Politicians and ecologists have reacted angrily after learning that the Environment Agency is proposing to stop commenting on the biodiversity aspects of planning applications because of budget cuts.
The biodiversity team at the agency typically comments on about 3,500 planning applications a year and, although the final decision is taken by the local planning authority, as a statutory consultee the agency wields considerable influence in the process.
If the agency does cut its advice it will pile pressure onto local planning authorities, which have a statutory obligation to consider biodiversity when considering applications but which are already overstretched and lack the agency’s expertise in this area, experts said.
Matt Shardlow, head of the Buglife insect charity, said: “It is mortifying that this last effort of government to make sure biodiversity is properly considered is falling away.”
“It has been immensely useful in the past that the Environment Agency – a national statutory body – has commented on biodiversity aspects of planning applications and that has made it much easier for NGOs to build opposition to wildlife damaging developments or persuade judges of the problems they pose,” Mr Shardlow added.
He said the move would “completely undermine” Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s proposal for ‘biodiversity offsetting’ which would oblige developers to fund environmental improvements in other locations to balance the habitat they are destroying. This is designed to speed up the construction of homes by making easier to overcome environmental objections
“Offsetting depends on knowing what effect a development is going to have on biodiversity and recreating that elsewhere. If nobody is paying attention to biodiversity, how is that going to work?” Mr Shardlow asked.
A spokesman for the Environment Agency insisted that no final decision had been taken. “We are considering how we provide biodiversity advice to planning authorities for individual planning applications”.
Maria Eagle MP, Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “If local planning authorities are to have access to even less information when assessing the impact of a proposed development, then it is difficult to see how the consequence will be anything other than further setbacks to the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.”
Elizabeth Milne, chair of the Association of Local Government Ecologists told Planning magazine, in its follow-up of the story first reported by The ENDS Report: “My concern is who is actually going to be looking out for biodiversity within the planning system? Where is the expertise going to come from?”
Rob Cunningham, head of water policy at the RSPB, said: “It’s been part and parcel of what the Environment Agency has done since its inception and local authorities have cut back on biodiversity officers, so the loss will leave a gap.”
Mr Shardlow said that barely a third of local authorities had the necessary expertise to assess the biodiversity implications of a development.
“Owen Paterson has a duty to further the conservation of listed biodiversity species and habitats. If only 35 per cent of local authorities have ecological expertise and the government’s agencies are now silent on biodiversity damage, who does Mr Paterson expect will make sure the UK remains a home to all those endangered plants and animals threatened by development pressure?,” he said.