As readers will be aware, I have a little thing about standards. Seeing might be related to believing. If you can't do the first, then the second can be a bit of a challenge. Whilst we all enjoy a little tussle now and then, there must at least be a plausible chance that we can see what is being discussed in order to agree/ disagree on the possible impacts of a development proposal. The following short note looks at the problems that Local Planning Authorities seem to have when it comes to standards. As LPAs decide/ advise on most things planning, there should at least be a sporting chance of understanding what's going on- shouldn't there?
With the shrinkage of Natural England (NE) to a near-vestigial rump linked to DEFRA (HoL 2018), the job of the remaining Local Planning Authority (LPA) ecologists, or planners has become ever more difficult. As NE staff have been lost, so the emphasis in evaluating the basic ecological material accompanying planning cases has progressively fallen to LPA staff. With the axing/wastage of c60% of LPA ecologists (HoL 2018) that is no sinecure.
In the place of people and specialists, NE has provided Standing Advice (SA) on its web site (actually DEFRA’s) and told LPA staff to use that. As the House of Lords (HoL 2018) and others have noted (e.g. Reed 2018), the advice is not standard, not consistent, is dated, and is wobbly rather than standing proudly, reliably or robustly.
All of this makes the life of an LPA just that little bit more challenging. In a recent paper in the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s (CIEEM) journal ‘In Practice’, Carlos Abrahams (2019) has looked at the ecological guidance that LPAs give to prospective developers on what a good planning application should contain. Obviously, the existence of authoritative SA would mean a clear and consistent message to all applicants across the length and breadth of England, wouldn’t it? Sadly, the only consistency is in the pattern of differences between inter-LPA guidance.
Abrahams took the example of guidance on great crested newts. As a very protected species, and one that excites LPAs, and NE, the message ought to be straight down the line consistency: do this and that at a certain distance- end of story. Not quite. The SA gives the requirement for a survey if there is a pond within 500m of a proposed development. Different LPAs give distances of 50m, 100m 250m and 500m. What a survey entails also appears to differ. For the poor old consultant, there is a problem, or several problems. What individual LPAs appear to want in their detailed guidance (if available) differs from LPA to LPA. There is no simple plug-in procedure that all LPAs apply. Even if consultants are referred to the SA, few SA species documents actually state what needs doing and when, so that the consultants, and the LPA, have scope to mis-understand methods, results and reliability. And they do (Reed 2019).
Will all of this tedious stuff go away, and allow ecologists to do what they want to? No. Mr Gove and DEFRA (Gove 2018) want LPAs to report on net gain and other conservation non-sequiturs. To do so requires consistent data sets and standard guidance. That way, adding all of the developers’ data together ought to have some sort of possible meaning. If NE/DEFRA can’t provide standard SA guidance, and LPAs are asking for different things, then we might well be in a pickle. Add to this the National Policy & Planning Framework (NPPF 2018) statement that all 364 English LPAs are meant to provide updated lists for their ecological requirements every 2 years, then we are indeed in a mess. No wonder that so many planning documents are accompanied by so much dross. The wonder is that with such poor guidance anyone can notice.
Abrahams, C. (2019). Ecological Survey requirements: conflicts between local validation checklists and national guidance. In Practice 103: 10-12.
DEFRA (2018). National Planning Policy Framework July 2018. Command 9680. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-planning-policy-framework.
Gove, M. (2018). A green future: our 25-year plan to improve the environment. London, HMSO. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf
House of Lords Select Committee. (2018). The countryside at a crossroad: is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose? HL Paper 99. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldnerc/99/9902.htm.
Reed, T.M. (2018). Planning and biodiversity survey guidance for Local Planning Authorities: not good enough. Conservation Land Management 16: 29-36.
Reed, T.M. (2019). Transparency, open evaluation, and the use of professional judgement in planning applications. In Practice 103: 13-16.