Given the difficulties that environmentalists have had over the years to get Torfaen County Borough to understand our concerns about sacrificing green fields to the gods of growth and ‘development’, it is quite a shock to find a Biodiversity Management System being proposed, as a pilot, for addressing strategic land-use issues (particularly the current Local Development Plan process). Perhaps it is a consequence of the authority’s shock at the decision by the Council to change its collective mind on the large-scale South Sebastopol development.

Whatever the reason, the draft Torfaen Biodiversity Action Plan is at first glance an exciting and innovative new way of bringing biodiversity in from the cold, to be a main consideration in planning strategy, rather than a minor issue which needs only lip service to sideline and ignore. At the same time, one can sense that there may be dangers in establishing formal Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) in this area, if that is the aim. We may gain protection for some valuable green areas, but at the expense of defining other green areas as developable – or so it will be claimed by speculators. At the time of the first South Sebastopol, the planner stated at the Council meeting that Countryside Council for Wales had not objected, so the planning application should be approved; ignoring the fact that CCW’s brief was limited to commenting on statutorily protected areas only (National Parks, AONBs etc) - or so the CCW Chairman told me. (The brief seems to have widened since then).

The gist of this new strategy for biodiversity is: -

1. The need for this was identified from review of the Torfaen Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) and conflict within the Local Development Plan (LDP) - I assume the LBAP was being pretty well ignored in the LDP process. The failure of WAG to hit its target to halt biodiversity decline by 2010 must have been due in part to the failure of local authorities to take it seriously.

2. But give someone in Torfaen their due, a consultant was instructed to do something about it, and here is the first step. The ‘Early Draft’ says that it is designed towards  ’mainstreaming biodiversity’ and ‘encouraging public engagement’. Also that ‘ … the value of ecosystem services has been undervalued …’   Most environmentalists would applaud the latter statement. We shall see if it suceeds – but in Torfaen there is hope, in the wake of this current Council’s conversion to enlightenment at South Sebastopol  

3. The points I took away from a recent meeting on the draft strategy were: -

a) Six ecosystem types considered; b) a database (GIS) of all green areas in Torfaen based on this classification to be produced; c) a framework to be established for each (presumably for conservation / enhancement); d) prioritising these areas into 4 ‘Tiers of Value’, defined as Tier 1 – protect, Tier 2 – trade, Tier 3 – ignore, Tier 4 – Enhance;          e)  then applying all this to potential development.

Tier 1 is the gold standard - if it works well, no Tier 1 classified land will be developed. The contentious element is of course the ‘trade’ proposal. Development of Tier 2 areas would be possible if the developer proposed a sufficiently attractive swop – enhancing another area to an equivalent value. I can see a number of concerns and foggy areas in this, for a start will Tier 1 turn out to be a minimum, Tier 3 most of the green areas? (What Tier would South Sebastopol achieve?) Who decides the classification, professionals only, or will there be a public consultation element? Can changes to area classification be accommodated? Amenity (lawn) grassland (Tier 3) is described as ecologically useless – that could be challenged. There are others, but that’s enough for now.

But perhaps I am too churlish – this is an exciting attempt at a really new way of valuing green spaces, and thereby combating unsustainable and irresponsible speculative development. We must hope it is successful, and leads to a transformation away from a planning process that regards green spaces as easy and natural growth of the built environment.  Local readers – GET INVOLVED! Contact TCBC and ask questions about your local green area.