Ignoring wildlife can lead to huge delays

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week May 2008

Location, location, squelch. The mantra for successful property development has been rewritten to include the sound of a JCB imposing its hefty presence on a scuttling lizard – followed by the rattle of money disappearing down the drain. Killing one tiny reptile can cost £5,000 under tough planning regulations protecting wildlife. And they rarely scuttle alone. But this is peanuts compared with huge delays in construction as experts scurry around finding out whether there are any more of the little beggars to squelch.

  The rules, embedded in Planning Policy Statement 9, have been around since 2005 but developers are still being taken by surprise, says Nick Leaney, planning specialist with consultant Aardvark. Firstly, there is a mistaken impression that biodiversity, to give its official name, is relevant only when concreting the countryside. Building a house in a back garden or infilling commercial space is just as likely to ring alarm bells.

  Jo Clayton, Aardvark’s head ecologist, has just finished work on half a dozen sites scattered among existing homes. Nothing important was found but that means builders can submit a planning application with the confidence that it will not come bouncing back.Owners of another site might have felt it was all a waste of time, considering they were infilling space on a business park. They didn’t count on the fact that otters had set up home on the river running next door.  In both cases, development went ahead. It usually does after tweaking the layouts, says Clayton.  But lack of forethought can mean long delays [see panel].

    Most developers accept that ecological surveys are now part of the vast bundle of paperwork required as part of any planning application but they often leave it to the last minute. Inspections must cover a complete breeding cycle for protected species. Miss that and it could be 12 months or more before the survey can take place, so it is crucial not to leave things until just before an application. Most developers know what sites are coming up 12 to 18 months in advance, so they can get in early and avoid delays later on, says Leaney.

 ‘This puts responsibility on developers in a way the planning system has never really required before. And penalties can be hefty for anyone who thinks they can flout the system. Any developer who knowingly harms, kills or maims faces a fine of £5,000 per animal,’ he says.

  It is tempting to dismiss sites which appear unlikely to be sensitive, particularly when an ecology study can cost around £1,000. But planners don’t need hard evidence of protected species, says Clayton. They need only suspect they might be around to demand a report which gives the all-clear.  Greater Crested Newts are as regular threat as they are relatively common in many parts of the UK. So why are they protected?  The regulations are base on European law, and they are rare across the Channel. Clayton worked on one site which was locked down for more than a year when newts were discovered. Ironically, they had disappeared by the time an inspection could be made during the breeding cycle.

  Bats, dormice, owls, rare plants and insects also require a trained eye to avoid the alarm being raised while building is under way. A licence to continue development is granted only after creating wild spaces or alternative nesting areas. The otters on Clayton’s business park meant turning buildings away from the river.

   Slothful builders are not the only villains. Leaney is critical of some ecologists for not grasping the economics.‘Developers don’t want an essay on wildlife,’ he says. ‘They need solutions and assurance that the process is being properly managed, not a list of potential constraints.’