Five top tips to plan for ecology

Whether you’re in the initial design stages or in the midst of a development project, it can be hard to incorporate ecology into your planning. If you’re delivering a development in 2021 where ecological surveys, advice or support may be required, then here are our five top tips to plan for ecology that will ensure you get your project back on track.

1. Be proactive, rather than reactive

Rather than traditional annual goal setting many of us are now working to quarterly goals. It makes perfect sense in a world that requires flexibility, adaptability, and strong leadership. Quarterly objectives fit rather neatly with the Ecological Survey Calendar, but you have to plan for ecology ahead of schedule to ensure you don’t miss a key survey window. There’s nothing more frustrating than finding out that those bat surveys requested by the Local Planning Authority can’t be undertaken for another nine months! So, make sure you consider the need for ecological surveys at the earliest opportunity, either within your pre-design (RIBA UK Stages 0-1), or the early design stage (RIBA UK Stage 2).

Ecological Survey Calendar

At these early stages, and part of your Project Brief, seek out what ecological constraints (project risks) and opportunities may be present on your site. If you’re unsure as to whether you need to scope in or scope out ecological surveys, then we offer a free consultation service. Working proactively to plan for ecology with an experienced and trusted ecological team will save you and your client both time and money. We can also help you design features that will help restore biodiversity loss. All good reasons to get that advice up-front.

2. Communicate change effectively

We all know that the more complex a project becomes, the greater the need for effective communication. Whilst updating your design team on changes to the scope of the project, there may also be assumptions made where consultation with a specialist could be crucial.

For example, the client or design team amends the timeline for a phase of work, or finds a constraint or opportunity that results in the change of design. Then these may have a material impact on biodiversity features which could result in further delays or additional costs. These changes can be easily discussed and implemented during good dialogue surrounding a plan for ecology.

Two way communication

Communication is of course two way. Your ecologist should engage with debate and provide new information as it arises, rather than wait until the end of a project to deliver a blow to you and your team.

Unfortunately, there are too many who are good at being ‘ecologists’ but let themselves, and their clients, down when it comes to customer focused project management. Sometimes we have to deliver bad news to the client or design team e.g. “we’ve just found a barn full of bats and it could mean the loss of that loft conversion”. It’s far better to do that at the earliest opportunity. Consequently, we can work together to find a solution, properly plan for ecology and get your project back on track.

Exchange knowledge

Of course, there are many ways to ensure effective communication, which includes investment in both people and technology. It will come as no surprise that businesses that thrive despite adversity, invest in both.

In addition to skills-based training to ensure we keep on top of changes to legislation, techniques in species survey and ecology, we also seek out mentors who can develop us as individuals. Mentors including architects. We find that knowledge exchange between like-minded companies and individuals helps us achieve more, particularly when it comes to issues relating to sustainability, climate change resilience and biodiversity loss.

We also continually invest in technology. Once more, not only in shiny new bat detectors, but better project management software that ensures we can track capacity and hence deliver a better service to our clients.

3. Don’t treat ecology as a tick box exercise

So, you’ve commissioned your ecologist early on in the design process, agreed the scope of works and you’ve got your report in time for your planning submission (RIBA UK Stages 3-4). You think you’ve made an adequate plan for ecology. All’s going well until you receive communication from the Local Planning Authority that they cannot formally register the application. Recommendations made within the submitted ecological report were for further surveys which have not been carried out. Your application is now on hold until you can get that information to them. As a result, you’re back to that nine-month wait until the bat survey season starts once more!

It’s frustrating that your ecologist did not plan for ecology, alerting you that further surveys would be required prior to a planning, or it could be that an assumption was made that all you needed was an ecological report. After all, that’s what the Local Planning Authority asked for, surely?

Preliminary Ecological Appraisal

The truth of the matter is that when an ecologist visits a site for the first time, they don’t know what they will or will not find. The first visit is what we often refer to as a ‘Preliminary’ appraisal. Surveys of this type are asked for by the Local Planning Authority in the first instance, but they usually state something along the lines that ‘based on the results of a preliminary appraisal further surveys may be required to fully establish the reasonably likely impacts on ecological features, including protected sites, habitats or species.’

It may be that a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal report is sufficient as a stand-alone supporting document where there is considered to be no, negligible or low ecological value. However, where there are features that could ‘reasonably’ be both likely present and affected by the planning proposal, then further surveys will usually be required prior not only to registration, but also determination. We have created an Ecological and Planning Flow Chart that can guide you to what ecological input may be required at all stages of a development so you can confirm with your ecologist that all necessary information can be provided at the relevant stage of your project.

Preliminary Survey

Protected Species Surveys

We often get asked if protected species surveys can be conditioned as part of planning application, rather than being all up-front. The answer we usually provide is ‘no’. Local Planning Authorities have case law on their side when it comes to this matter. As such, the presence or absence of protected species, and the extent to which they could be affected by the proposed development, should be established before planning permission is granted. Otherwise, all material considerations might not have been considered in making the decision.

Exceptional circumstances

The use of planning conditions to secure ecological surveys after planning permission has been granted are therefore only to be applied in exceptional circumstances, such as:

  • Where original survey work will need to be repeated because the survey data might be out of date before commencement of development.
  • To inform the detailed ecological requirements for later phases of developments that might occur over a long period and/or multiple phases.
  • Where adequate information is already available and further surveys would not make any material difference to the information provided to determine the planning permission. However, further surveys may be required to satisfy other consent regimes, e.g., an EPS licence.
  • To confirm the continued absence of a protected species or to establish the status of a mobile protected species that might have moved, increased, or decreased within the site.
  • To provide detailed baseline survey information to inform detailed post-development monitoring.

It comes down to having a robust conversation with the relevant ecologist or case officer. Although there may be valid reasons for not being able to provide up-front survey information or it is highly unlikely there are any significant impacts (legal or moral), it is ultimately at the decision maker’s discretion whether surveys could be conditioned. You therefore need an ecologist who has a good relationship with these decision makers, who can argue the case on your behalf.

4. Consider activities during and after construction

Once you’ve delivered a successful planning application, it may also be your responsibility to manage the construction, handover and in-use (operational) stages (RIBA UK Stages 5-7). Even where you handover responsibility for the delivery elements of the development, you may still want to ensure a smooth transition and offer that added value to your client.

Planning conditions, obligations and advisory notes

Planning permission can come with a whole host of planning conditions, obligations, and advisory notes. As part of their duty, a Local Planning Authority should consider whether unacceptable impacts on biodiversity can be made acceptable through use of appropriate planning conditions and/or planning obligations. These are often used to secure enhancements and/or to prevent significant harm to biodiversity that might otherwise arise as a result of the grant of planning permission. When it comes to planning obligations, these should only be used where it is not possible to address unacceptable impacts through a planning condition.

Like other planning conditions, decision makers should only use conditions to secure biodiversity measures that are capable of being delivered. In doing so, they should not apply a ‘one condition fits all’ approach. Instead, specific conditions should be selected that are appropriate to achieve a specific purpose. Where the applicant also has to apply for a European Protected Species licence (we may have left the European Union, but our international obligations for species found in the UK and Europe remain), once planning consent has been granted, any planning conditions should not be so restrictive that they prevent subsequent modifications to any mitigation or timetables that are required at the licensing stage.

CIEEM Registered

When we talk about licences, it’s worth asking your ecologist if they are a Registered Ecological Practice with our professional body (the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management) and if they have Earned Recognition with Natural England (no similar schemes currently exist for other parts of the UK).

Being a Registered Ecological Practice, Wildwood Ecology has demonstrated our commitment to offering high quality ecological and environmental management services and have signed up to a Code of Practice.

Earned Recognition

Earned Recognition is new and is currently being trialled in England for ecologists with significant expertise with bats. Our bat ecologists with Earned Recognition are able to apply for alternative licences where a small number of more common species of bats are found. We have produced a draft flow chart that you can use to see if any of your projects or sites would qualify. The advantages are great, with quicker licence turn around times and lower costs for their submission. If you think we can help, then do contact our team to see if your site qualifies, with no obligation.

Inception to completion

You will have hopefully found our Ecological and Planning Flow Chart useful and can identify that ecological considerations still need your attention. Where planning permission has been granted and all relevant conditions relating to ecology have been successfully discharged, then the application for a protected species mitigation licence must be applied for where an unlawful activity will occur.

Your ecologist may have got you to the planning stage, but can they also help you through the most time critical stages of the construction phase? Or will they withdraw and leave you desperately trying to find another ecologist? This new ecologist will of course need to be brought up to speed and, even when you work with a competent consultant, they still need time to work out the right strategy for you and your project and hopefully not find flaws with any missing information.  If so, then this may cause you further delays and expense. To ensure your project stays on track, plan for ecology and appoint an experienced and capable team of ecologists who can take your project from inception to completion.

5. Appoint an experienced and capable team

We all work tirelessly on behalf of our clients. You have put your own blood, sweat and possibly a few tears into your project and have successfully navigated all the planning obstacles in the way. Surely you can now just sit back and watch your creation come to life?

Don’t sit too comfortably or for too long. Remember that ecologist you appointed on behalf of your client because they were ‘good value’ and could do the job tomorrow? Well, it looks like this is where their involvement will have to come to an end. Either they do not have the experience to take forward your project or they are simply too busy to assist you as they are the only one with the relevant licence. Here comes another hold-up for the client.

Don’t risk time delays and further costs

There is a saying that ‘what got you here won’t get you there’. It’s unfortunately common practice within many industries that freelance and micro companies are good at offering fast turn around times for a small number of services at low prices. The trouble with this approach on too many occasions is that you don’t know you have an issue until you find out you have an issue.

But it doesn’t have to be like this if you appoint an experienced and capable team of ecologists from the outset. You may save some costs at the early stage of the development, but at the risk of delay and cost during the latter stages. We have grown our practice strategically to ensure that we have the capacity to provide the right level of experience throughout the course of your project. A competent ecological consultancy can take on a project and deliver it across all the stages of a development (RIBA Stages 0-7). By providing a unique offering that encompasses all of the stages and phases of a project, we save you and your client both time and money.

So, we come full circle to top-tip number one. Be proactive not reactive when it comes to choosing an ecological consultancy that will be able to take on all challenges, at each and every stage of your project. Use our handy tools to help guide you along your journey so you can make your first choice the right choice each and every time. And once you find a great team, never let them go.

Summary – five top tips to plan for ecology

Here’s that list of top five tips to ensure you deliver greatness and plan for ecology in 2021.

  • Be proactive, rather than reactive.
  • Communicate change effectively.
  • Don’t treat ecology as a tick-box exercise.
  • Consider activities during and after construction.
  • Appoint an experienced and capable team.

I hope you have found this article useful in helping you plan for ecology in preparation for the oncoming year. We truly believe that working with great people leads to even greater results.

If you need a scoping opinion to inform your Project Brief or would like to discuss a forthcoming or current project, then we would be delighted to hear from you.

If you would like to benefit from our knowledge exchange programme, do get in touch. We can let you know what we offer in terms of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and how we could benefit from your knowledge and experience.

Finally, here are some quick links to those planning tools I highlighted throughout this article:

Richard Dodd, Managing Director & Principal Ecologist