The Role of the Planning System in Protecting and Enhancing Soils

April 2004

Executive Summary

Soil has long been overlooked in environmental planning. Whilst it has sometimes benefited from indirect protection, until recently its importance and vulnerability have not been reflected in more explicit strategies. This study explored the current and potential role of the planning system in protecting and enhancing soils.

Soil is the physical material that covers much of the earth's surface. The extended timescales over which soils are formed means that they should be regarded as a non-renewable resource. At the same time they are a fragile resource, being particularly vulnerable to contamination, compaction and erosion by wind or water. Issues such as climate change threaten to increase this fragility, possibly reducing soils' ability to accommodate change without significant and lasting damage.

Although widely overlooked, soil plays a critical role in supporting natural systems. It also supports human life by providing raw materials, food production and a 'platform' for building. The concept of soil's functions is now widely accepted as a way of understanding the benefits provided by soil. Soil functions are summarised under the following headings:

These functions provide a starting point from which to consider the current and potential role of the planning system in protecting and enhancing soils. Whilst the planning system does not cover some key functions (most notably agriculture and forestry activities), development in its various forms can have significant implications for the full range of soil functions. There is a case for providing soils with the same level of consideration as air and water.

The study comprised three main stages. The first examined the current coverage of soil and soil functions within current planning practice in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. A sample of planning authorities was contacted via a questionnaire survey and follow up discussions. The development plans for a selection of these authorities were reviewed in greater detail. The study also considered the role of development control in protecting and enhancing soils. The second part of the study focussed on the potential role that the planning system could play. This considered the potential role within the scope of the planning system as it currently stands, and more fundamental changes that could make it easier for the planning system to provide soil with the protection it deserves. The third part of the study involved the preparation of a suite of outputs that can be used to raise awareness of soils and the potential role of the planning system. This includes a conference paper and a good practice guide.

The study findings confirmed that there is currently a low level of recognition of soil and soil functions within national planning policy guidance and advice. The principal exception is in relation to minerals and waste where there is specific advice on issues relating to soil stripping, storage and the avoidance of compaction, contamination and erosion. There is a clear opportunity to extend this guidance to other types of development, particularly in terms of their construction and decommissioning phases.

Similar conclusions emerged from the review of development plans in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. Implicit protection is provided by other policies relating to biodiversity, greenbelt, and brownfield land but comprehensive and explicit policies are generally lacking. Few strategic environmental assessments or sustainability appraisals of plans had covered soil issues comprehensively.

Given the lack of specific soil policies within development plans, it is perhaps not surprising that soil is rarely identified as a key issue in the development control process. Again, the principal exception to this is mineral working and land filling where soil handling and restoration are often subject to detailed conditions. There is an opportunity to extend the use of such conditions to other types of development. A further concern was the poor coverage of soil issues within environmental statements.

It is clear that the planning system is not realising its potential role in protecting and enhancing soils. This reflects a low awareness of soil issues, a lack of user friendly guidance and advice and a lack of resources, information and relevant expertise.

These findings led to the recommendation that soil should be accorded the same status in national planning policy as air and water. This should be backed by improved coverage in national policy guidance and the preparation of good practice guidance. Development plans should include specific policies relating to soils, ensuring that soils are considered as a key policy layer or criterion against which development proposals are considered. The current review of planning systems provides an opportunity to raise the profile of soils within development plans. Development control should reflect best practice in the use of conditions relating to soil protection and enhancement. The coverage of soil issues should be improved throughout the EIA process.

The study included the preparation of a range of outputs designed to raise awareness of soil's importance and the potential role of the planning system in providing protection and encouraging enhancement. These include:

KEYWORDS: Soil, Soil Functions, Development Plans, Development Control, Environmental Impact Assessment

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N.B. The report is available for download from the SNIFFER Website