Capacity crunch: do councils have the expertise to deliver their biodiversity goals?

Only one in four local authorities in England have access to in-house ecological expertise, leaving a question mark over their capability to deliver the government’s biodiversity net gain policy

For the government’s biodiversity net gain policy to succeed, much hinges on councils’ ability to have ready access to expertise to assess ecological gains and losses arising from development proposals. But figures obtained by ENDS reveal that many town halls do not employ in-house ecological experts – casting doubt over their capacity to deliver the flagship policy which requires developers to enhance wildlife for new housing or commercial developments.

Exclusive figures show only a quarter of English councils employed in-house ecological experts in 2018. But this figure falls to 16% for experts who hold chartered status in ecology – currently only available from the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM). ENDS’ figures were obtained following a freedom of information (FOI) request to all 353 councils in England, to which 307 authorities provided responses. 

Our figures do not present the full extent of councils’ access to ecological expertise – some town halls may have access to such advice, just not in-house. Greater Manchester’s local authorities, for example, pay into a joint ecological unit. But some observers believe the in-house chartered ecological status metric matters the most. It should be of serious concern that so many authorities lack staff who have achieved this status, they say. 

Simon Marsh, head of sustainable development at the RSPB, tells ENDS he has more confidence in the competence of evidence provided by a chartered ecological expert over another expert without chartered status or one who held a chartership in a related discipline. He says: “It is a big concern they do not have that sort of expertise, but it does not surprise me at all.”

CIEEM’s chief executive Sally Hayns tells ENDS: “Chartered status for ecology is reserved for those practitioners who have demonstrated a high technical level of competencies like ecological assessment, designing or habitat creation over and above someone who is non-chartered.” She adds: “We believe more local authorities should have access to in-house ecological expertise because without that we think they are vulnerable to challenge – in strategic plan-making and development decision-making. That can make planning authorities risk averse, but also non-compliant with legislation and policy.”

ENDS’ figures show that all but one of England’s county councils employ some form of in-house ecological expert. In some instances, lower-tier authorities such as district and borough councils may use the ecological services of their respective county councils through service-level agreements. But the figures suggest that these arrangements may leave county council ecological experts with fearsome workloads. In Surrey, for example, there is one full-time ecological expert only for 11 district and borough councils. 

Ecological experts

Our findings paint a similar picture to research carried out by the Association for Local Government Ecologists (ALGE), which in a report in 2013 found that only one-in-three councils had access to in-house ecological expertise. At the time, ALGE said: “An average capacity of only one ecologist for every three local planning authorities in England would appear to be inadequate to deal with the relevant workload”.

ENDS’ own figures indicate there has been a small increase only in the number of ecological experts employed in the six years after ALGE’s 2013 report. In 2018, the number of ecological experts, chartered and non-chartered, employed by the 307 authorities that responded to our FOI request was 142, up from 124 in 2013 – a 14% rise. 

In his spring statement, chancellor Philip Hammond confirmed the government would press ahead with plans to make net gain mandatory, following a DEFRA consultation that closed in February. Hammond said the government will “use the forthcoming Environment Bill to mandate biodiversity net gain for development in England”.

Sue Young, head of land use planning and ecological networks at The Wildlife Trusts, says ensuring that authorities have access to the right level of ecological expertise will be key to the policy’s success. “Net gain will mean that local authorities need to understand the information provided by applicants and their consultants and interpret complex net gain calculations to assess whether they will lead to a real long term net biodiversity gain for nature,” she says. “Local authorities will also have a role in monitoring and enforcement of net gain delivery. Without adequate resources... net gain risks failing nature.”

Nicola Johansen, group sustainability manager at housebuilder Redrow, agrees that one threat to the success of the policy lies in a potential lack of follow-up monitoring from councils, as the net gain “can take many years to be realised in some cases”. She adds: “Developers like ourselves will be undertaking monitoring for our own sustainability reporting and internal improvement processes, but this may not be the case for all developers and companies.” Net gain, she says, will add existing local authority ecologists’ workloads as they will need access to suitably qualified and experienced ecologists to review biodiversity net gain information submitted by developers. 

Government admits that net gain policy will be an extra burden on councils. Its consultation on the policy proposed transitional arrangements, under which “staggered points” could be created at which requirements come into effect. A notice period of at least a year after the introduction of new advice “would be required to prepare for this transition”, it said.

David Lowe, team leader on ecology, historic environment and landscape at Warwickshire County Council, says councils would benefit from having time to prepare. “If a one-year net gain transitional period is to cover the preparation of planning policy and any supplementary planning documents, that will probably be fine,” he says. “And the phasing-in period could be about acquiring the resources to enact those mechanisms of delivery.”

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    Town and Country Planning Act 1990

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