2016 was a busy year for protected species licensing for the Atmos Mold Ecology Team, with four new development licences granted and a two further long-standing licences in place. Covering great crested newt (GCN), bats and badger for a wide range of developments and across Wales and England, this has given us a unique perspective on the subtle variations in the licencing processes across different organisations, the wide variety of challenges encountered for different types of development and the broad range of solutions used to address these. Senior Consultant, Catherine Hibbert outlines some key lessons to be learned from recent EPS licensing experience in Wales.
I intend to focus in particular on our recent experience of GCN licensing in Wales, specifically north-east Wales which is a stronghold for the protected species and where we obtained two licences in 2016.
The first of these was for a replacement water pipeline and the second was an extension to an active aggregates quarry. Although both projects were carried out under licence, the conditions and terms of each varied widely. The first point of note here is that, in Wales (and up until recently in England also), the same licensing system can be used to grant a development licence for projects with a very small temporary effect on GCNs right through to larger scale projects with potentially significant and long term effects.
This is achieved through subtle but critical differences in the wording used to determine licensing conditions, the licensing timescale, methods of work, compliance auditing and proportionate mitigation. As named ecologists, we make sure to check through the intricacies of the issued licence and that the licence holder (often the developer client) is kept informed and updated in a proactive way. The devil is very much in the detail, and it would be very wrong to assume that licences are granted on the basis of a “one size fits all” approach.
The water pipeline scheme we worked on was carried out under permitted development rights. The requirement to work through predominantly arable farmland on a temporary and sequential basis resulted in a blanket licence being granted for the pipeline route and buffer by Natural Resources Wales (NRW). At the same time, a colour coded ‘traffic light’ system was used to identify areas requiring different levels of mitigation. This system worked well with the client and contractors, providing an accurate cue for what type of working would be required and where. Licencing the entire route as one interlinked development corridor was also a pragmatic solution that enabled works to proceed in a coordinated manner whilst recognising the varying risks to GCNs along the way.
The quarry extension involved permanent loss of habitat within a statutory designated site, for which GCN was one of the features of interest. Quarries present whole new levels of complexity since their planning consent is often historic, their boundaries can vary over time and some of these will pre-date the designated habitat sites which then subsequently surround them.
Areas which contain minerals resource can often paradoxically also be areas where suitable habitats exist for protected species. For example, clay soils tend to have a high density of ponds and thus greater likelihood of GCN being present, whilst also being suitable for clay extraction. This process in turn tends to create more ponds suitable for GCN. Meanwhile, limestone areas supporting natural cracks and crevices as well as historic mines can attract bat populations. However, the pairing of mining or quarrying and wildlife is not always an amicable one.
For the quarry extension we were working on, owing to the presence of the statutory designated site and long-term nature of the quarrying works, a habitat compensation area is being created in an unworked area of the quarry to be safeguarded and managed for GCN throughout the lifetime of the quarry.
A consultation on the first of a raft of proposed permitting and licensing changes in Wales has also just closed. NRW are proposing to introduce a charged discretionary pre-application advice service from April 2017. It will not be compulsory to engage this service for all licence applications, but may be advisable if a scheme is particularly contentious, complex or subject to tight time constraints. NRW are in the process of preparing further guidance to explain what will fall into this charged service. At a recent NRW seminar, further updates to the process were also mooted in relation to an earned recognition approach similar to the one recently introduced by Natural England potentially accompanied by a sliding scale of charges to be applied to development licences.
With significant changes to the licensing regime in England and Wales ongoing, it’s important for developers to keep up to speed with the very latest developments. In a rapidly changing policy environment, Atmos is ready to advise and provide the benefit of its extensive experience and expertise to ensure the process of securing a protected species licence for your development runs as smoothly as it possibly can.