Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Advisor at the Woodland Trust examines the Biodiversity Duty for Public Authorities and highlights how guidance is lacking in useful information…
In addressing The Biodiversity Duty for Public Authorities, just how much guidance does the ‘guidance’ provide?
“Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity.”
This duty was set down in the ‘Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006’. But what does it mean for planning authorities? DEFRA published new guidance on the duty last year, replacing the 2011 guidance (though interestingly this is still available on the gov.uk website with no indication that it has been archived or replaced).
The guidance is very brief, comprising primarily of lists without any practical advice or direction. It lists the land authorities may own including school grounds, parks, verges etc, and green infrastructure: sports pitches, golf course and woodlands, it even includes ‘the wider countryside’ in this definition. This is contrary to Natural England’s more strategic definition. By including everything as green infrastructure there is an inevitable feeling that authorities are being set up to fail.
The Woodland Trust’s primary concerns are the protection of ancient woodland and the planting of new woodland as part of a landscape scale approach to conservation. The guidance’s only reference to tree planting says that authorities can support biodiversity by: using sustainably sourced native tree and plant species in new planting. There is no detail on where trees should be planted or how they should be maintained and monitored. The previous guidance was entirely different, giving a holistic view, detailing the many benefits of woodlands; from their role in uniting communities to their function as a carbon sink. Through case studies, the 2011 guidance gave authorities ideas and inspiration, encouragement to go above and beyond for biodiversity.
The new guidance adds nothing to the duty. One and a half lines state that biodiversity should be promoted in planning and development. It does not set any requirements or best practice examples which puts authorities in a difficult situation, making it harder for them to justify asking for appropriate evidence and surveys.
The guidance fails to add anything to the localism agenda; the duty applies to Parish Councils, legally putting them in a different position to neighbourhood forums. The guidance does not say how the duty could be applied to neighbourhood plans, meaning missing a vital opportunity. Other elements of the guidance are simply misleading. For example in section 3 it states that ‘Public authorities can use the indicator “local sites under positive management” to measure their commitments to the duty.’ This is unworkable; Natural England is the only public body that can take any responsibility for privately managed sites.
This ‘guidance’ offers no guidance or direction, it barely elaborates on the Duty let alone going any way to explaining its implementation. In these straitened times with fewer ecologists employed in planning authorities and Natural England increasingly relying on standing advice, the need for guidance is greater than ever, but the void is getting bigger. ■
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Victoria Bankes Price
Tel: 01476 581111