Biodiversity, ecosystems and green infrastructure
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Is there a statutory basis for planning to seek to minimise impacts on biodiversity and provide net gains in biodiversity where possible?
Yes. Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which places a duty on all public authorities in England and Wales to have regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. A key purpose of this duty is to embed consideration of biodiversity as an integral part of policy and decision making throughout the public sector, which should be seeking to make a significant contribution to the achievement of the commitments made by Government in its Biodiversity 2020 strategy.
Guidance on statutory obligations concerning designated sites and protected species is published separately because its application is wider than planning and links are provided to external guidance. Local planning authorities should take a pragmatic approach – the aim should be to fulfil statutory obligations in a way that minimises delays and burdens.
The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that pursuing sustainable development includes moving from a net loss of biodiversity to achieving net gains for nature, and that a core principle for planning is that it should contribute to conserving and enhancing the natural environment and reducing pollution.
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How should local planning authorities set about planning for biodiversity and geodiversity?
Local and neighbourhood plans and planning decisions have the potential to affect biodiversity or geodiversity outside as well as inside designated areas of importance for biodiversity or geodiversity. Local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning bodies should therefore seek opportunities to work collaboratively with other partners, including Local Nature Partnerships, to develop and deliver a strategic approach to protecting and improving the natural environment based on local priorities and evidence. Equally, they should consider the opportunities that individual development proposals may provide to enhance biodiversity and contribute to wildlife and habitat connectivity in the wider area.
In considering how development can affect biodiversity, and how biodiversity benefits could be delivered through the planning system, it is useful to consider:
- the policies and commitments in Biodiversity 2020;
- the contents of any existing biodiversity strategies covering the relevant local or neighbourhood plan area and any local biodiversity action plans;
- the potential effects of a development on the habitats or species on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 section 41 list (in Biodiversity 2020)
- whether an ecological survey is appropriate;
- the factors listed in guidance on local ecological networks that supports National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 117.
The statutory obligations in regard to international and national designated sites of importance for biodiversity must also be considered.
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What are local ecological networks and what evidence should be taken into account in identifying and mapping them?
The components of an ecological network are explained at section 2.12 of the Natural Environment White Paper.
Relevant evidence in identifying and mapping local ecological networks includes:
- the broad geological, geomorphological and bio-geographical character of the area, creating its main landscapes types;
- key natural systems and processes within the area, including fluvial and coastal;
- the location and extent of internationally, nationally and locally designated sites;
- the distribution of protected and priority habitats and species;
- areas of irreplaceable natural habitat, such as ancient woodland or limestone pavement, the significance of which may be derived from habitat age, uniqueness, species diversity and/or the impossibilities of re-creation;
- habitats where specific land management practices are required for their conservation;
- main landscape features which, due to their linear or continuous nature, are important for the migration, dispersal and genetic exchanges of plants and animals, including any potential for new habitat corridors to link any isolated sites that hold nature conservation value, and therefore improve species dispersal;
- areas with potential for habitat enhancement or restoration, including those necessary to help biodiversity adapt to climate change or which could assist with the habitats shifts and species migrations arising from climate change;
- an audit of green space within built areas and where new development is proposed;
- information on the biodiversity and geodiversity value of previously developed sites and the opportunities for incorporating this in developments; and
- areas of geological value which would benefit from enhancement and management.
Local Nature Partnerships can be a useful source of information for existing ecological networks.
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How can evidence on ecology be gathered and kept up to date?
A Local Record Centre can be an effective mechanism for facilitating access to environmental information which may be held across many public and voluntary organisations. Such centres provide a one-stop information source, often serving a specific county or grouping of local authorities. Their main function is to collate, manage and disseminate biodiversity information but they may also hold other types of environmental data and can also advise on evidence gathering.
The local planning authority can provide contact details if it supports a Local Record Centre.
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What are the legal obligations on local planning authorities and developers regarding European sites designated under the Birds or Habitats Directives, protected species and Sites of Special Scientific Interest?
Updated guidance on the law affecting European sites, protected species and Sites of Special Scientific Interest is being prepared by Defra and will replace the advice currently set out in Circular 06/05: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation.
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Why are Local Sites important and how can I find out more about them?
Local designated sites (which include ‘Local Wildlife Sites’ and ‘Local Geological Sites’) make an important contribution to ecological networks and are overseen by Local Sites systems. These systems vary considerably in terms of size (both the administrative area they cover and the number of sites selected) and cover contrasting landscapes in coastal, rural and urban situations. Local Sites systems encompass both biodiversity and geological conservation. Natural England has published advice on the development and management of systems to identify locally designated sites. The advice proposes frameworks and standards for their operation as well as for the selection, protection and management of the sites themselves.
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How are ecosystems services taken into account in planning?
The National Planning Policy Framework states that the planning system should recognise the wider benefits of ecosystem services. Information about ecosystems services is in Biodiversity 2020, A strategy for England’s biodiversity and ecosystems services. An introductory guide to valuing ecosystems services has also been published by Defra along with a practice guide, which could, where appropriate, inform plan-making and decision-taking on planning applications.
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What are Nature Improvement Areas?
Natural England has published information about Nature Improvement Areas and progress in 12 pilot areas from which local planning authorities and other partners elsewhere can learn.
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What is green infrastructure?
Green infrastructure is a network of multi-functional green space, urban and rural, which is capable of delivering a wide range of environmental and quality of life benefits for local communities. Green infrastructure includes parks, open spaces, playing fields, woodlands, street trees, allotments and private gardens.
Natural England publishes guidance which will be helpful in planning positively for networks of biodiversity and green infrastructure.
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How should biodiversity be taken into account in preparing a planning application?
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.
Where an Environmental Impact Assessment is not needed it might still be appropriate to undertake an ecological survey, for example, where protected species may be present. Separate guidance is to be published by Defra on statutory obligations in regard to protected species which will replace the advice previously set out in Circular 06/05: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation.
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. Further guidance on information requirements is set out in making an application.
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How can development not only protect but also enhance biodiversity?
Biodiversity maintenance and enhancements through the planning system have the potential to make a significant contribution to the achievement of Biodiversity 2020 targets.
Biodiversity enhancement in and around development should be led by a local understanding of ecological networks, and should seek to include:
- habitat restoration, re-creation and expansion;
- improved links between existing sites;
- buffering of existing important sites;
- new biodiversity features within development; and
- securing management for long term enhancement.
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What questions should be considered in applying policy to avoid, mitigate or compensate for significant harm to biodiversity?
The following questions are relevant when applying the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ at paragraph 118 of the National Planning Policy Framework:
- in cases where biodiversity may be affected, is any further information needed to meet statutory obligations as signposted in guidance published by Defra/Natural England
- where an Environmental Impact Assessment has been undertaken, what evidence on ecological effects has already been provided in the Environmental Report and is this sufficient without having to undertake more work?
- is the significance of the effects clear? And
- is relevant internal or external expertise available?
Avoidance – can significant harm to wildlife species and habitats be avoided for example through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts?
Mitigation – where significant harm cannot be wholly or partially avoided, can it be minimised by design or by the use of effective mitigation measures that can be secured by, for example, conditions or planning obligations?
Compensation – where, despite whatever mitigation would be effective, there would still be significant residual harm, as a last resort, can this be properly compensated for by measures to provide for an equivalent value of biodiversity?
Where a development cannot satisfy the requirements of the ‘mitigation hierarchy’, planning permission should be refused as per paragraph 118 of the National Planning Policy Framework.
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Does compensation reduce the need for green infrastructure within a development?
Not necessarily. Sufficient green infrastructure should be designed into a development to make the proposal sustainable. If this green infrastructure helps to mitigate any significant harm to biodiversity (among other benefits) then this should be taken into account in deciding whether compensation may also be needed.
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Where significant harm to biodiversity is unavoidable, how can mitigation or compensation measures be ensured?
Where compensation is required a number of avenues have been available. The applicant might offer a scheme tailored to the specific context, or consider the potential for biodiversity offsetting with the local planning authority.
A biodiversity offsetting consultation led by Defra has recently closed and Defra are considering the consultation responses. Biodiversity offsets are measurable conservation outcomes resulting from actions designed to compensate for residual adverse biodiversity impacts arising from a development after mitigation measures have been taken. The goal of biodiversity offsets is to achieve no net loss and preferably a net gain of biodiversity.
Special compensation considerations apply in the case of sites protected by the European Habitats and Wild Birds Directives. If harm to such sites is to be allowed (because there are no alternatives and ‘imperative reasons of overriding public interest’ can be shown) the Directive requires that all necessary compensatory measures are taken to ensure the overall coherence of the network of European sites as a whole is protected.
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How can I find out whether an area is ‘ancient woodland’?
A starting point to establish whether an area is ancient woodland is to look at the relevant ancient woodland inventory. These inventories comprise county maps of sites (generally greater than two hectares) that are thought to have been continuously wooded since 1600 AD. The national inventory is published and updated by Natural England. Both Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW) as well as Plantations on Woodland Sites (PAWS) are ancient woodland. Both types should be treated equally in terms of the protection afforded to ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework. The Forestry Commission can also advise on all issues in relation to ancient woodlands.
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Should local planning authorities consult the Forestry Commission where development proposals affect ancient woodland?
Local planning authorities are advised to consult the Forestry Commission about development proposals that contain or are likely to affect Ancient Semi-Natural woodlands or Plantations on Ancient Woodlands Sites (PAWS) (as defined and recorded in Natural England’s Ancient Woodland inventory), including proposals where any part of the development site is within 500 metres of an ancient semi-natural woodland or ancient replanted woodland, and where the development would involve erecting new buildings, or extending the footprint of existing buildings.
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How can I find out whether trees that could be affected by a development proposal are ‘aged or veteran’ trees?
Guidance on the features and importance of veteran trees is provided by Natural England. Local Records Centres and other organisations with an interest in trees may be able to advise on the location of known veteran trees.