At present, many planners – and developers - see ecology and nature conservation as constraints, which take time and effort to avoid or mitigate. However, there are real opportunities to be realised by ‘planning for wildlife', to both achieve local biodiversity targets as well as reduce delays and expense for applicants.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) advocates that, if local planning authorities (LPAs) plan for biodiversity at the landscape level, these benefits can be achieved with a little thought at the strategic planning stage.
This strategic approach has been in use since the early 2000’s as a response to the Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulations. Many LPAs have used ‘impact avoidance strategies’ to allow development that has the potential to affect European Sites, providing the applicant contributes to the IAS.
Now, the government is seeking to extend this approach to European Protected Species (EPS) licensing, by piloting local plans to improve the conservation status of Great Crested Newts.
This is being carried out through strategic habitat management, whilst removing the almost ubiquitous requirement for survey and piecemeal mitigation, which has thus far failed to deliver this target.
The approach to protected sites and species is therefore changing and, as we all know, it is important to get it right to avoid expensive legal challenges. Local authority ecologists are a good source of advice although, amid funding cuts, fewer and fewer experienced ecologists are employed by planning authorities. This is also true of the statutory agencies. For example, in the last few years, Natural England has progressively lost around 90 per cent of its budget.
Given this loss of resources, planners need a clear and robust framework for discharging their biodiversity duties.
LPAs should take the opportunity of local plan reviews to establish a developer-funded Biodiversity Strategy. This would provide a framework with clear requirements for biodiversity avoidance, mitigation, compensation, restoration and gain, resulting in more certainty for both applicants and planners.
In the meantime, it is important for individual planners to enhance their understanding of current case law and local conservation issues.
My ‘top tips’ to help planners manage these ecology concerns include:
Don’t try to guess at complicated Habitats Regulations issues
The interpretation of case law changes all the time. Obtain advice from a senior ecologist – not someone who spends all their time in the field, but who is experienced in considering legal and policy issues. The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) website has lists of local ecologists and their expertise.
Understand the ecology of your local area
Get to know what is important in the area by reading Natural England’s local Natural Character Area Profile or, even better, if you can get hold of it, the old English Nature Natural Area Profile.
Identify areas of significant importance
Many areas have Local Nature Partnerships, who have websites describing important local features or identifying important local areas, such as Biodiversity Opportunity Areas (but be warned, every locality seems to have come up with a different approach).
Don’t underestimate the value of Continuing Professional Development
Ask your local ecological consultancy to give you CPD training on a specific issue. Or, alternatively, run CPD training for your local consultancies, creating an opportunity to exchange information and raise issues.
Karen Colebourn is director of consultancy EPR