Natural England has opened a consultation on a proposal to introduce a charge to applicants for the assessment and issue of wildlife licences. Wildwood Ecology has reviewed Natural England’s proposal and provides an outline on how this may affect some of our customers.
Who needs a wildlife licence?
Wildlife licences are currently issued to Natural England’s customers, which include environmental (ecological) consultants and developers. You need a wildlife licence from Natural England if you plan to disturb or remove wildlife or damage habitats. Currently, there is no charge for either the assessment of the application or the issue of the licence, but there are charges made for use of their pre-application advice service (see further paragraph below). The proposal for charging will principally affect licences issued under The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.
Why the need for change?
In their overview of the changes Natural England state that the proposal aims to:
- improve the licensing service for customers by enabling investment in line with changes in customer demand;
- change the licensing service from wholly taxpayer-funded to a mixture of taxpayer-funded and service user-funded, in line with Treasury and Cabinet Office principles for the funding of regulatory activity.
Furthermore, they state that “in contrast with the majority of environmental licensing and permitting schemes, the protected species licensing service has been wholly taxpayer-funded since its commencement.”
“There has been an increase in licence application numbers for many years, for example European Protected Species (EPS) mitigation licence applications rose from 1758 in 2009/10 to 2801 in 2015/16. Natural England has struggled to match the demand for licences, particularly at peak periods of demand. Natural England recognises that the resulting delays in issuing licences can cause significant impacts and increased costs for applicants.”
What is the Proposal?
Natural England proposes to introduce charges for certain areas of licensing work, which will enable them to invest in the service in line with increasing customer demand. Charges will apply for the issue of a class, an individual or an organisational licence and the issue of a licence after modification or renewal. Charges will also include cost recovery for compliance monitoring for those licences subject to charges. Natural England aims to compliance check up to 5% of licence applications.
There will be no charge under the following circumstances:
- where a licence is issued for certain purposes as described in the section on” the proposed exemptions from charging”; or
- where trivial amendments such as changing a name or other minor details are needed; or
- if a licence is not issued, either because the application is withdrawn by the applicant or Natural England refuses the application.
Doesn’t Natural England already charge for their services?
Yes, Natural England currently charges for pre-application advice under its Discretionary Advice Service and Pre-Submission Screening Service, but not for the assessment or issue of the wildlife licence itself.
How much you pay for the use of the service depends on the work you need to do and whether or not a Natural England adviser needs to visit your site. Currently charges are £500 per adviser for a 90-minute meeting and then £110 per hour per adviser for each additional hour. If an adviser needs to travel to your office or development site, you will pay their travel costs and travel time as part of the hourly rate.
You will also pay £110 per hour if your request is more complicated, such as reviewing a draft environmental statement, providing advice to reduce damage to protected sites and species, providing advice on your landscape and visual impact assessment.
These services will be unaffected by these proposals.
Will charges still apply when we leave the European Union?
The current licensing system for European Protected Species is expected to continue after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in 2019 (under the provisions of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill). Legislative changes to scope or process may occur after the date of departure, but it is expected that this will not affect licence charging.
Will this proposal affect me?
Charges will apply for the issue of a class, an individual or an organisational licence and the issue of a licence after modification or renewal.
A class licence is issued to a person such as an ecological consultant. The proposal states that Natural England will charge that person an initial fee of £130 for application and then an annual renewal fee of £80. Most environmental consultants will have one or more class licences for wildlife including bats, great crested newt and hazel dormouse. Fees will apply for each licence applied for or renewed.
Individual licences are issued to a person such as a developer. The proposal states that Natural England will charge that person (or the Company that person is employed by) an assessment and issue fee of £700 where a European Protected Species Mitigation Licence application is made and successfully issued for the purpose of development (see exemptions – footnote 2). Your development may also have a higher likelihood of being visited by a Natural England representative to assess compliance to the issued licence. They may therefore charge you for: all their time and travel costs incurred prior to and during a site visit; for their assessment response of a site visit; and for any further checks where remedial works were recommended.
Natural England expects to see applicants respond to the introduction of charges in several ways. These could include:
- increasing the uptake of simpler licence options, such as using the low impact bat or great crested newt mitigation licences;
- seeking pre-application advice; and
- using impact avoidance approaches to avoid the need to apply for a licence.
As an established and respected ecological consultancy, you can be assured that we always approach your proposal pragmatically where there are wildlife issues. This includes a full assessment of the impact of the development and the requirement for any wildlife licence. Natural England’s proposal, if approved, will not change our approach to assessment or our advice, but it may mean a more robust approach in certain circumstances where we, in consultation with you, deem a wildlife licence is not required and avoidance measures could be implemented. This proposal may therefore force some developers to engage in a higher risk scenario to avoid, what could be, excessive wildlife licence fees. Exposing individuals to these scenarios, particularly small-scale developers, would in our opinion be detrimental to the protection of wildlife and ultimately their conservation and something which Wildwood Ecology opposes.
We employ professional, and highly competent ecological consultants who hold wildlife class licences for bats (including low impact bat mitigation), great crested newt and hazel dormouse for commercial surveys where European Protected Species may be present. Each employee as part of their annual licence renewal would, under the proposal, be subject to a renewal fee. If implemented as it stands, Wildwood Ecology would have to decide if all employees should renew their licences or possibly select a company representative to reduce these additional costs. Similarly, we would have to review our training and development programme to ensure there is a business case in supporting the application for new wildlife licences for employees and onward renewal. Wildwood Ecology would then have to decide if we absorb these costs or not.
Wildwood Ecology would therefore like to see a fairer service delivery for both the developer and ecological consultant. The current service delivery by which wildlife licences are assessed and issued by Natural England must, in the first instance, be critically reviewed by its stakeholders. The introduction of wildlife licence fees will not, in our opinion, be the ‘silver bullet’ to tackle resource and inefficiency shortfalls within Natural England, but should form part of a wider review. In our view, we should not simply be throwing money at an already flawed and overcomplicated licensing service, particularly in light of the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union.
Following a full, open and critical review action must be taken to ensure that any new service (or services) provides a balanced and efficient method for all its customers to identify, assess, monitor and review instances where a wildlife licence is required. Part of the review should include who best is to deliver any new service and this may mean the separation of the assessment from the issue of class and individual licences. Should the principle of wildlife licence fees be agreed, further consultation will be essential in deciding the level of those fees established within a workable framework. The final outcome should be a fair system for customers, alleviate problems associated with the already over-stretched licensing service, with, importantly, no detrimental impacts of wildlife protection.
The consultation is now open for all interested individuals and parties to comment and will close on Monday 5 February 2018.
 Wildlife Licence Changes – overview: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/natural-england/wildlife-licence-charges/ 11/12/2017
 There are some proposed exemptions, such as licences for preserving public health and public safety; preventing serious damage to property, including that to crops and fisheries; science, education or research activities; that achieve conservation aims such as improving the conservation status of a threatened species or habitat, projects whose principle aim is to maintain or improve the conservation of historic properties or that deliver favourable conservation status for bats through in-situ mitigation; and applications for alterations or extensions for a single dwelling house.
 Only available by using an environmental consultant registered with Natural England as a Recognised Ecological Consultant (REC).