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Second nature: Planning for biodiversity after minerals extraction

Words: Mark Smulian
A restored post-extraction landscape

Ahead of the 2019 Minerals Planning Conference, Mark Smulian looks at how the minerals extraction industry is approaching the challenge of planning for biodiversity net gain within one of the UK’s most environmentally disruptive industries

When Cumbria County Council in March gave planning permission for a deep coal mine it could hardly have caused more outrage among environmentalists had it granted consent for a poison gas factory.

Those opposed to fossil fuels were outraged. But coke will soon be mined near Whitehaven, and the episode is a reminder that proposals to dig large holes in the ground and extract minerals are almost always contentious on grounds of noise, traffic movements and pollution – though concern about seismic activity disturbing the nearby Sellafield nuclear power station was unique to this case.

Cumbria has had to insist on a great many environmental safeguards and eventual site restoration to make the application acceptable and must now grapple with how to measure the impact on biodiversity.

It is an extreme example, perhaps, but proposals to extract opencast coal, sand, gravel and rock are fairly common. By a quirk of government policy, planning for minerals and waste in two-tier areas of England stayed with county councils when they lost other aspects of planning.

Elsewhere, unitary planning authorities are responsible. Although it may not be possible to mollify people who object to mineral extraction near their homes, opposition may be lessened by ambitious and creative plans to restore the site after its minerals are exhausted. The best-known examples are gravel pits filled with water for recreation after their use ends.

It does not end there. Biodiversity covers both creatures and plants in their broadest senses and National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states: “Planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by … minimising impacts on and providing net gains for biodiversity, including by establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures.”

The NPPF goes on to say local plans should “promote the conservation, restoration and enhancement of priority habitats, ecological networks and the protection and recovery of priority species; and identify and pursue opportunities for securing measurable net gains for biodiversity”. Further, it adds that planning permission should be refused if significant harm to biodiversity cannot be avoided, mitigated, or, “as a last resort, compensated for”.

Immeasurable biodiversity

The government intends to require new developments to deliver an overall increase in biodiversity, and will use the forthcoming environment bill to mandate this. This will mean that developers must assess habitats and their condition before submitting plans, and demonstrate how they can improve biodiversity.

Examples of this might include green corridors, tree planting or local nature spaces. How, though, is anyone supposed to measure something as variable and open to interpretation as biodiversity gain, or indeed establish what biodiversity is present in the first place?

David Lowe, leader of Warwickshire County Council’s unusually large ecology, historic environment and landscape team, has been grappling with this conundrum. “We have a team working on net biodiversity gain as part of mineral policy, but that is unusual,” he says. “Biodiversity gain impact assessments are complicated for minerals, as you might look over five years for a housing development but for minerals it can be 30 years, and if you have a multi-phased site you have to work out how to measure that, as in certain areas there will be nothing happening and others will be dug out.”

"Biodiversity gain impact assessments are complicated for minerals, as you might look over five years for a housing development but for minerals it can be 30 years"

Thus, were one to measure biodiversity the day before work starts and measure it again the day it ends it would appear a near total loss, but mineral extraction goes in stages and “there is a calculation that can be done for biodiversity gain but you have to know what will happen over 30 years”, says Lowe.

Landowners may be allies because they will want to use the site when extraction has finished and “most people want to know what they can do about biodiversity gain because there is nowadays little enthusiasm or demand for mineral workings’ common former use as landfill sites for waste”. Lowe adds: “In Warwickshire many landowners simply want to put land back to agriculture when it is finished, which helps with biodiversity.”

Biodiversity gain is incorporated into all local plans in Warwickshire, including its five districts. But, says Lowe: “I think that is unusual as we have 12 ecological specialist officers and many places only have one, which makes it difficult to do.”

See hear

David Lowe is presenting on minerals extraction, biodiversity and the 25-year environment plan at the 2019 Minerals Planning Conference in Manchester on 16 May. The event is jointly organised by the RTPI and the Mineral Products Association.   


Lowe fears such lack of resources will hamper planners’ ability to engage with biodiversity gain. “I’ve have been in meetings with the Treasury and DCLG to explain that most places do not have the ecological expertise to do this and it is a burden on local authorities – a new duty without the money needed to do it.” He says Defra is due to issue policy on biodiversity gain in June “and I’m not sure that will be fit for purpose”.

Ben Kite, managing director of consultancy Ecological Planning & Research, thinks there could be a major opportunity for local authorities by becoming ‘banks’ for offsetting – the payments made by the minerals industry when it is for some valid reason prevented from providing biodiversity gain on the site concerned.

Kite says: “Developers can pay for offsetting and we tried to find out how that money was used, but it is difficult to get anyone to tell you.

“I suspect the money has been used properly, but I’m not clear if the sort of sustained effort needed for habitat sites is there.”

Minerals firms could become biodiversity ‘banks’ by consolidating money paid by companies that have to pay for offsetting and using the resulting funds for “something really creative and special”.

He adds: “Local authorities may set up such offsetting funds, but I think minerals operators could also get into that business.”

Kite is, though, concerned about whether attempts to produce methods of calculating biodiversity can work in the real world. “It tells you about habitats but not species, so the information on biodiversity is not definitive,” he says. “If you have a woodland, these calculators will tell you it has X value but if it is between two other woods its value increases substantially because it will be part of a wildlife corridor, and it won’t tell you that. You can get odd and perverse outcomes.”

Three ways to gain

In 2017, the Minerals Products Association hosted a Restoration and Biodiversity Awards at its biannual Quarries and Nature event. These three winners illustrate the variety of what’s possible when seeking to restore and improve the biodiversity of former mining sites.

1. Landscape Scale Restoration: Cornwall China Clay District - Restoration and Re-Creation of Lowland Heathland

Mid-Cornwall is dotted with the spoil for centuries of clay mining. This project, one of Europe’s largest habitat recreation schemes, has recreated 785 ha of lowland heathland across 30 sites. It has included the landscaping of china clay tips and pits, the seeding of these sites with heathland plant species and the planting of thousands of native trees.

2. Planned Restoration Award: Brickworth Quarry, Salisbury

This award to Raymond Brown was for the forward planning of the restoration of a new area to be quarried at Brickworth for construction aggregates. A coniferous plantation, it was originally broadleaf woodland and the soil carries a rich native seed bank. The project will remove the conifers and manage the restoration of native woodland – increasing the woodland area overall – with a view to creating habitats that benefit species like bats, dormice, great crested newts, birds and reptiles.

3. Innovation Award: New Scroggs SSSI, Northumberland

Alchemilla micans, Britain’s rarest lady’s mantle, is found at just a handful of sites in the North East – all grasslands with shallow soils over whinstone or dolerite. One site, Keepershield, contained a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but had planning permission for quarrying. In the late 1990s, Hanson’s transplanted the entire habitat on to bare level whinstone in a corner of the site that will eventually form part of the restoration plan. It has been so successful that the new site is now an SSSI in its own right.

Unintended consequences

Despite these technical complexities, rising public concern about environmental matters will help to push the government to act on increasing biodiversity.

The RTPI, while having no objection in principle, can see problems. Policy officer James Harris says: “One concern is that biodiversity gain measuring will require very intensive long-term work by planners, ecologists and architects and many local authorities have less of that expertise than before. It is tricky to do.

“The government’s intention is to make biodiversity gain mandatory, which risks elevating it above the other objectives that planners have but which are not mandatory – for example, provision for accessible transport.

“If you have two sites to choose from, will people go for the one that offers biodiversity gain rather than meeting any other objectives?”

"The government’s intention is to make biodiversity gain mandatory, which risks elevating it above the other objectives that planners have but which are not mandatory – for example, provision for accessible transport"

Harris says it also remains questionable whether money paid for biodiversity offsetting will be part of the normal developer contribution system like section 106 and CIL. “It isn’t clear, and that might affect projects in areas of marginal viability,” he says.

Another concern is the proposed minimum 10 per cent biodiversity gain, leading to a blanket approach where even though a development on a greenfield site should deliver a great deal more than a 10 per cent gain, a project on a brownfield site with no biodiversity would be looking for “10 per cent of nothing”, says Harris, adding that it should be left to local authorities to set appropriate targets.

He also thinks the government should resist the assumption that development automatically does damage and the planning system exists to mitigate it. Harris explains: “If you have planners working with people early you can have win-win-wins on social, economic and environmental grounds, and it’s not just a tick box.”

Industry body the Mineral Products Association says its members already “deliver large-scale biodiversity enhancement as a matter of course” and have to date created 8,192 hectares of priority habitat, with another 11,458 hectares planned (see box Three ways to gain).

Senior planning adviser David Payne says: “This data is drawn from surveys of member companies and probably understates the industry’s full contribution to biodiversity.

“In the past the ‘net’ amount has not been recorded systematically, but much of this will inevitably be ‘net’ given the development of land with low-value habitats and creation of nature reserves in site restoration … measurement of ‘net gain’ over the lifetime of a minerals site will [in future] need to be mainstreamed.”

The association has worked with Natural England and Defra to try to ensure that any metric developed to measure biodiversity gain primarily for housing and infrastructure will also work for minerals.

"Measurement of ‘net gain’ over the lifetime of a minerals site will in future need to be mainstreamed"

Any workable metric must, says Payne, recognise that minerals can only be worked where they naturally occur and that minerals extraction is temporary, with restoration including biodiversity being progressively delivered throughout the operation of a site, typically over 10 to 25 years for sand and gravel, but longer for rock.

Cumbria’s coal mine perhaps shows the difficulty of assessing biodiversity gain. It will be built on land and some extraction will take place there, although the bulk of the installation will be tunnelled under the sea. A report to Cumbria’s development committee that recommended giving permission with numerous conditions, says: “In terms of overall biodiversity, with the imposition of conditions requiring ecological management plans, I consider that any residual effects can be mitigated and that there would be no net loss in biodiversity as a result of the development.”

There’s a ‘but’ coming. “However, whilst a net gain in biodiversity may be achievable long term, particularly taking into account the proposals to restore large parts of the main mine site to ecological areas, I cannot conclude that there would certainly be or reach the view there is likely to be net gain in biodiversity value under paragraph 170(d) of the NPPF.” This mine will surely not be the last project on which attempts to measure biodiversity lead to disputes and confusion. 

Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist specialising in the built environment