By Kirsten Firth of TTL

Lewes Neighbourhood Plan’s pioneering ecosystem approach – initiated by Transition Town Lewes – is having an impact. The Plan passed its referendum with a 92% ‘yes’ vote in March, and our new Town Councillors are keen to start using the plan to influence development in the town. A case study on the ecosystem approach is gaining attention from the planning media.

The Lewes Neighbourhood Plan is the first in the UK to practically implement an ecosystem approach in one town. At the outset of the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan in 2014, the Town Council agreed to use an ecosystem approach. The town’s location within the South Downs National Park, and strong environmental awareness and memories of recent flooding from the River Ouse, provided the initial motivation. We soon realised that no neighbourhood plan had ever done this before; we had to navigate our own path.

DEVELOPMENT ISSUES IN LEWES

Key local issues addressed in the Neighbourhood Plan are:

Lack of locally affordable housing

Very few sites where the town can expand its boundaries, because of the geographical constraints of flood plains and National Park protection for the Downs. New housing must be built on small infill sites distributed throughout the town.
A strong wish to preserve the fine-grained streets and independent character of this historic market and manufacturing town

WHAT IS AN ECOSYSTEM APPROACH?

The ecosystem approach is increasingly used by government and local planning authorities, to consider the environment when making planning decisions. It identifies the many essential benefits we get from nature, such as clean water, pollination, and outdoor recreation. The ecosystem approach values these benefits and builds them into planning decisions, recognising that humans are part of the ecosystem. In planning, an ecosystem approach can strengthen the three pillars of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental.

The ecosystem approach weaves through the vision and objectives of the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan. It helps to support policies to enhance biodiversity and natural capital on site, going further than current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) guidance. The Plan also includes policies to protect local green spaces, address flood risk, reduce energy and water use, and a popular proposal for a riverside walk through the town.

THE CHALLENGES

Explaining and gaining support for the ecosystem approach initially proved challenging for the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan steering group and consultants. Useful strategies included: drawing on practical local examples of ecosystem services and the benefits they provide; getting local organisations and community groups involved; and showing how environmental policies could address local residents’ concerns about flooding and green spaces.

We needed to find ways to make the ecosystem approach relevant to the town. We also needed to address fears that environmental policies would impose higher costs and make new housing developments unviable or unaffordable.

So we reviewed potential development sites and found that all of them are brown-field. Therefore, there was significant scope to enhance natural capital, biodiversity and flood resilience through good design and green infrastructure on-site, without imposing additional costs on developers.

The assessment of each potential housing development site includes a brief “ecosystem design response” which guides planners and developers about how natural capital and biodiversity may be enhanced on site.

The Lewes Neighbourhood Plan and a case study on the ecosystem approach are here: http://lewes4all.uk/