Staff shortages at Natural England
European Protected Species Licences ( EPSL) applications to Natural England for bats and great crested newts often peak in the late summer (June-October). This leads to longer response times compared to the 30-working days target.
Since autumn 2017, we have been aware that Natural England have had significant staff shortages for processing licences and been unable to meet this 30-days response target for some time. Their recent May newsletter admits that: “At present around the country, we [ Natural England] have some Area Teams who are performing well beyond 30 working days (with some upwards of 60 working days)”
Impacts on developers
Working to a reliable response time of 30-days, it is relatively easy for developers to allow for a commencement date in their build-programme.
An unreliable response date can cause last-minute cancellations by needing to either stand-down contractors or cancel and rebook completely. With present national shortages of specialist contractors, there are long lead-in times, and an unpredicted change in response dates for licencing has complex impacts on project.
A key present focus for developers is being able to reliably and accurately programme resourcing; any deviation can cause developers significant financial and time-associated costs.
Diversion of resources to licencing
As the 2018 seasonal peak approaches, Natural England have decided to divert resources from other areas into meeting their licencing target.
Natural England have said, based on slippage in meeting the target, they are therefore diverting “all available staff resources” into meeting the demand for new licence applications. There is no firm commitment to meeting their 30 working day target. The expectation is that the diversion of resources will continue for up to 6 months.
Impacts on Discretionary Advice Service
The Discretionary Advice Service ( DAS) is a commercial service from Natural England. Norfolk Wildlife Services often uses it for early discussion about developments, reducing delays and costs for clients. For Natural England, the service is an early opportunity to provide comments on species mitigation plans. This allows improvements before any application for a licence is made. Front-loading advice nearly always reduces involvement from statutory agency later on. It also here allows recovery of costs as well.
Similarly “Pre-submission screening” service” checks a licence application before it is made reducing corrections later on in process.
In order to divert resources into licencing, Natural England states Discretionary Advice Service will be reduced, both slowing advice on their existing commissions and leading to them turning down new commissions : “non-statutory PSS and DAS advice to applicants over the coming months and in many instances …will have to be declined. ”
The only exceptions are stated as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) and contractual arrangements “already …in place for larger, long term developments”.
Natural England have difficult decisions on utilisation of its limited resources. It will not have taken lightly a decision to effectively moth-ball the Discretionary Advice Service.
Paradoxically Natural England have recently published results on a consultation on charging for wildlife licence applications, stating that they intend to charge for licences in order to “provide a much improved licensing service that delivers the majority of our licence decisions within 30 working days (or an otherwise agreed date)“.
Unfortunately given that the paid-for DAS (and PSS) were similarly meant to provide both certainty to developers and extra resources to Natural England, this sudden diversion of resources does not bode well for “a much improved licensing service”. It seems unlikely that additional income from charging for licences will resolve a fundamental capacity issue.
The diversion of staff resources by Natural England from front-loaded “DAS” advice to meeting turnaround for licences appears to be diverting resources from one “priority” task to another.
Fundamentally Natural England appears to have insufficient staff to deliver even statutory needs and urgently needs more resources.