Thursday 5 September 2013

Natural England: Working with Developers to Protect Wildlife and Natural Areas

Hazeley Heath, Thames Basin Heaths (RSPB)
Canada has vast amounts of open space, averaging 3.75 people per square kilometer. The United Kingdom on the other hand is small and crowded, with an average of 260 people per square kilometer. Urban and rural, wildlife and people, intermingle and share common boundaries.

The potential for conflict becomes clear when you look at the proposed high-speed train route (HS2) from London to northern England. An environmental impact assessment by The Wildlife Trusts indicates that more than 200 natural habitats lie on the route or within 500 metres of the railroad extension, including the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and 14 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

It’s immediately apparent that Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland) has gone to some effort to map the land and identify important natural areas. Wikipedia defines SSSIs as the basic building blocks of site-based nature conservation legislation, based on the wildlife (species and habitats) and/or geology of the area. Rather than focusing on specific details, AONBs are designed to conserve areas of outstanding natural beauty and have the same status as National Parks in the planning system. At present, around 28% of England’s land surface is covered by SSSI, AONB, and/or National Park designation (Natural England, 2012).

A key player in protecting England’s natural environment is Natural England. As the government’s advisor on the natural environment, the arms-length body supports the Government’s wider strategic policies and fulfills the aims and objectives set by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is responsible for protecting, conserving, and enhancing England’s natural environment by providing practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth.

Stewart Coles 
Stewart Coles worked for several years as an Environmental Planning Adviser for Natural England. He is now living in Saskatoon and shared some of his work experiences, indicating how they could apply locally, particularly in regards to the management of the North East Swale.

Stewart’s responsibilities at Natural England included working with local communities, planners, and developers in the Thames Basin Heaths, a European-designated Special Protection Area (SPA), containing tracts of lowland heath stretching over parts of Surrey, Berkshire, and Hampshire in southeast England. The Heaths support internationally important populations of three ground-nesting birds – the Dartford Warbler, Nightjar, and Woodlark.

Based on the recommendations of an established Delivery Framework, prepared to address the long-term protection of the Heaths, Natural England works with and provides advice to all local authorities affected by the Thames Basin Heaths. Developers are advised that net increases in residential development within 5 kilometers of the Heaths could harm the rare bird population due to a growth in the number of walkers, cats, and dogs. Before work can begin on a new housing development within 5 km of the SPA, developers must demonstrate that their proposal can avoid any likely significant effect on the integrity of the designated features of the Heaths.

If it is likely that a net increase will have a significant effect, methods for avoidance, mitigation, and/or compensation are considered. With residential developments of 50 or more dwellings, this usually involves a requirement to provide adequate on-site or neighbouring green space to divert the pressure development could otherwise inflict on sensitive heath habitat.

As part of the planning process and conditions of any approval, the developer is legally accountable for the immediate and future costs, in perpetuity, of any required mitigation and must set out the contingency for these funds prior to determination of the planning application.

North East Swale, Saskatoon
Development in Saskatoon 
Saskatoon’s population is growing rapidly and suburban expansions are putting pressure on the City’s infrastructure. They are also putting pressure on the land, its plants, and wildlife. This is particularly evident in the case of the North East Swale, an important wildlife habitat and watershed, which is rapidly being surrounded by new housing.

Whilst much of Stewart’s work centred on the protection of European-designated sites, he is of the view that the principles of avoidance, mitigation, or compensation can also be applied to protecting important local habitats, such as the North East Swale. Ensuring their connectivity to the wider environment is an essential component of the broader efforts of nature conservation, flood risk management, and greater environmental awareness.

From his training and experience with Natural England, Stewart recommends taking into consideration the following points as Saskatoon moves ahead with its plans for new subdivisions and roads near the Swale.

  1. Develop a formal regulatory structure or delivery framework so that you have the authority to protect the land and resources. 
  2. Map the area in advance. Be aware of what is currently there, in terms of geology, plants, and wildlife, so that you know what needs to be protected, mitigated, or compensated and have the information you need to assess proposed development. 
  3. Plan in advance. Start working with developers when they are still in the master planning stage, so it’s easier to make adjustments and obtain buy-in from all parties. 
  4. Collaborate with developers to identify ways in which they can reduce any harmful impacts to the natural area. 
  5. If mitigation is impossible, due to site restrictions, limitations, and/or permitted development, require developers to make compensation for their impact on natural areas, such as the Swale. For example, expect them to provide protection for or create land of a similar nature in another area. And, if the land they are altering is irreplaceable, the compensation should be greater. 
  6. Ensure that developers cover the costs of both actual and future mitigation. It should not be passed on to local residents. 

“Every opportunity should be seized upon to avoid any unnecessary depletion and/or fragmentation of recognized local and regional habitat, for the benefit of both flora and fauna,” Stewart says.

Photo credit: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds