The obligation for local authorities to protect and conserve biodiversity spans all activities but faces key challenges. Peter Dorans, Corporate Relations Manager at The Wildlife Trusts summarises their unique approach to assist with the current situation.
Nature makes us feel better! Well-planned and thought-through development which integrates nature, bringing it into the everyday lives of those who will live and work there, will help to create attractive, healthier, wealthier and more sustainable communities. Communities whose local authorities properly value the natural environment in the planning system, and invest in getting the right advice and information, will reap the rewards.
Children will be happier – UNESCO consistently ranks our children as the developed world’s unhappiest. Children tell us what will make them happier is access to natural spaces to play, learn, take calculated risks and develop self-confidence. Adults also benefit from the natural world and wilder green spaces. Wildlife Trusts projects are demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of engaging with nature. The contribution made by well-designed developments to coherent, joined-up ecosystems over large areas will improve our resilience to climate change and sustain the natural processes which underpin our economy and society.
Local authorities’ obligation to protect and conserve biodiversity spans all activities. In the planning system it starts with the identification and exclusion from local plans of sites which are non-negotiable in terms of wildlife value. Proper scrutiny of individual applications to ensure biodiversity protection follows.
So, there is both opportunity and obligation. But in stark contrast, the statistics put forward by the Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) tell a story of failure by local government to invest in their own professional ecological advice. As they continue to bear the brunt of austerity, a chasm has opened between the advice and information needed by authorities in order both to fulfil their obligations and capitalise on the opportunities, and their access to that information.
The charitable and private sectors can only do so much. Last year, Wildlife Trusts across the UK (there, are 47) influenced the outcome of over 3,000 planning applications in favour of wildlife. Indeed, the ALGE research suggests that some planners rely on our responses to planning applications in lieu of in-house ecological expertise. There are a handful of examples in which Wildlife Trusts act as the de facto in-house expertise under formal agreements, notably in Derbyshire. Outside of these agreements local charities, themselves under severe budgetary constraints, spend precious resource to ensure that planning authorities discharge their responsibilities and that the opportunities to secure gains for wildlife and communities are taken.
The dearth of in house ecological expertise places a heavy reliance on the quality and independence of the ecological advice which the developer accesses and how they then go on to filter, interpret and present it. There are some tools such as BS42020 which at least standardises how information is presented, and subsequently used, but it is a guideline only, not an independently audited standard.
Responsible developers recognise that well thought through development has commercial and societal benefit. It’s worth remembering the premium that properties built close to, and incorporating high quality green space can command. More important to their long term strategic development is that they demonstrate a track record of building high quality places for communities to thrive.
This gap isn’t acceptable, but by ignoring it we would do ourselves, our children and grandchildren a huge disservice. This is the driver behind a new arrangement between The Wildlife Trusts and Willmott Dixon. Under the arrangement, which is unique in the industry, The Wildlife Trusts’ network of professional ecology consultancies will work under a framework agreement to provide Willmott Dixon teams with independent advice from the outset of the planning process.
The network of 24 Wildlife Trust Consultancies are independent of their parent Wildlife Trusts but share their many advantages – especially that they are experts with a profound link to the local natural environment, and the communities it supports on their patch. They will apply their expertise assessing the potential impacts of a development, identifying practical ways to avoid and mitigate damage, and helping Willmott Dixon teams to identify actions to achieve ecological gain e.g. through designing-in natural features which maximise the potential value to wildlife and communities.
By accessing this local expertise very early in the planning process, Willmott Dixon hopes to ensure that their planning applications will consistently offer the best outcomes for the natural environment. For the company this could mitigate the risk of time and money spent later in the planning process adjusting applications in response to objections. Sourcing ecological advice in this way supports local procurement aims. Crucially though, it is backed up by the wider network of consultancies operating within audited Health & Safety, Environmental and Quality Management Systems and is therefore as responsive and professional as any provided by centralised commercial consultancies.
In the longer term, profits from this consultancy work are gifted back to Wildlife Trusts and reinvested back into the long term protection and restoration of the natural environment. The relationship of consultancies to the Trust means that partnerships carry on through to the construction teams and ultimately to the final communities and businesses which occupy the developments.
This arrangement does not detract from or replace the need for Local Authorities to employ and recognise the value of their own ecological expertise, but reinforces it. Each sector has a part in the conversation about creating high quality, wildlife rich places that will leave a positive legacy for generations to come.
Corporate Relations Manager
The Wildlife Trusts
Tel: 01636 677711