systems, but too often planners see communities as an obstacle, rather than a potential, for development.

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

We are very fortunate in Northern Ireland to have a multitude of well-resourced and expert organizations that regularly provide us with rigorous environmental data. When these bodies raise concerns about development proposals, that should be enough to give people pause.

Planning should ultimately be a democratic process that mediates differences: local and global interests; the concerns of present and future generations; and the impact on the economy and the environment. However, in a complex and unbalanced system, all these different factors do not have the same weight.

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

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

If planners are to move forward with their proposals, they must engage seriously and meaningfully with these people, our ‘guardians of nature’. This will not only build public confidence in the planning system, but will also help give nature a voice.

Louisa R. Loomis