Seeing the Wood Through the Trees – Natural England’s New Wildlife Licencing Policies

Natural England’s four new policies herald the biggest overhaul in wildlife licencing in years. The aims are to benefit both European Protected Species (EPS) and developers by prioritising habitat creation at a landscape scale over mitigation at a site level, and enabling developments to proceed without seasonal delays and with significant cost savings.

To slipstream these policies, Natural England is trialling a system of district licencing, which would see Natural England and local authorities shouldering far more of the responsibility for EPS conservation.

Emily Power, an Ecologist at Greengage, has reviewed the key details of these policies, summarising what the changes may mean for the industry.

Policy 1 – Greater flexibility when excluding and relocating European Protected Species (EPS) from development sites

This policy is aimed at great crested newts (GCN) and allows greater scope for developers to provide compensatory habitat rather than mitigation as a strategy to safeguard GCN from the impacts of development. Currently, six to seven times the amount of money is spent on excluding GCN from development sites than on creating habitat, despite the latter having a greater long term benefit for GCN. This policy would allow developers to bypass the seasonally-constrained trapping and translocation methods and opt instead for habitat creation.

The caveat

More compensatory habitat would be required if opting for this instead of mitigation, and it would need to be shown that this approach would have a greater positive impact. Watching briefs by suitably qualified ecologists would still be required to ensure that newts are protected during works; the legislation has not changed and it remains an offence to kill, injure or take a great crested newt.

Policy 2 – Greater flexibility in the location of newly created habitats that compensate for habitats that will be lost

In conjunction with Policy 1, Policy 2 allows compensatory habitats to be created away from the development site, rather than making space onsite or nearby. By removing the restrictions on where GCN may be moved, opportunities arise to create habitat where it is most needed, such as near dwindling GCN populations, or to bridge a gap between two isolated populations.

This approach takes into account the wider landscape, rather than moving individual GCN to receptor sites with no idea of how those ‘tinkerings’ will affect the population, or whether those relocated individuals have been left isolated from neighbouring populations. From a development perspective, there is more flexibility and the difficulties of finding on-site or nearby receptor areas is reduced.

The caveat

Compensatory habitat must still be created in an area that will benefit the local population; although the definition of “local” seems to be up for debate. The ability to design compensatory habitat such that it benefits the wider population requires knowledge of where those populations are, how big they are, how well-connected they are, and how resilient they are to change.

Which is why Natural England is trialling District Licencing.

District Licencing

Following a trial in Woking, Natural England are hoping to revolutionise the licencing system, placing the responsibility of protecting great crested newts on local authorities and asking developers to foot the bill.

In line with the above policies, it is the local authority that will secure the land and provide the habitat compensation for any developments in the area – developers would no longer need to apply to Natural England for a licence. Natural England’s role would be to establish an overview of GCN populations at a district level, identify areas that would benefit from additional GCN habitat, such as near isolated or small populations, and weigh that against the scale of proposed developments in the district.

Development contributions would be set by the local authority and will be proportional to the scale of the project and the level of impact that they would have on GCN. Natural England will make the ultimate decision on whether the proposals for habitat creation by the local authorities are sufficient to ensure adverse effects from the developments are avoided.

Overall this should result in a centralised system of GCN conservation, rather than unconnected mitigation by individual developments. The programme is due to be rolled out to 150 districts over the next 3 years and it is expected that this scheme will be taken up by three quarters of eligible developments.

Policy 3 – Allowing EPS to have access to temporary habitats that will be developed at a later date

Inspired by strategies used in continental Europe, this policy would allow temporary habitats to be created and removed without excluding EPS. Currently, developments that inadvertently create excellent EPS habitat (such as waterbodies during quarrying works) opt to fence the area and destroy all habitats to avoid any dealings with EPS.

However, it is preferable to have these habitats even temporarily, rather than not at all, and so this policy would allow temporary habitats to be created and removed without the need for permanent exclusion fencing and trapping and translocation.

The caveat

Following development, a management plan must be implemented in order to maintain the population at the same level as during works, and determining a baseline would require surveys.

Policy 4 – Appropriate and relevant surveys where the impacts of development can be confidently predicted

The final policy seeks to ensure that surveys are not enforced where the costs outweigh the additional certainty that the surveys would bring. If the impacts of a development can be predicted and mitigation or compensatory adequately designed to protect the conservation status of local populations of EPS, then developments should be able to proceed without excess surveys.

This specifically relates to bats, and will only be applicable in exceptional circumstances. However, it would mean that incomplete survey data could be acceptable (for example when access to a building could not be obtained due to health and safety reasons, or when there is urgent need to carry out repair works). Where survey data is out of date and it can be shown that no changes have occurred to the structure or habitat in question, repeat surveys would not be necessary.

The caveat

In the absence of evidence, any mitigation or compensation schemes must cover the maximum impact, often over-mitigating or over-compensating. The impacts must be inferred from whatever information is available, including discussions with bat groups and experts.

Taken together, these policies allow developments to proceed with far more flexibility and without the high price tag. For EPS, a focus on habitats and broad scale populations should have a greater impact on the conservation status than a focus on individuals. It’s a case of seeing the wood through the trees, and the reduction of “red tape” (everyone’s favourite) will hopefully garner a bit more goodwill between developers and wildlife.

To discuss how these changes to wildlife licencing policy could affect your business in the future feel free to contact the Greengage team on 0203 544 4000, or email Emily Power at emily.power@greengage-env.com. Greengage are currently running a series of lunchtime CPD seminar sessions on the topic.