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Wildlife and Planning Applications

Non-technical summary – What do I need to do?

Vale of White Horse is home to a wide variety of important animals, plants and natural places (also known as ‘biodiversity’). It is important in the planning process that that developers understand the potential impacts of their proposal on wildlife, take steps to reduce harm, and provide enhancements.

When assessing planning applications, the Council must consider the impacts of the proposed development on wildlife. Depending on the scale and location of the proposed development, the Council may require that a planning application is supported by additional information – usually in the form of survey reports and recommendations by a professional ecologist.  Planning applications are more likely to require additional ecology information where the proposal is close to, or likely to impact, the following:

•  Protected or priority species (e.g. bats, badgers, great crested newts)
•  Priority or irreplaceable habitats (e.g. ancient woodland, chalk streams)
•  Designated sites (e.g. Local Wildlife Sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest)

The Wildlife Assessment Check can be used to see if any of the above may apply. If in doubt, it is worth utilising the Council’s pre-application advice service.

Apart from householder developments, most other planning applications (subject to certain exemptions) are also required by law to demonstrate a ‘biodiversity net gain’ (BNG). For applications where BNG applies, developers must provide certain information to support their application. Once planning permission is granted, full details about how BNG is going to be achieved must be provided to the Council before any works can start.

You will need to show that you have followed the “Mitigation Hierarchy” when preparing your planning application: first, avoid biodiversity impacts where possible, then reduce them, then mitigate them, then as a last resort, compensate for them.

1. What are ‘biodiversity’ and ‘ecology’?

Biodiversity is the variety and variability of all living things. It includes plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms. It is a measure of variation across all biological scales, from the genetic to whole ecosystems – and everything in between. In planning, ‘ecology’ is often used interchangeably with ‘biodiversity’ to refer to consideration of the natural world, but strictly it refers to the study of biodiversity. An ecologist is a qualified person who assesses the biodiversity present on a site and makes recommendations to protect and improve it.

Biodiversity is essential for our own health, wellbeing and survival. Biodiverse ecosystems enable food production, help to prevent flooding, regulate our climate and clean the air that we breathe. The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more resilient it is to current and future pressures.

Globally and in the UK, biodiversity is currently decreasing as a result of human activities. Habitat loss, climate change and pollution are some of the main drivers behind this decrease. Recognising the pressures that our natural environment is facing, the Council has declared a climate emergency. Tackling the climate emergency (including restoring biodiversity) is a key priority of the Council’s Corporate Plan.

What is the Council’s role?

The Council has a statutory duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity.

When making planning decisions, the Council must ensure compliance with the requirements of the Local Plan and relevant wildlife legislation. This legal duty has to run in tandem with allowing sustainable development, to provide the homes and essential services that communities need.

The Council will use the following policies and guidance documents, among others, to assess wildlife impacts of planning applications:

National Planning Policy Framework (2023):

  • Chapter 15 – Conserving and Enhancing the Natural Environment

Vale of White Horse Local Plan 2031 – Part 1:

  • Core Policy 45 – Green Infrastructure
  • Core Policy 46 – Conservation and Improvement of Biodiversity

Vale of White Horse Local Plan 2031 – Part 2:

  • Development Policy 30 – Watercourses

Other useful information can be found in the “useful links” section at the bottom of this page.

2. Providing ecological information

Unless it can clearly be demonstrated that a development will have negligible impacts on biodiversity, you should provide ecological information to accompany a planning information, in the form of a report. The purpose of this report is to:

  • Describe the biodiversity present on site and (where relevant) in the wider area,
  • Assess the potential impacts of the scheme on biodiversity, and
  • Show how the impacts will be avoided, reduced, mitigated or compensated.

The report should be completed by a suitably qualified ecologist. The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) provides information about how to find a suitably qualified ecologist here. The report should also be in date, following the CIEEM guidance here. In particular, ecological surveys are likely to go out of date between 18 months and three years after completion.

You are strongly recommended to obtain ecological information as early as possible to inform a development’s design from the outset, because this is usually cheaper and easier (and provides better results for biodiversity) than working in mitigation measures at a late stage. For general advice on what you need to think about when producing a design for development and submitting a planning application, please refer to the Joint Design Guide (2022).

3. Focus and content of the ecology report

The biodiversity likely to be present, and (if present) likely to be affected by a development, will vary from one site to the next. However, in general you will need to consider the following aspects in the report, all of which are material considerations within the Local Plan policies:

  • Designated sites. These are “nature reserves” holding specific statutory or non-statutory protection. Most development sites will not overlap a designated site or impact it directly, but could have indirect impacts on designated sites outside the development boundary.
  • Irreplaceable and Priority habitats. These are specific types of habitats which are protected by legislation or policy because they are rare, nationally or locally threatened or otherwise vulnerable to impacts.
  • Protected or priority species. These are specific species which are either legally protected (such as bats, badgers, reptiles and great crested newts) or are protected in policy (such as hedgehog, common toad or skylark). These may be present and breeding on site, passing through or offsite (and likely to be affected indirectly).
  • Biodiversity net gain. This is a specific requirement in policy and legislation. It refers to delivering a higher total value of habitats after development than were present before it. A biodiversity net gain of at least 10% must be delivered by all developments, unless exempt. This must be demonstrated numerically using a “calculator”.

In some cases where impacts are likely to be limited to a single species, or confined to achieving biodiversity net gain, a short-form report may be acceptable. However, in most cases, it will be appropriate to provide an Ecological Appraisal report. This would cover all of the above aspects in its scope, and be based on the results of the following surveys or assessment:

  • An ecology desk study
  • A baseline habitat survey
  • Any further protected species required.

Large developments that have been scoped into full Environmental Impact Assessment may require the assessment to be formally set out within an Ecology Chapter to the Environmental Statement.

Government guidance and standing advice is clear that it is not appropriate to present incomplete ecological information and defer some surveys (such as protected species surveys) to be secured by condition post-approval. Applications presenting incomplete information in this way are likely to be invalidated or refused at consultation stage. If you are unsure whether further surveys are required, the ecologist who completed the report is likely to have advised this in the “Recommendations” or “Conclusions” sections of the report.

General guidelines on assessing impacts are produced by CIEEM here.

4. Further information

The links below provide more detailed information on the individual topics referred to above and collectively describe what the Council expects from ecology information provided with planning applications.

Designated sites and Habitats Regulations Assessment
The River Lambourn SAC and Nutrient Neutrality
Local Wildlife Sites
Irreplaceable habitats, Priority Habitats and watercourses
Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG)
Protected species

The following are external links to local and national policies and guidance which underpin the Council’s approach.

Vale of White Horse Local Plan 2035 – parts 1 and 2
National Planning Policy Framework
Circular 06/2005: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation
Planning Practice Guidance – Natural Environment
Governmental Standing Advice on protected species