Guest blog – Exposing limitations in planning submissions 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.


Exposing limitations in planning submissions

In the UK, planning applications are apparently an important part of the open democratic process. They allow consultation on proposals of local or wider interest. Documents normally include an assessment of the potential ecological impacts of a proposed development in a site-specific Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA) or Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA) or EIA.

This requires that the ecological risks, impacts, and opportunities in an application are clearly stated  and can be understood by planning authorities. Hence the material provided  should be robust (limitations stated, validated and understood), reliable and available. If not, the proposals cannot be assessed as fit for planning purposes.

Standard methods are recommended for use when surveying habitats, species, or species groups .As circumstances for undertaking surveys are rarely ideal, some assessment of problems associated with each visit, and their potential effect on the overall data sets, is needed. These are normally covered in the Limitations section.

As limitations affect the interpretation of data sets, and in deciding possible impacts,  you’d  expect that the Limitations section would be detailed and closely argued. And of course, any assessments would be substantiated, rather than authors just state they had no effect. Otherwise,  as the professional ecologists’ trade body CIEEM put it: it is opinion, unsupported by facts.

To get a handle on this, before retiring recently, I looked at the limitations sections in 33 planning applications sent to me in the day job, and tried to suss out on what basis ecological consultants were deciding there would be no impact from all 33 proposed developments. In particular, whether Limitations were recognised, addressed or really evaluated. Sites included large windfarm proposals, smaller single wind turbines, housing developments, pedal cycle routes and infrastructure plans, across England and Wales.

I looked to see if proper standard methods were used, and if the PEA or EcIA reports included a Limitations section. I also looked for substantiation behind conclusions of no impacts, or if decisions were solely based on Professional Judgement (PJ), and if that PJ was evidence-based or statistically tested, or just a feeling.

To cut a long story short, of the 33 sites, only 18 (54%) mentioned limitations and 15 didn’t. Those 18 all mentioned they used PJ. None of the 18 gave any credible basis for PJ-based decisions to ignore limitations – some of which were clearly affecting some data sets in a big way.

Does this matter? Yes, as Bill Sutherland and his team at Cambridge (Conservation Evidence  put it: if data are collected, then it is critical that the robustness and probity of the data are understood. Otherwise, there is a risk that well-meant decisions and policies will be based on false premises

Its not as if none of those 33 authors didn’t know what to do – as they all cited survey standards. All of those standards have detailed sections that include things affecting data collection and interpretation: limitations.

Does it  really matter? If you claim a development will have no impact, then  the limitations of desk and field data need open discussion and evaluation, not what CIEEM calls unsubstantiated personal opinion. Given that only 10% of planners have any ecological qualification, and there are few ecologists available to cash-strapped councils, then planners are effectively reliant on the opinions of the applicant’s ecologists. If my sample of 33 cases is at all representative (and I have no reason to think it is not), the fact that limitations were either ignored totally in planning documents, or poo-pooed (with no statistical tests or validation to show why) when they were noted, is not at all encouraging.

What is needed is a scoring system that tells planners the extent to which data have been collected and evaluated according to standards, with limitations recognised and then  tested (ideally statistically) for effects, rather than relying on unsubstantiated PJ. Providing this would help raise the quality and reliability of documents provided to planners. It might slow down the process a bit, but if, as Boris Johnson says, we’re in a biodiversity crisis, then recognising an important area before you level it is pretty important. You might even decide to save it. It is no longer acceptable (if it ever was) to take the word (PJ) of a developer’s consultant, rather than provide properly tested limitations sections in planning applications.

Tim Reed has a paper in press that looks at the need for scoring systems for use by planners, and offers a simple method to help sift the wheat from the chaff.


7 Replies to “Guest blog – Exposing limitations in planning submissions by Tim Reed”

  1. You should draw the attention of the RTPI to this issue and offer to run a CPD session for professional town planners

  2. Tim (greetings)
    I completely agree with you. The ecological reports on local developments here in Banchory, Aberdeenshire have mostly been done by a Surrey (I think) based company. Both that I have looked at have been based around a one-day site visit and a peremptory trawl of the local records centre. The reports appear to be written by number of pages rather than by usefulness. Recommendations for avoiding damage are usually accepted by the developer but are so full of loopholes as to make them meaningless. As elsewhere in UK, the local nature conservation agency has been gutted, so have no resources to look at the reports either. Personally I think the CIEEM accreditation is a complete sham, with no obvious checking (or enforcement) of standards. In other words I think adding a section on data standards might help, but without fixing other parts of the system is unlikely to improve overall performance. And as noted elsewhere, the likelihood of further gutting of nature conservation legislation is high now that we have left the EU.

  3. A scoring system to isolate and test the use of PJ is a good idea in principle but I cannot see your average planning officer (let alone committee) rushing to get their heads around it. Not when they already rush to accept the outputs of biodiversity metrics that are at best lumpen pieces of accounting, wide open to abuse and only ever as useful as those punching in the inputs are honest.

    The problem to overcome here is the deep-rooted maxim that planning officers need only engage with matters enough to form a loose professional judgement of the planning balance. If their professional code and planning policies they test proposals against were written in a manner that promoted a higher degree of certainty, that would rapidly filter down to consultants’ reports, leaving those that were substandard exposed. But those policies are deliberately cast in vague syntax so as not to be a brake on permission. The presumption is in favour of development and woe betide any LPA planning officer who sees it differently: notice how the phrase ‘development “control”’ has disappeared? For as long as that remains the status quo, planning officers will have low expectations of the scientific rigour of consultants’ reports on biodiversity and it is thus inevitable that development proposals that are innately damaging to biodiversity and which exacerbate the biodiversity crisis will continue to be granted planning permission. Change needs to come from the top down, (and the White Paper is not very encouraging in this regard) because however much the NGOs and CIEEM work to try and improve standards from the bottom up, they’ll never succeed unless there’s an appetite for better decision making within the planning profession itself.

    1. Dominic – thanks for that and thanks for all your comments (and guest blog) here in 2020. Best wishes for 2021!

  4. There is a fundamental conflict of interest where the applicant employs and pays the consultant. The same applies to accountancy – why is it companies go dramatically bust without any apparent concern from the accountant ? Well, the answer is in a recent case where PWC raised concerns over a range of issues with a fashion company it was auditing. The company and PWC parted company and a small accountant noone had heard of was appointed in their place. I’ve only been involved on the fringes of this business but in every case it has been about consultants being employed to force through a planning application. It seems to be fairly general – a former boss of mine did a lot of international consultancy until he came up with the wrong answer – he was meant to say that plantations in northern South America were sustainable but they weren’t, he said so, and that was his last international consultancy. The obvious answer is that consultants should be employed independently, even if the applicant pays – in France notaries are employed by the state and answerable to the state, not the buyer or seller (though they pay for the service)- a model perhaps ?

    1. That may be the ideal, Roderick, and would probably need to include NE and other regulators administering such a system and/or taking a far more active part in scrutiny of planning reports and decisions from the perspective of stemming the biodiversity crisis. But as things stand, NE are cut to the bone and more concerned with their own existential survival than pushing any such agenda. The EA too it would seem given Emma Boyd’s recent letter to George Eustice. The fact is that solving the problem this way would require a significant expansion of the state, something I simply cannot see happening in our present electoral system and climate. On the other hand, having had painful recent experience of French notaries, I would be very slow to hold them up as any kind of model!

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