Wildlife at risk

12th January 2017

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Built environment ,
  • Planning ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • Biodiversity


Emma Brigginshaw

Licensing reform puts development over wildlife.

Natural England announced in December that there will be more ‘flexibility’ for people seeking a licence to build in places that are home to species protected under the European Habitats Directive. This change has repercussions for rare and protected species, especially the water vole, bat, dormouse and the much-belittled great crested newt.

While the Wildlife Trusts agree with the stated ambition of Natural England to encourage developers to increase the amount of good quality habitat in the right places, we are not convinced that a relaxation of the existing licensing rules will achieve this ambition.

Threatened species are protected by law for a reason. There is no scientific evidence that the population status of any of the currently protected species has recovered enough to justify watering down the special care they received through the previous licensing arrangements. After detailed investigation and much effort from across the environmental movement, the EU recently confirmed that both the Habitats and Birds Directives are fit for purpose. So, why is Natural England making this change? And why now?

You need a licence from Natural England if you plan to disturb or remove wildlife or damage habitats. We are concerned that the relaxation of licensing arrangements could be driven by a perceived need to reduce delays for developers, rather than by nature conservation objectives – which are, after all, Natural England’s job.

Each year the building industry makes around 1,200 licence applications to build in the places where protected species live. This is out of 369,000 developments that were granted planning permission in England in 2015; or, less than 0.5%. In other words, the previous licensing policy did not jeopardise the vast majority of developments.

Five specific issues are deeply worrying and have not been adequately addressed - we highlighted these in our consultation response to Natural England:

  • The policies have not been tested, reviewed and refined before being adopted nationally. Natural England has initiated but not completed two pilot projects to test the new approaches for great crested newts – so they don’t know whether the approach will work or not. Why the rush? Why not take a precautionary approach, and wait until the results have been published and scrutinised?
  • The policies take a generic, one-size-fits-all approach to protected species, but we know that different ecology and issues will apply for bats and other mammals like water vole and dormice. The approach has only been tested for great crested newts (see above) – why aren’t Natural England testing the approach for other protected species and taking an informed approach from the findings from these trials?
  • Severe budget cuts for ecological expertise call into question whether there are enough people in either Natural England or in local authorities to be able to manage, monitor or review the new approach – so we won’t know if the favourable conservation status of protected species is improved or degraded by the new policies. Natural England has already cut all of its funding to local data service providers when access to up-to-date and locally informed data and expertise will be critical to the success of the new approach.
  • A reliance on ‘expert judgement’ could be dangerous for our protected species. One of the policies proposes reducing habitat survey, which provides solid evidence, in favour of expert judgement – how will such judgement be exercised and validated? Experts will be paid by developers, so can we rely on their impartiality?
  • A key part of the new licensing policies is about providing off-site compensatory habitats. We strongly support the widely-accepted principle that compensation should be provided as close as is reasonably practical to the site of impact. It is not clear from the consultation how off-site compensatory habitats will be managed and protected in the long term. How will the compensation sites be protected from development and secured in perpetuity?

We welcome improvements in the administration of the system – but this should be as well as, rather than instead of, the main aim of licensing protection which should be to improve the favourable conservation status of the species listed in the European Directives. Saving costs for developers should not be expense of the species and habitats that Natural England is paid to protect.


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