James Turner at Thomson Environmental Consultants argues that we must strive to continue streamlining environmental compliance, despite Brexit turmoil
With the need for new housing infrastructure in the UK, the demand for development has arguably never been higher than it is at this moment in time. However, this demand must be balanced against UK wildlife and environmental guidance to ensure that we create a landscape which meets the requirements of our population but also preserves our fragile natural landscape and protects native wildlife. The role of environmental consultancies is to provide expertise to ensure that developers meet their project objectives, whilst complying with environmental laws and planning consent requirements effectively.
The current legislative framework around protection of environment and wildlife in the UK is rightly comprehensive and detailed. UK wildlife laws, such as those laid down in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, give developers and ecologists a lawful basis to work from. In addition to legal requirements, structured environmental guidance published by Natural England and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) sets out the good practice survey and developmental processes required for various environmental topics. Planning policy, such as that found in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), sets out how decision makers should promote the protection and enhancement of the environment throughout the planning process, for example, refusing planning consent where significant harm to biodiversity cannot be avoided.
The NPPF also sets out how local planning policies and decisions should contribute towards not only protecting but enhancing, the natural environment. Through designing appropriate species-specific mitigation for any losses of habitat resulting from the proposed development, targeted species within the development area should be left in a better situation than they were originally found. The creation of new species-specific habitat, improvement of existing habitat or translocation of animals into more suitable areas are all methods that can be used under current legislation, guidance and planning policy.
Taken together, environmental legislation, best practice guidance and planning policy provides a comprehensive and detailed but fragmented framework for compliance. Ultimately, for the developer, the framework for environmental compliance can be confusing and vast.
It is welcome that UK legislation and planning policy are also beginning to look at habitats at a county, or even country level rather than just at the site level, a change in approach which we and many others tend to wholeheartedly support.
The fragmentation of habitats can cause serious problems to an array of critically endangered species, an issue which arises from multiple developments within an area over a period of time. It is our view that the future approach of conservation and preservation in the UK should adopt the wider view, with a greater focus on strategic planning, protection and enhancement of the environment at a local level, as opposed to the development site level.
For example, linking up previously fragmented habitats to create a robust network of green infrastructure at a county scale would greatly benefit wildlife. This approach should ideally be based over a longer-term view of the habitat changes in the county or across the country, to monitor and manage overall habitat loss and impacts on wildlife in a broader context.
We are now at a critical point – with the UK most likely leaving the European Union shortly. National laws arising from European Directives will need to be adopted/amended and, in time, new advice may need to be drafted once government ministers are more certain of where the environmental law will stand post-Brexit. However, this is an excellent opportunity to streamline existing wildlife laws under a single piece of legislation, reducing situations where many different pieces of legislation must be addressed, and duly highlighting the considerations of planning policy and best practice guidance produced by NGOs.
It should be noted, however, that this would actually be carrying on some of the work which was occurring pre-Brexit, where district-level licensing was coming into play, for example, and more of an emphasis was starting to be placed upon the streamlining of wildlife laws. With regards to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a new/amended agricultural policy could provide further opportunity to protect and enhance the environment, for example, through the provision of more tailored subsidies for farmers who provide environmental enhancements, again, an already expanding area pre-Brexit. This incentivised system could potentially be rolled-out to planners/developers in the same vein, creating a single robust and detailed system for all those who are amending the natural landscape to follow, potentially under a brand new regulatory body.
Prior reviews of protected species legislation, which were noted to be targeting this ‘streamlined’ approach, have effectively been put on hold, partially due to Brexit adding too much uncertainty surrounding wildlife law. However, future reviews could be taken further and could incorporate not only protected species but their habitats to a greater degree. It is vital that leading UK environmental groups are consulted on the future decisions of what legislation to incorporate into this new act. This would ensure simplicity for both those who act to safeguard our environment and the developers who wish to ensure compliance. Ultimately it will hopefully lead to increased adherence to planning law and environmental guidelines.
Our view is that future mitigation guidelines should incorporate an approach where not only targeted protected species are benefitted, but also any ecologically sensitive species, to ensure mitigation is both at its most effective and that money spent is utilised to its full potential.
The streamlining of national and local planning policy would also increase simplicity and increase the rate of adoption by planners and developers while ensuring that local wildlife groups with an interest, continue to be consulted to encourage local involvement and incorporate more local knowledge into ‘core’ law and policy involved in the environmental work.
The current use of local wildlife record centres as the first point of call for environmental groups looking at background protected species records in a given area is invaluable to inform all parties involved of potential ecological sensitivity. This becomes especially important when concerning the previously mentioned areas of district-level licensing, which is a process like many others which is limited by the availability of local protected species data. In time, this could be made more comprehensive and more environmental records should be gathered to inform this very important part of the development process.
Current laws and guidelines generally provide a more ‘minimalist’ approach to environmental adherence and mitigation levels, where there is no incentive for developers to go beyond the base levels required to appease biodiversity planning law. Of course, this can be understood where cost and time on the part of the developers are important – budgets and timelines must be met. Creating a system where legislation and methods are simpler to understand combined with incentivising going beyond base levels is a real opportunity to benefit our environment.
Leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity as a country to continue the already initiated idea of streamlining the existing environmental guidelines and associated planning laws, coupled with maximising the comprehension of environmental efforts. The inclusion of a new regulatory body to aid this throughout the Brexit transition and ensure a robust environmental agenda going forward would be of great value to the UK. However, until Brexit is completed the country appears to be positioned in a state of flux and unable to come to decisions. We do not want to see any watering down of what currently exists but rather a more effective system that is easier to navigate. In order to be as effective as possible, there needs to be the inclusion of all possible parties involved in the future of the environmental side of development in the UK. This will achieve a process whereby species don’t just survive but thrive.
Regional Office Manager (Birmingham)
& Senior Consultant Ecologist
Thomson Environmental Consultants
Tel: +44 (0)1483 466 000