Strong regional development can help England achieve its national environmental objectives. Rob Bell looks at what progress is being madeA regional approach to environmental planning for England's future is thriving through the actions and partnerships formed between such disparate organisations as regional development agencies, regional assemblies, the Environment Agency, local authorities and NGOs such as Sustainability Northwest.
Public sector visionaries across the UK have recognised the risks and opportunities inherent in fields such as climate change, waste, water use and transport, and are determined that they should be managed for the future and that regional economies should benefit. Action on energy
Now that central government has made its commitment to the development of renewables, regional bodies are scrambling to make sure that their local economies reap the benefits.
Simon Richardson, environmental resources manager for the South East England Development Agency, says that while there is a lot of interest in wind energy, he sees biomass as having a huge future for the region.
"The south east is most wooded region of England, and a lot of it is ancient semi-natural woodland that has been around for at least 500 years," he says. "Not only is it the most ecologically interesting but it is also an economic resource. "Since it can be used for biomass and the woodland itself needs active management, it will count towards renewable energy targets, helps with biodiversity and keeps the rural economy going. It's a real win/win situation."
In the south west, energy is also seen as a potential driver of investment and economic gain. Dominic Vincent, environment manager for the SWRDA (South West Regional Development Agency), identifies it as a key issue. "We are interested as an RDA in wave and tidal technologies, and a whole range of renewables under the biomass banner," he says. "Renewables is a big issue for us - we have recently won four out of the five national bioenergy capital grants."
This kind of thinking just doesn't exist at a more central level, where targets are set and promises made from a distance without any awareness of the true impacts of policy decisions.Environmental capital
For RDAs - whose remit is to drive economic development - carbon emission reduction targets aren't just about international agreements, they are about the threat of flooding, business prosperity and the jobs created by renewable developments. But that doesn't mean that the value of the landscape itself is not understood - in fact it is seen as an asset.
Plot the most deprived areas of the south east onto a map, and lay it over a grid of the region's conservation designation areas and you will find that a lot of economically depressed areas have a very high quality environment immediately next door. Richardson says: "We're trying to use this environmental capital to lead regeneration by finding ways in which it can help improve the economic and social conditions in the area."
While conservation areas are traditionally seen as a constraint on development, the RDA's approach is use the environment as a marketing tool.
"Inward investors aren't going to come into an area they perceive as grotty," Richardson says. "But if you invest in the environmental capital, you're increasing the chances of economic success - plus making it more pleasant for the people who live there.
"The environment isn't just important in its own right, it's a capital economic asset, and there are opportunities for environment-led regeneration."Benefiting communities
Those involved in planning at regional level seem much more in tune with the needs of those communities, than central government. Mark Atherton, head of environment and sustainable development at the North West Development Agency, doesn't see a conflict between development and protecting the environment. He thinks that the economy and the environment should develop hand-in-hand. "We have to ensure that a development is going to benefit local communities and that the impact of the business site on the local environment and communities is taken into account at the planning stage," he says. "We have to balance the need for economic growth with protecting environmental assets."Involving the public
Engaging local people is also essential. Waste management is a key issue across England's regions - the south east's population of 8m is growing faster than the rest of the country and is set to increase further over the next two decades. This throws up a unique set of problems for planners.
David Jordan, the Environment Agency's southern region director, says: "There has to be a shift in the way in which we manage waste. People don't associate their individual actions with the collective outcome. An extra black bin bag of rubbish at the end of the week has no impact whatsoever on an individual level, but multiply that by 8m and the impact is huge. So we have to help people understand how their individual action can have a positive outcome rather than a negative one."The thirsty south east
Water use is another major issue for the south east of England, where around 80% of water is used by the rapidly growing domestic sector. However, this impacts on development too. Richardson says: "Unless we can reduce domestic use, opportunities for economic growth could be constrained - we have about as much water available per capita as countries like Oman.
"If we can lobby for some sticks but also offer some carrots and best practice, we can improve water efficiency and make the best of the resources we've got." The Regional Assembly is also concerned about water availability, especially as deputy prime minister John Prescott's Sustainable Communities plan for major housing developments in four areas of the south east is planned for areas where a number of aquifers are already over-extracted.
Regional planner David Payne is working with the Environment Agency to identify where in the region demand is exceeding supply, and to identify if and how the problem can be managed.Sustainable construction
The planned house-build of 200,000 homes, creates both threats and opportunities. Everyone involved in planning for England's south east is eager to see environmentally friendly and sustainable principles taken into account.
Jordan says: "By encouraging sustainable house-building practices, we will grow the market for environmental technologies. That way we will get a win across three areas: the environmental; the economic by creating a market for environmental products; and the social because you get a better house and therefore a better quality of life."Waste as a resource
Richardson also sees opportunities. "The construction industry is going to be going great guns in the next thirty years delivering the deputy prime minister's housing plans and it's the construction industry that produces more waste than any other sector," he says.
"We keep talking about waste, but it isn't waste, it's a resource. There are opportunities for business there, to find ways of reusing and recycling it." Atherton agrees, and says that the NWDA is committed to grabbing opportunities with both hands. "Waste is two sides of the same coin in some ways," he says. "Waste is a problem if you can't dispose of it sustainably - it becomes an eyesore and a barrier to business competitiveness.
"But if you can find ways to use waste for the benefit of business - creating products out of waste perhaps - it becomes an economic incentive rather than a cost."Regional successes mean environmental gains
Across the country there are people dedicated to the regeneration and development of their patch of England, who are damned if they are going to see it buried in waste, ruined by climate change or destroyed through unemployment.
This is the beauty of the regional approach to environmental planning - the personal attachments of those working far from the Whitehall hothouse.
Vincent spells it out: "We have identified the environment as a key regional driver because the quality of the environment in the south west is a draw for business and tourism so we ought to look after it.
"We've found that there isn't a conflict between the environment and development. We're signed up to the principles of sustainable development, which is about integrating the social, environmental and economic aspects. And while we are an economically driven organisation, we are committed to working on environmental issues."