POSTnote (Feb 2013): Planning decisions and biodiversity

Posted by Cain Blythe - CEnv MIEMA MIEEM MSc BSc (Hons) on 25/02/2013

A new POSTnote has been published in relation to planning decisions and biodiversity. The POSTnote describes:

“how the information on impacts of proposed developments on biodiversity is given to planners in England. It also summarises approaches to enhance biodiversity and avoid, mitigate and compensate for negative impacts.”

Image credit: antbphotos / 123RF Stock Photo

The note arises from the fact that interpretation of impacts by planners is currently variable, that there is an overall decline in biodiversity in England and that a general increase in human wellbeing can be achieved through an increase in biodiversity (see below for related blogs). The Natural Capital Committee will report in early 2013 on how and where England’s natural assets are being used unsustainably so that research and effort in relation to biodiversity can be better focussed. Some preliminary options being considered include:

  • Further pre-application consultation between local authorities and developers
  • Redirecting resources from translocation projects towards mapping and recording schemes
  • Surveys commissioned by Local Authorities and paid for by developers
  • A requirement to achieve net gain in biodiversity
  • More rigorous approaches to biodiversity recording and monitoring

There is a common misconception among developers and their agents that environmental regulations are preventing development. However, Government data states that less than 0.5% of land use consultations received by Natural England are objected to in relation to EU Directives. It is accepted that obtaining protected species licences is overly complicated and can slow the process, although changes are now afoot to streamline the process.

The emphasis of the POSTnote is that any planning applications should be submitted with biodiversity in mind and if a development causes significant harm to the local natural environment it should not go ahead. A common problem is often simply a case of misunderstanding the nature of biodiversity. When monitoring or research is not implemented properly it means developments may be approved without fully realising their environmental impact. A good ecological consultancy will guide this work effectively but not all consultancies offer the same level of rigour in survey methodology and interpretation varies considerably.

A good example of such a misunderstanding is the idea that “brownfield” sites are available while “greenfield” sites are the ones that need to be protected. This is often overly simplistic as some invertebrate species thrive in brownfield sites and these areas can often be more biodiverse than the greenfield sites.

Therefore it is essential that authorities work closely with bodies like Natural England in order to be aware of how developments could potentially affect the natural environment and to prevent any damage that could be avoided. The idea is that if you can have a development positioned away from these sites then you should do so. It is also vital that anyone involved in the planning process ensures that protected species are not harmed by the construction process.

One potentially controversial aspect of this is biodiversity offsetting. This is the idea that a company compensates for environmental damage by creating natural environments elsewhere. This concept is similar to the idea of carbon offsetting whereby a company plants an amount of trees to negate the impact of its carbon emissions. In this context the ideal situation is that the damaged environment is closely replicated elsewhere.

The difficulty with this is that deciding what constitutes an adequate substitute for environmental damage is debatable and often not correctly measured. This is why it is vital that organisations such as Natural England are consulted as early in the planning phase as possible in order to minimise negative environmental impact and that a proficient ecological consultancy is involved in establishing an appropriate baseline. Ecosuils utilises published methodologies for measuring biodiversity value using our biodiversity quality calculator.

Further reading:

Access to the Natural Environment between Different Social Groups

Enjoying Nature each Day Keeps the Doctor Away