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17/12/2019

Will a new licensing scheme save the great crested newt?

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Great crested newt

New licensing to protect great crested newts could be “win-win” for developers and biodiversity, says Louisa Jones, head of ecology at Pro Vision.

Despite being protected under UK and EU law for six decades, great crested newts have suffered dramatic declines in their populations.

Natural England has come up with a new scheme for authorising developments known as ‘district licensing’, which sees a major shake-up of mitigation and conservation work for this most protected amphibian. It shifts the focus from assessment and ecology work on a site-by-site basis into strategic habitat improvement. 

Aims include more effective conservation and sustainable habitats while streamlining the system for licensing - reducing delays and uncertainty for developers. 

Great crested newts and existing licensing

Great crested newts (GCN) are a European Protected Species (EPS) which breed in waterbodies but spend most of their lives on the land. They can be found in grassland, hedgerow, scrub and woodland. This can bring them into conflict with development on sites within 500 metres of a pond potentially supporting newt populations. Like all protected species, any prospective planning application needs to be supported by surveys which must be completed in the correct season. For newts, there is a very short survey window of just a few weeks in spring. If missed, it can lead to significant delays in the planning process.

Currently, if GCN are present on a potential development site, mitigation work is required which involves an EPS mitigation licence, potentially more surveys, erection of specialist fencing, creation of new on-site habitat and translocation or rehoming individual newts.

According to Natural England, money spent on mitigation often results in ponds that are squeezed in by development and sometimes isolated. Ponds are also lost through minimal maintenance.

New district licensing 

Since February 2018, pilot schemes for the new District Licensing Scheme have been running in Kent, Cheshire and part of the Midlands. The administering bodies are either Natural England or NatureSpace Partnership who work alongside local planning authorities and voluntary conservation bodies.

Instead of mitigation and compensation work completed on a site by site basis, a more joined-up landscape approach is taken. Habitats and ponds are created ahead of development in locations which are deemed the most beneficial for newt populations.

This can involve creating a network of ponds to connect isolated populations of newts to breed, for example. The mitigation work is funded by developers who enter the scheme and make a financial contribution depending on the scale of impact created by their development proposals. 

And how it helps developers and newts

Developers can apply to be registered under the scheme without conducting pond surveys. This means they can apply for planning all year round irrespective of the survey window, future proof mitigation costs and speed delivery of development.

As the premise of the scheme is habitat compensation and mitigation elsewhere, there is no onus on the developer to do any on-site habitat creation, potentially expanding the development area. Fees to enter the scheme can appear high but are often parallel or sometimes cheaper than the full traditional survey, licence and mitigation route. 

Costs to register under the schemes vary depending on where the site is located and impact risk on the GCN. Fees can be relatively high at the pre-planning application stage, however, and are non-refundable. 

Looking ahead

The traditional method of licensing can often seem labour intensive with apparent minimal gain for newt conservation. Under the new District Licensing Scheme, habitats are created within optimal areas and managed for 25 years which can only be beneficial for 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 some real population level conservation. The scheme potentially ensures a sustainable future for newts while simplifying licensing for developers and may represent a win-win if executed properly. 

District licensing will be rolled out across the country over the next few years. Results of the subsequent monitoring will give an indication of the success of the scheme so far for newts.

Louisa Jones is head of ecology at Pro Vision

Photo / iStock

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