UK study finds that 74% of planners only have a basic understanding of the mitigation hierarchy

11 December 2013

A just-published report by the UK’s Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) has concluded that the strategic conservation of biodiversity may be compromised by a lower than acceptable level of professional and technical competency within local planning authorities.  This lack of ecological competency by officials is not limited to the UK and is something many ecologists are frustrated by on a daily basis.  It places the issue of maintaining biodiversity and natural capital, in the long term, at some considerable risk.  On the dark side, it can provide a loophole by which conservation-critical land may be fragmented by or lost to development.

In the UK there is a “duty is to embed consideration of biodiversity as an integral part of policy and decision making throughout the public sector, which should be seeking to make a significant contribution to the achievement of the commitments made by Government in its Biodiversity 2020 strategy” .

The ALGE report summarised its findings as follows:

  • Responses were received from all types of planning authority. The surveys were completed by 88 ecologists working for 70 councils in England; these represent a response from 20% of all English planning authorities and from 61% of those with an ‘in-house’ ecologist. In addition, 119 planners from 69 different planning authorities responded to the survey, representing a response from 20% of English authorities.
  • The survey results show that, when judged against the CIEEM Competency Framework, local planning authorities require high levels of ecological competence to discharge statutory obligations and implement national planning policy requirements.
  • From previous research undertaken by ALGE, it is known that only one third of planning authorities in England have access to their own ‘in-house’ ecologist. A large number of planning authorities (c.65%) have no or only limited (i.e. part-time or shared with another authority) access to any ‘in-house’ ecological expertise.
  • In view of the very large number of applications determined each year (>400,000 district applications), an average capacity of only one ecologist for every three local planning authorities in England would appear to be inadequate to deal with the relevant workload.
  • Most local authority ecologists report that providing an input to the council’s planning function is only a part of their responsibilities within their authority. Other duties can collectively take up in excess of 50% of their time.
  • The majority (90%) of local authority planners lack ecological qualifications, have had very little training and consequently recognise that they have only basic levels of the ecological expertise required to discharge duties and national policy.
  • The evidence therefore suggests that ecological capacity within local government is stretched extremely thinly across a very wide policy agenda, where planning work is but one element.
  • On the basis of the evidence from the two surveys, there is clearly an ecological skills gap within the planning system.
  • 81% of planners responding to the surveys indicate that having access to an ‘in-house’ ecologist is their preferred source of expert advice. Other sources of ecological advice are less well used for instance:
    • While just over 30% of planners report that they regularly or often refer to Natural England’s Standing Advice, 47% report that they do so only occasionally, and 22% rarely or not at all.
    • Advice provided through NE’s Planning Hub appears to be least well used: 53% of planners rarely or never make use of it, and a further 37% do so only occasionally.
    • Less than 10% of planners regularly or often obtain advice from their local Wildlife Trust through any formal arrangement or paid service. More use is made of local Wildlife Trusts advice and comments received in response to formal consultation on planning applications.
    • Only c.7% of planners seek ecological advice from consultants through a formal service level agreement or framework contract. In contrast, 76% of planners report that they never use ecological consultants as a source of ecological advice.
  • Many local planning authorities do not currently have either the capacity or the competence to undertake the effective, and in some cases necessarily lawful, assessment of planning applications where biodiversity is a material consideration.
  • Technical areas where the skills gap is most pronounced and where competency and capacity is a particular issue for local authorities without access to adequate expertise include:
    • review and evaluation of ecological survey methods;
    • scientific analysis and interpretation of ecological data and information;
    • environmental management (i.e. measures for mitigation, compensation and enhancement);
    • ecological impact assessment;
    • habitat regulations assessment;
    • compliance with and enforcement of environmental legislation and policy;
    • understanding and application of the mitigation hierarchy.
  • The results would also seem to suggest that there is likely to be a skills gap within the planning system when LPAs come to consider applications involving ‘biodiversity offsetting’. A very large majority (74%) of planners report that they have only a basic understanding of the mitigation hierarchy, although the hierarchy is expected to form a key element of the decision-making process when considering whether residual impacts should be compensated for offsite or whether there are alternatives (e.g. mitigation onsite) that might deliver an overall better outcome.
  • Many planning authorities appear to be unaware of the risks of providing a planning service that is not technically resilient when it comes to biodiversity; where identified risks include:
    • Failure to deliver biodiversity policy requirements as set out in the NPPF;
    • Failure to comply with statutory obligations;
    • Referral to the local government ombudsman for maladministration;
    • Expensive legal challenge in the courts (i.e. judicial review of planning decisions);
    • Time consuming and unconstructive workloads;
    • Infraction proceedings through the European Courts – and potential heavy financial penalties;
    • Criminal prosecution under wildlife legislation;
    • Damage to reputation and the financial consequences of being classed as a poorlyperforming authority that has failed to meet delivery targets;
    • Breach of a planner’s code of professional conduct.
  • There appears to have been an inexplicable time lag on the part of many planning authorities in recognising the implications of how the various statutory biodiversity obligations impact on their planning functions (e.g. the Habitats Directive (1992) and the first transcription of this into UK statute as the Habitat Regulations (1994), both of which are some 20 years old).
  • Many local planning authorities have failed to respond to the increasing statutory obligations for biodiversity, by securing appropriate ‘ecological expertise’ that would enable them to examine more effectively the technical merits of a case and then lawfully grant consent.
  • A ‘line is the sand’ should be drawn between the planning and ecological professions so that local authority planners are not placed in a situation where they are expected to make professional judgements outside their area of expertise and competence. This may not only require them to contravene their professional code of conduct but may also result in the LPA inadvertently breaching its statutory obligations. In the worst case, this may result in facilitating development that, when implemented, results in harm to protected wildlife (that may constitute a criminal offence under wildlife legislation) and which could all have been avoided if the LPA had intervened appropriately by using its relevant planning powers (i.e. imposition of appropriate planning conditions).
  • With on-going budget restraints, the lack of technical resilience is a problem that is likely to remain or get even worse, with ecological posts being cut or not refilled when existing post- holders move from the authority. However, senior managers and elected members should consider seriously whether their preferred strategy for risk management should, as a matter of first choice, be to find the necessary resources to ensure that they have adequate access to ecological expertise. The financial, reputational and professional risks of doing otherwise may ultimately prove too costly at both a corporate and/or personal level.


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