Latest planning performance figures for Scotland show the average time taken to determine major planning applications rose steeply during the first half of the 2016-17 financial year – up from 26.3 weeks during the first three months of 2016 to an average of 44.8 weeks during July to September. This is the highest average determination period for major applications for any quarter since this measurement began in April 2012. Atmos Technical Director Ecology considers what developers can do to mitigate the risk of delays in the planning process.  

There will be a range of factors that have brought this situation about. Pressure on local authority budgets leading to a reduction in the capacity of planning authorities is certainly putting pressure on the planning system.

But one factor that is often overlooked is a failure by developers to plan ahead when it comes to dealing with potential ecological constraints on a development site. It’s an issue that is only likely to become more acute as the proportion of applications for development on sites that are subject to such constraints continues to rise.

In one recent Scottish case, a planning application for the redevelopment of a derelict building, submitted in the autumn, had to be withdrawn because the developer had failed to complete a bat survey, even though anecdotal evidence suggested bats were roosting in the structure. The developer was forced to wait until late spring of the following year, when bats are active again, for surveys to be carried out. This prompted a delay of several months before the planning application could be resubmitted complete with the missing bat survey information so the planning authority could make a proper assessment and reach a decision.

Having to withdraw an application and resubmit is an extreme case. But there are many other similar examples where the need to deal with ecological issues on a project has come as an inconvenient surprise late in the process. Cases like these serve as a timely reminder of the important role of effective planning – especially for ecological surveys – in ensuring an application’s path through the planning process is as smooth as possible. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!

One critical consideration here is the seasonality of completing many ecological assessments. Failure to plan ahead could mean missing that crucial window, leading to months of delay and spiralling project costs. In fact, the best time to begin planning is during the winter months. Spending a little time in winter to plot what requirements you may eventually have for ecological assessment is the most effective way to meet timescales and to keep costs to a minimum.

Developers who know that an ecological assessment for their planning application will be needed should plan to carry out a desk study during the winter followed by an extended Phase 1 habitat survey in early April. That way, if this work shows that the site has the potential to support protected species, any required surveys can be completed later that same season. Without that preparatory work, the developer will have to wait until the following year.

Properly planned, the information gathered through ecological surveys can feed into the site design and will enable any required mitigation to be identified at an early stage. A proactive approach to ecology also substantially reduces the risk of a planning application being delayed or rejected due to unacceptable impacts or incomplete information.

The old adage that “time is money” has never been more true than for planning and development – and decision times for major planning applications in Scotland are currently moving in the wrong direction, meaning increased costs and higher risks for developers. But one thing developers can do to help themselves is to anticipate potential issues with ecology, to plan ahead and take action early in the process to address these.

Atmos Consulting will host a special breakfast seminar on “Minimising commercial risk from ecology in development” in Edinburgh on Friday the 17th March at 8.30am. Visit here for full details and to sign up for free.