Dr David Smith, Eastern region director and principal ecological consultant at Ecological Planning & Research Ltd, discusses why developers and construction businesses should protect biodiversity and how to follow the guidance
The ongoing housing crisis across the UK shows no sign of abating. To meet current demand in England alone – and the needs of future households – around 345,000 homes must be built each year. Alongside this, roads, schools, healthcare services and other amenities that make up living, thriving communities need to be built.
While this may appear to be directly at odds with the need to protect and enhance the country’s rapidly declining biodiversity, new housing projects can play a central role in reversing this decline.
Increasingly mandated by Local Planning Policy, Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is already established as a requirement in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and National Planning Practice Guidance. It is now set to be enshrined in law in the forthcoming Environment Bill later this year.
Meeting housing needs whilst achieving a significant increase in biodiversity is not, therefore, an ambitious but impractical goal for developers and construction contractors – it makes sound business sense.
There can sometimes be a disconnect between planning teams and the dynamic reality on the ground experienced by construction, as well as the pressure construction teams have placed on them to ‘value engineer’ once a planning consent is secured. The latter can affect the quality of delivery and increase overall costs through short-term gains.
Ecologists are involved throughout all stages of planning and construction.
They have a clear view of the entire process, from start to finish, and are therefore well placed to act as a bridge between planning and construction. They can deliver practical advice at all stages to ensure that legal compliance does not become a burden. With good communication, housing projects can deliver for developers, new residents, and wildlife alike.
Why developers and construction businesses protect biodiversity
Implementing robust but proportional ecological mitigation measures on construction sites means a smoother process and better control over programme and costs. Delays because of ecology, particularly when legally protected species are unexpectedly discovered, or when seasonal windows for implementing mitigation measures are missed (such as reptile translocations or clearance of potential bird nesting habitat) can impact project timelines considerably.
It is therefore vital for construction managers and ecologists to plan collaboratively at least 12 months ahead – and preferably 18 on larger, complex sites – when preparing construction programmes, to help avoid delays.
Bringing expert ecologists on board early, with experience from planning through to construction, helps identify potential stumbling blocks before they develop into more difficult and more expensive problems.
Involving ecologists in the value engineering process is also important.
Attempting to cut costs without taking the wider ramifications of actions into account can be counterproductive and could increase costs in the long run while reducing sale prices. In some instances, value engineering post-consent can potentially add benefits to wildlife.
Being transparent about following previously agreed ecology mitigation measures also helps build trust with Local Planning Authorities (LPAs), regulatory bodies such as Natural England, other local consultees, and the local community. Building trust through excellent communication means that if it becomes necessary to change the proposed approach, amendments are more likely to be accepted.
The consequences of ‘getting in wrong’ can result in negative public relations, the potential for fines or even stop notices if biodiversity protection legislation is breached.
For example, one recent fine reported in the press of several hundred thousand pounds, which resulted from the destruction of legally protected habitats, received widespread negative media coverage at a national level. Ultimately, breaches in biodiversity protection legislation could lead to significant reputational damage and affect future projects.
Have you asked your ecologist to review the project programme?
The most successful and most efficient ecological measures require construction managers to plan ahead and ensure mitigation is in place from the start. Considering timings around ecological mitigation windows and nesting patterns is crucial.
Ask your ecologists to review planning documents, conduct a site walkover and produce a simple works program. It is better to remove nesting bird habitat in the winter than the spring and summer, if there are no other ecological factors to consider, such as bird nesting habitat that also supports dormice.
An experienced ecologist will be able to account for all the requirements across faunal and floral groups. If a site supports reptiles, missing the mitigation window can result in 5 or more months delay.
Are you communicating simply?
Planning application documents can be complex and time-consuming to read. Ask your ecologists to simplify the locations where there are ecological features by creating an ecology Traffic Light Plan.
These show where there are ecological features that represent a high risk, for example an active badger sett, dormouse or great crested newt habitat, and areas where there are medium and low risks.
These can be used in site inductions, toolbox talks and pinned up in places where construction staff gather, such as canteens. They should be reviewed and updated periodically as construction progresses and as the seasons change.
The Traffic Light Plan can be linked to an ecological permit system, similar to using a ‘permit to dig’ system, which many construction workers will be familiar with.
An ecology permit and method statement would be needed for any red areas on the site, and no ecology permit or contact with an ecologist would be needed areas highlighted green.
Any area in amber means construction staff would consult an ecologist before doing works but the risks are much lower compared to those areas in red.
Are your measures robust and proportionate?
Taking half-measures is unlikely to save time or money in the long term. Ensuring retained habitats like hedgerows, and boundary tree lines, or irreplaceable habitats such as veteran trees and ancient woodland are properly protected is essential to preventing accidental damage.
Propped Heras fencing and visible, clear signage can help delineate vulnerable areas and protect sensitive features. In general, any areas shown in red on a Traffic Light Plan are likely to be protected by propped Heras fencing.
There are also several options for reptile and amphibian exclusion fencing. Some are significantly more robust than others.
The cheapest fencing, which breaks or tears easily, is not necessarily the cheapest option in the long term, particularly if the fencing needs to function over a long construction program.
Selecting more robust fencing in these circumstances means it won’t need to be repaired as frequently and has less chance of developing holes that animals, such as lizards, snakes or newts could get through. If this happens, it can result in long delays especially if a new capture and translocation exercise is needed to remove animals. Regular checks, maintenance and repairs help avoid such situations.
Ensuring a senior team member is accountable for the mitigation measures can lead to greater ownership and enforcement. This demonstration of leadership sends a strong message to all staff, and it means when there are issues the person responsible has the authority to resolve them efficiently.
Have you involved skilled ecologists throughout the process?
Skilled ecologists are a valuable resource onsite. On larger sites, or where there are more complex issues, an experienced Ecological Clerk of Works (EcOW) can provide valuable support throughout the construction process, ensuring works are supervised when needed, monitoring of mitigation measures is conducted, or advice is quickly available when unforeseen challenges arise.
Another key consideration is using ecologists during the planning stage that have significant experience at the construction stage.
For example, a common practice during construction is cut and fill, used to level areas while keeping material imports or exports to a minimum. At planning, a simple two-dimensional view of impacts can miss risks and impacts.
However, an ecologist who understands how the extent of soil movement can have additional impacts will be better able to advise on simple, cost-effective and pragmatic advice even when the full details of soil movement are not known.
Similarly, ecologists who have experience with construction sites will be in a better position to understand the space needed and challenges faced by construction teams so that unrealistic and overly complex measures are avoided where possible.
Dr David Smith
Eastern region director and principal ecological consultant