Despite being protected under EU and UK law for six decades, great crested newts have suffered large declines in their populations. However, new licensing to protect them could be a “win-win” for both developers and biodiversity.
A new scheme for authorising developments, known as ‘district licensing’, has been created by Natural England. This sees a major shake-up of conservation and mitigation work for this protected amphibian. It shifts the focus from ecology and assessment on an individual site basis into habitat improvement strategies. The aims of the new scheme include more sustainable habitats and more effective conservation, whilst reducing delays and uncertainty for developers with a streamlined licensing system.
Great crested newts and the existing licenses
Great crested newts are a European Protected Species (EPS) that spend most of their lives on land, however breed in water. They can be found in woodland, scrub, grassland and hedgerows. This often brings them into conflict with development on sites within 500m of a potential newt-supporting pond. Like all protected species, planning applications need to be supported by surveys completed in the correct season. However for these newts, the window is just a few weeks in spring. If this is missed, it can lead to timely delays in the planning process.
Currently, if the newts are present on a potential development site, mitigation work is required. This involves potentially more surveys, an EPS mitigation licence, creation of new on-site habitat, erection of specialist fencing and translocation or rehoming individual newts.
According to Natural England, money spent on mitigation often results in ponds that are forced into a development and sometimes isolated. Ponds are also lost through minimal maintenance.
The new district licensing
Pilot schemes for the new District Licensing Scheme have been running in Kent, Cheshire and part of the Midlands since February 2018. Instead of mitigation and compensation work completed on an individual site basis, a more concise landscape approach is taken. Ponds and habitats are created ahead of development in locations which are seen as the most beneficial for newt populations. The mitigation work is funded by developers who enter the scheme. They make a financial contribution depending on the scale of impact created by their development proposals.
How does this help developers, newts and biodiversity
Developers can apply to be registered under this new scheme without the need to conduct pond surveys. This means they can apply for planning year-round without the need for considering the short survey window. This will help to future-proof mitigation costs as well as speed up the delivery of development.
Fees to enter this scheme may appear high, however compared to a full traditional survey, license and mitigation route, is often parallel or cheaper. Furthermore, as the premise of the scheme is mitigation and habitat compensation, there is no obligation for the developer to do any on-site habitat creation. Therefore, this could potentially expand the development area. Alternatively, the land could be used to provide further biodiversity improvements, above and beyond the minimum requirements.
Looking to the future
The traditional method of licensing can often seem effortful with minimal gain for newt conservation. Under the new District Licensing Scheme, habitats are created within optimal areas and managed for 25 years. We assume this will be beneficial for the long-term protection of newts.
The success of these schemes will depend on the effectiveness of habitat creation and maintenance with populations being lost in some areas so others can flourish. Whilst appearing to go against the grain of the traditional ecology route of saving individuals, this new approach may provide substantial population level conservation. The scheme potentially ensures a sustainable future for newts, simplify licensing for developers, and may represent a “win-win” if executed effectively.
District licensing will be rolled out across the country over the next few years with results of the monitoring giving an indication of the success of the scheme.
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