Guest blog – Planning and biodiversity survey advice in England by Tim Reed

Although an ornithologist by training, Tim Reed has a background in monitoring and data quality- starting with standardising management planning and data recording for the statutory sector, moving on to developing the widely-used Common Standards site condition model.

After a long period introducing peer-reviewable data and biodiversity and ecosystem reporting models in big corporates around the world, Tim has spent the last few years working on data quality and the truly incredible material produced in support of development proposals in the UK.

Comments and issues appear regularly in his blog.

 

Planning and biodiversity survey advice in England

When Local Planning Authorities decide planning applications, working from a secure evidence base for assessing biodiversity impacts, is a necessary, but not easy, task.  In England, Natural England (NE) used to provide an advisory service to help understand the potential biodiversity impact of a planned development. Now, much of this service is undertaken at arm’s length: through a series of NE and Defra advisory notes on the Defra Gov.UK web site.

Defra and NE’s advice

Local Planning Authorities (LPA) have for a long time had the role of deciding small and medium scale planning issues. These include chicken sheds such as Mark Avery is objecting to.  Big infrastructure plans go direct to central government, but, for the most part, the LPA does the day-to-day work of scrutinising planning applications and minimising impacts to biodiversity and ecosystem services (Defra: www.gov.uk/guidance/natural-environment).

Defra appears to be tipping the balance towards the presumption for change:

“Information on biodiversity impacts and opportunities should inform all stages of development (including, for instance, site selection and design including any pre-application consultation as well as the application itself). An ecological survey will be necessary in advance of a planning application if the type and location of development are such that the impact on biodiversity may be significant and existing information is lacking or inadequate. Pre-application discussion can help scope whether this is the case and, if so, the survey work required.”

There is an element of Catch 22 here: those very early assessments presume that suitable desk-based data sets are available, and sought, and that an appropriate field-based pre-assessment has been undertaken. It also assumes that there is a competent LPA resource in place to hold the discussion. Defra continues:

“Local planning authorities should only require ecological surveys where clearly justified, for example if they consider there is a reasonable likelihood of a protected species being present and affected by development. Assessments should be proportionate to the nature and scale of development proposed and the likely impact on biodiversity.”

All of this is based on the presumption that it is possible to understand the potential impacts of the project: that there is a credible reference baseline. The basic question is how does a planning authority ecologist know what to look for, and to expect? How do they know when they have got it?

Planning and protected species

In its overview page Defra states:

“As a planning authority use Natural England’s standing advice to review applications that might affect protected species.”

Why should you use standing advice (SA), when there is an agency full of specialists to hand? Because it:

  • avoids the need to contact Natural England for an individual response for each planning application
  • tells you which survey methods need to be used to detect whether a protected species is present and how they use the site
  • helps you agree appropriate risk reduction and compensation measures to avoid harming a protected species

Clearly, NE has better things to do than talk to the public (even planning authority specialists).

If LPAs are being forced to rely on SA, then it is critical that the advice is detailed enough to allow planners to decide what to do, and how to decide when things haven’t been done properly. The overview states:

The standing advice explains when and how to carry out a survey for a particular species. You can refuse planning permission, or ask for a survey to be redone, if:

  • it isn’t suitable
  • it’s carried out at the wrong time of year
  • you don’t have enough information to assess the effect on a protected species”

 

The simple question is: how far can any planner rely on the standing advice to deliver credible guidance? How do you know when something isn’t suitable, or you don’t have enough information? The overview advises talking to the LPA’s in-house ecologist (from discussions with a small sample of authorities, these are not always in post or available) to help interpret and apply the SA.

Is the Standing Advice fit for purpose?

If planners are forced to rely on SA, is it suitable and does it provide the detail needed? For example, when Defra talks about

a survey at the right time of year, using methods that are appropriate for the species and the area

does the SA really allow you to decide this? Defra and NE clearly believe that their webpages are sufficient. For example, for water voles, badgers, dormice, and reptiles the message is clear:

Local planning authorities should use this advice to decide what is needed for surveys and planning mitigation measures to protect ….”

That is a very powerful statement, and for any ecologist that doesn’t follow the SA:

They’ll have to include a statement with the planning application explaining why”

Yet, it is mostly unclear on quite what basis that explanation would be founded- as the family of SA documents is consistently vague. This need not be so, as over the last two decades there has been a growth in guides that set out the basic specific methods to be employed in surveys for habitats and for species, and species have their dedicated handbooks or proprietary methodologies, e.g. water voles and bats.

The SA is curiously insular: for water voles, reptiles, dormice, badgers and otters amongst others, there is no reference to external guidance.  General SA statements, such as ‘water vole surveys should be done between April and October’, gloss over the necessary detail that differentiates suitable from unsuitable survey data.

For wild birds, the SA is vaguer still, as it recommends that a scoping survey should

guide the surveyor towards what further survey effort is needed”

Quite how the planner will be able to use the SA to evaluate whether this effort was right or wrong, or whether the ‘right’ methods were used, when a report lands on their desk is uncertain. No methodological reference is provided at all. Yet there is a basic standard (Gilbert et al 1998) commonly cited, and used, by competent ornithologists in EIAs.

The only groups with any reference to an external methodological source are bats and crayfish.

Why it might matter that the SA is inadequate

If there are no references in the SA to support almost all species or groups, and the SA does not allow ready differentiation between good and bad surveys and reports, then there are clear implications for planning and baselines and the concepts of net gain and offsets and other tools of Government policy. If Government’s natural environment planning guidance is based on data adequacy, then having an SA system that cannot provide it is disturbing and problematic.

LPA in a bind

A recent case highlights the practical issues in addressing problems in planning submissions. Cambridge is growing fast, and with it has come the call for better internal infrastructure, especially cycle access. The River Cam is relatively poorly served with bridges pedestrian or cycle bridges. The proposed remedy was a bridge and cycle way crossing the Cam, and adjacent common land.  With a range of protected species and conservation designations involved, two separate planning applications put forward for a new cycle/pedestrian bridge and its associated cycleway were bound to be controversial. The Ecological Impact Assessments (EcIA) that accompanied the plans were initially queried by one of the Councils and objectors on the basis of inadequate survey methods and data for a range of species.  The consultants reassured the Councils that the EcIA data were suitable; the Councils lacked the staff capacity to query it further. The SA were ill-suited to identify or understand problems in detail unless the consultants raised issues in their own documents; which, unsurprisingly, they did not. The applications were passed despite the limitations in data and methods remaining in the EcIA noted by objectors.

Clearly, LPAs are in a cleft stick when being asked to deliver outcomes without the tools or resources to match. It may be time to re-evaluate what LPAs can and can’t do with the SA for biodiversity assessment and the delivery of Government policies.

 

 

 

Gilbert, G., Gibbons, D.W. & Evan, J. 1998. Bird monitoring methods. Sandy, RSPB.

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7 Replies to “Guest blog – Planning and biodiversity survey advice in England by Tim Reed”

  1. "Yet, it is mostly unclear on quite what basis that explanation would be founded- as the family of SA documents is consistently vague. THIS NEED NOT BE SO..."

    Well I guess that depends on what the motives are. If the goal is to get planning applications through as smoothly as possible and with the least resistance it might be quite helpful to leave the advice vague. Not a desirable thing if you want to minimize harm to protected species and other biodiversity but, hey-ho, we don't want developers to be held up.

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  2. Excellent Blog which highlights a major problem which I believe is causing significant losses to biodiversity. The SA system if essentially useless; even if a planner understands the SA they cannot really determine if the level of survey work is adequate, appropriate and neither can they correctly interpret the results. Many LPAs do not have in-house ecologist to vet ecological reports and thus the planner has to take the word of the consultant ecologists at face value. I am afraid that some consultant ecologists do not provide honest appraisals of development impacts or the baseline conditions; they do work for the developer after all. I am speaking from experience. Defra / Natural England have absolved all responsibility to the LPA and provide no site specific advice not even on a case by case basis, and yet the Govt has cut LPA resources so that the LPA cannot deliver the biodiversity requirements of the NPPF.

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  3. I agree, an excellent blog and one of great concern to those that work with developers such as myself. Yes, we have a duty of care to our clients, whoever they may be (which for me personally, include architects, NGOs, statutory authorities, public bodies, private individuals/ consortia, other consultancies in addition to developers). BUT, we also have, concurrently, a duty of care to our profession, to the environment and to the wider public too.

    Some comments, which I may have expressed elsewhere on one of Mark's or a guest's blog, but worthy of reiterating here.

    Most local planning authorities, which means 'the Council'; or if in a National Park (the National Park Authority); do not employ in-house, or have access to by way of agreement, to a professional ecologist. The Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) undertook a survey back in 2010 and reported back that only about 35 % of decision makers employed or had access to ecologists. I would URGE all readers of this blog to read the Key Findings of this report: https://www.cieem.net/data/files/Resource_Library/News/ALGE_Report_on_Ecological_Competence_and_Capacity.pdf and think about the effects this is having on biodiversity at a local (i.e. county/ Borough) level.

    I agree with Tim Reed's descriptions of Natural England's standing advice (SA) so it is worth pointing readers to the following links on the Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management's (CIEEM) website:

    https://www.cieem.net/guide-to-ecological-surveys-and-their-purpose

    https://www.cieem.net/sources-of-survey-methods-sosm-

    https://www.cieem.net/technical-guidance-series-tgs-

    https://www.cieem.net/competencies-for-species-survey-css-

    So, whilst some detractors may consider ecologists who work for developers as being working FOR developers, that is too narrow a narrative. We have a duty of care to our clients to ensure that their applications are legally and policy compliant (the minimum threshold in my opinion) and ideally compliant with BS42020: 2013 Biodiversity - Code of Practice for Planning and Development (see a synopsis here: https://www.bsigroup.com/LocalFiles/en-GB/biodiversity/BS-42020-Smart-Guide.pdf).

    Where this falls down is the lack of technical ecological knowledge (including policy, and law) available to planners and other decision makers to recognise where ecology surveys have stopped short, or failed to meet guidelines (even if they claim to have done so). But I would also add, where it is justifiable to deviate away from guidelines and the reasons justifying this decision are coherently conveyed based on sound ecological principles.

    Richard

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  4. The original SA on the Natural England web site was, after a lot of iterations, quite good, but the streamlined version on the Gov website that replaced it is dreadful. In Surrey there are 11 LPAs and only one employs a part time ecologist. The others rely on a advice from the Surrey Wildlife Trust, which appears to be purely reactive i.e if a report is received they will be asked to comment on it, but if no report is received there is a good chance the application will go unchallenged. Despite there being good advice on the requirements for bat surveys I regularly see the guidelines flouted and when challenged the CIEEM registered consultants always hide behind the cloak of "professional judgement."
    Ross Baker
    Surrey Bat Group

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    1. Ross (and all),

      I understand why professional judgement can be seen as a cloak to hide behind and may well cause some frustration from external stakeholders or members of the public as it can be interpreted, incorrectly in my opinion IF APPLIED APPROPRIATELY, as a means of dismissing a rebuttal or counter-narrative. However, in my view, professional judgement is not a cloak to hide behind; or at least it shouldn't be, and is a useful and on occasion, necessary.

      I hope the following extract from BS42020 is useful:

      BS42020 defines 'professional judgement' as:

      *-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*
      "use of accumulated knowledge and experience in order to make an informed
      decision that is clearly capable of being substantiated with supporting evidence.
      [NOTE Professional judgement takes account of the law, ethical considerations and
      all other relevant factors related to the surrounding circumstances.]"
      *-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

      Clause 4.4 which deals specifically with Professional Judgement states:

      *-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*
      Professional judgement
      [NOTE Due to the nature of the planning system professional judgments can be challenged. Knowledgeable, experienced and objective individuals can reach different conclusions in applying professional standards, despite similar facts and circumstances. This does not necessarily mean that one conclusion is right and the other is wrong. Appropriate questioning to understand the procedures performed and the basis for conclusions reached is to be expected.]

      4.4.1 Development proposals that are likely to affect biodiversity should be informed by expert advice. This should be based on objective professional judgement informed by sound scientific method and evidence, and be clearly justified through documented reasoning.

      4.4.2 In order to demonstrate sound professional judgement, the professional should:
      a) gather all the relevant information;
      b) identify the issue(s);
      c) identify practicable options for action that could be taken to address the issue(s);
      d) make clear the weight to be attached to the issues and options considered; and
      e) choose appropriate options and present these in a succinct and transparent manner, ensuring that the final decision or recommendation is clearly explained and can be justified.

      4.4.3 An explanation, with evidence, of the assessment and decision-making process and the reasons for a particular course of action or piece of advice should be clearly documented and made available where required and/or necessary.

      [NOTE It is especially important to provide evidence of how professional judgement
      has been applied where ecological work does not follow, in full or in part, the
      recommendations set out in national good practice guidelines (see 6.3.4, 6.3.5
      and 6.3.6).]

      4.4.4 Decision-makers should similarly be able to justify any request they make for specific information to be provided, especially where alternative options or methods are available as recommended in good practice guidelines, e.g. for ecological surveys (see 6.1.8).
      *-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

      Thus, if readers come across reports that have applied professional judgement (in ecology), the above clauses and commentary will hopefully be useful to place the applied statements in a framework that is recognised as best practice. If they don't, in your interpretation, then it is worth drawing attention the decision maker's attention to it - though this would be, arguably, your own professional/ experienced-based judgement.

      I hope this helps at least provide a framework around which professional judgement ought to be understood.

      Richard

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  5. Very important but a bit difficult to take in for an interested "amateur". I expect it's obvious to all that development on a moorland SAC needs planning permission but many new surfaced tracks are constructed apparently as "permitted development". The problem then becomes will the LPA make a potentially expensive legal challenge. This is still biodiversity but about habitat rather than species. And it remains a problem because of lack of resources in the LPA.

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