Skip Content

Ecological Capacity in Local Planning Authorities

01 Oct 2014

On 11th September the All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity (APPGB) held a meeting in the House of Commons to consider the importance of Ecological Capacity in Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) for the UK’s commitments to biodiversity, but also as an integral part of the efficient and appropriate delivery of housing and infrastructure needs in the UK. Presentations were heard from Mike Oxford CEcol FCIEEM (Association of Local Government Ecologists), Penny Simpson (Freeths LLP), Ryan Mellor CEnv MCIEEM (URS) and John Harrison CEnv MCIEEM (formerly Shropshire County Council). The key conclusions and recommendations of the meeting have been sent to relevant Ministers and Shadow Ministers at DCLG, Defra and BIS asking for direct meetings on the subject.

Key conclusions from the meeting:

Biodiversity in the UK is in serious decline, with inappropriate development being one of the main drivers. The planning system should prevent this, but to do so, LPAs must have the necessary expertise to deal with necessarily complex ecological issues. The APPGB urges the Government and relevant departments to ensure that a lack of LPA ecological expertise does not continue to prevent the planning system from delivering net-gains of biodiversity, in line with the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government must consider that:

1. LPAs have statutory and policy obligations to conserve and enhance biodiversity.

2. Many LPAs do not currently have either the capacity nor the competence to undertake the effective assessment of planning applications where biodiversity is a material consideration, meaning that they are often failing to fulfil statutory duties.

3. Diminished ecological capacity in LPAs is reducing efficiency and slowing down the planning process. In particular, a lack of capacity to offer pre-application advice significantly increases the risk that a planning application will be held up further down the line e.g. when third parties raise objections on ecological grounds that should have been noted by a LPA ecologist.

4. Developers and private sector ecologists support measures to expand ecological capacity and competence in LPAs. These will not only make the planning process more efficient but should lead to (i) greater investment as longer-term certainty of process and decision-making increases and (ii) delivery of better (appropriate, proportionate and cost effective) outcomes for biodiversity as a result of development projects.

5. This capacity and competence gap may be exacerbated if biodiversity offsetting, with associated metric calculations, becomes more widely adopted.

6. The mitigation hierarchy, of which biodiversity offsetting is the final part, can provide a quantifiable and transparent mechanism for the environmental impacts of development to be assessed – but it needs professional resource and rigorous (not selective!) application. The November 2013 Association of Local Government Ecologists report found that 74% of planners report that they have only a basic understanding of the mitigation hierarchy.

The APPGB calls for:

7. Increased scrutiny of the resourcing available at the Planning Inspectorate to ensure that LPAs understand and adhere to national and local biodiversity policies and statutory obligations. For example, as a matter of course, local plans should be found unsound when they have not complied with biodiversity policies, just as for those that fail to adhere to housing policies. Such pressure would act as a catalyst for LPAs to ensure that they have proper ecological expertise.

8. DCLG and DEFRA to explore models of shared ecological expertise between LPAs, and promote these as best practice.

9. The requirement for all ecological work submitted with planning applications to be provided by a member of a professional body such as CIEEM thereby serving to raise standards and increase competencies and confidence in the information submitted to LPAs.

10. A commitment from DCLG to promote, in conjunction with BIS, the adoption of BS42020 which will help provide a framework for information to be presented in a standardised format, giving in turn greater consistency and clarity to decision-makers.

11. DCLG and DEFRA to engage an independent body to ensure that the required, audited delivery of the biodiversity duty of LPAs actually occur, providing in addition a means of comparing each LPA’s performance against its neighbours. This could, for example, be provided by a widened remit of the Natural Capital Committee.

Continued reduction in ecological capacity in LPAs may reflect short-term expediency, but this reduction reduces efficiency and often slows the planning process. Moreover, by creating uncertainty within the process, longer-term investment is likely reduced. Government should mandate all LPAs to deliver robustly on their biodiversity duties rather than to treat the environment and biodiversity as a luxury, ignored because staffing its assessment is too expensive.

< Back