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
“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.