Natural England struggle with Discretionary Advice Service and licencing

Brown long-eared bat

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”.

Final comments

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. 

 

Update: Great Crested Newt licencing and mitigation review

Natural England is reviewing its approach to great crested newt licencing and mitigation approach, which will be introduced across the country. In each county, the approach will begin with a study to identify where newts are, and then create a map of the potential impacts of development to form appropriate conservation strategies in partnership with local government bodies. In the meantime, the existing methods of great crested newt mitigation for development projects withstand and there are no plans to abolish the laws protecting this species.

Great Crested Newt on hand

Read more about it in our previous newsletter article

If you want advice about how these changes might affect your company please contact us.

 

Can eDNA detect great crested newts later in year?

Natural England [1] only accept “negative” eDNA results for newt licencing where efficacy has been proven ( e.g. between the above dates and by trained personnel ) . “Positive” results clearly have no such limitation.

The pilot work [2] on using eDNA for detecting newts relied on comparing conventional field survey techniques to eDNA and comparative results were therefore only available during their sampling period i.e. mid-April and late June. Detection rates for sites where newts were known to be present were 99.3% using professionals and 91.2% using volunteers.

The report [ 2 ] states that “Overall, collecting eDNA appears to be a highly effective method for determining whether Great Crested Newts are present or absent during the breeding season. We do not know how effective the method is outside this period.”

Natural England indicates the peak season for surveying for larvae is August, so in theory these should be detected by later eDNA tests.

eDNA declined rapidly once great crested newts were removed from experimental ponds [3] – to undetectable levels over 1-2 weeks. Ponds could therefore have been utilised by adults earlier in the season e.g. for foraging, but the absence of larvae would point towards absence of successful breeding.

References

[1] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/great-crested-newts-surveys-and-mitigation-for-development-projects

[2] Biggs, J., Ewald, N., Valentini, A., Gaboriaud, C., Griffiths, R.A., Foster, J., Wilkinson, J., Arnett, A., Williams, P. and Dunn, F., 2014. Analytical and methodological development for improved surveillance of the Great Crested Newt. Defra Project WC1067. Freshwater Habitats Trust: Oxford. http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=18650&FromSearch=Y&Publisher=1&SearchText=wc1067&SortString=ProjectCode&SortOrder=Asc&Paging=10#Description

http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=18650&FromSearch=Y&Publisher=1&SearchText=wc1067&SortString=ProjectCode&SortOrder=Asc&Paging=10#Description

[3] Thomsen, P., Kielgast, J.O.S., Iversen, L.L., Wiuf, C., Rasmussen, M., Gilbert, M.T.P., Orlando, L. and Willerslev, E., 2012. Monitoring endangered freshwater biodiversity using environmental DNA. Molecular ecology, 21(11), pp.2565-2573.

https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/34355462/Thomsen_Kielgast_et_al._2012_Monitoring_endangered_freshwater_biodiversity_using_environmental_DNA.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1502361592&Signature=Mjs46Dii13qt4xOQn90M6w5u72M%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3Dpapers.pdf

Spring Newsletter 2017

All our latest wildlife news in our Norfolk Wildlife Services’ Spring Newsletter 2017.

In this issue we bring you :

Or click to download a pdf copy

What chemicals can I use in bat roosts ?

Natural England guidance on chemicals not affecting bats is hard to find on gov.uk. We have uploaded a copy of “Natural England Technical Information Note TIN092 Bat roosts and timber treatment products” [TIN092_Bat_Friendly_Timber_Treatment], which is the First edition dated 15 March 2011. This gives a list of those commonly available products currently approved as remedial timber treatment chemicals and products in bat roosts. This was an update to the information in the 3rd edition of the Bat Workers Manual.

We know the list is not comprehensive. If you can’t find what you are looking for, you may be best to get us to ring Natural England on your behalf.  They are very friendly and generally able to make a quick response on the subject.

What is Section 28 permission ?

Section 28 is the way in which Natural England offer permission for acts that might potentially damage SSSIs.  It refers to the 1981 Countryside & Wildlife Act, which was amended by the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.  It applies to individual landowners as well as public bodies such as Secretary of State, government departments and agencies, local authorities and statutory undertakers ( water, gas, drainage boards ).

The Act requires people who own or occupy of SSSIs to ask Natural England for permission to carry out operations that may “damage the special interest of the site”.  These operations  (also might be called ‘Operations Likely to Damage’ (OLD) or ‘Potentially Damaging Operations’ ( PDOs) are listed for each SSSI. They might include drainage, excavation or change of use.  [Normally where the site is already under a management agreement or management plan agreed with Natural England then the consent will be implicit in these plans. ].

There are three separate strands, based on who is applying and why :

1. Consents (= Section 28 E)

– applies to SSSI owners/occupiers of an SSSI asking permission to undertake works, including a public body where it isnt part of their functions e.g. where they own a SSSI.

2. Assents (= Section 28 H)

where public bodies are carrying out their functions such as  and they need to undertake works on a site that includes an operation identified in the SSSI notification as likely to damage.

3. Advice (= Section 28 I)

– where a public body, such as a local authority, has powers to grant permission for others to undertake work on an SSSI.  Natural England can advise against giving permission for such operations that may “damage the special interest of the site” or advise that conditions should be attached.

Natural England may grant consent, with or without conditions, or refuse consent on operations, where it is not “compatible with furthering the conservation and enhancement of the special interest of the site”.

More information is available from Natural England : https://www.gov.uk/guidance/protected-areas-sites-of-special-scientific-interest 

Ring us if you need advice or supporting surveys.

How many surveys for great crested newts ?

Great Crested Newt on handGreat crested newt captured by nettingGreat crested newt fence with bucket

We thought it helpful for clients to have set out what actual Natural England requirements are for licencing – how old your survey can be  – and how many surveys are necessary.

Natural England guidance

Natural England guidance on presently acceptable levels of survey effort is set out in their EPSL method statement form – which we present below – slightly tweaked.  This sets out both the type and age of data viewed as acceptable.  You can use the filters to find your project type.

This is our Excel table here : Great crested – survey effort and age

Deconstructing this gives some interesting insights about the age of data required, but also whether as to whether a full six surveys or repeat surveys are necessary.

Low impact licences and survey data

If we read through this table, you will find that low impact or temporary development can often use presence/absence data alone, which makes sense.  You may only need four instead of six visits ( or possibly only one if you find them first time ! ). Newt numbers decline rapidly away from ponds ( either the creatures are too unfit or simply due to dispersion effects ). The effect a long way from ponds can therefore be predicted as being low, based on their presence alone.  Far enough away and you can assume de minimus effects, and possibly avoid surveys all together.

The age of data is based on spring/summer survey seasons elapsed ( but see also later for a potential complexity here ):

Survey done Age of survey (before May[?] 2015)
March to May 2015 0 (before May 15)
2014 1
2013 2
2012 3
2011 4
2010 5
2009 6

So this year, data from the 2011 summer season is 4 years old, assuming you apply before end of May[?] 2015.  This also means that for some low impact schemes, older data will be helpful.  There are various caveats to this.

It is not 100% clear from the footnote on the NE guidance whether the age of the survey is the number of survey seasons missed, inclusive or exclusive of the present year.  It would seem more logical that 2015 data is 0 years old until March 2016, but in fact it appears to be 1 after May this year. However it would be impossible to survey, get planning and apply in the time period. We will take this point up with Natural England for clarity [ thanks to someone for pointing this out to me ].

What survey effort is most helpful ?

This raises for us an interesting question about proportionality and efficiency – what solution for survey effort allows most accurate information most efficiently ?

Given that most ponds are in the small or medium range and that large counts are generally from aggregation across ponds, should we focus more on the number of ponds involved and their functional nature ?

eDNA difficulties for presence/abscence

A difficulty of eDNA for results is that it shows us nothing of the pond’s function.

Four nocturnal visits will not only give a very good guide for impact assessment,  but also should generally reveal if the animals are breeding successfully and may turn up eggs or efts dependant on timing.

Many ponds around a breeding pond have occasional newts, but are not of high enough quality for breeding – this issue was never tackled by HSI.  Vice versa large numbers of males lecking at a pond indicate one thing.  Knowledge about successful breeding at a pond seems to us essential in stating the effects on the population.

Conclusions

So to return to the question only four surveys with presence or possibly even eDNA to prove absence could be sufficient for your needs, or you may be able to rely on existing older data. However really your consultant needs to have some understanding of population ecology to advise you on mitigation and obtaining a licence. Following guidance verbatim is not a good solution and could waste your money – sorry that slipped out.

With this in mind we advise you not to rely on this article for formal advice, but let us discuss with you how it applies to your suituation – please contact us directly if you have a licencing query or you have some observations about the article.

There is more Natural England advice on their website : https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/great-crested-newts-apply-for-a-mitigation-licence

New EPSLs – reduced paperwork

Natural England have updated their European Protected Species licence forms, reducing some of the paperwork burdens on applicants.

New application form for bats

There is a new EPSL application form, which we think makes a lot more sense.  We are not sure if it is editable in all versions of Adobe Reader, but you can certainly use Foxit.  There are seperate forms for <3 species and >3 species, with a lot of tick boxes replacing the need to repeat text in and squeeze stuff up. It should make it more accessible for clients and easier to complete, plus indicates that NE may be streaming licences into low and high impact schemes, which makes a lot of sense.

Applications for home improvements and small scale housing developments

The guidance on the need for a Reasoned Statement has changed, making it only necessary for more complicated applications.  This doesn’t imply that you don’t need a licence – simply that the paperwork is becoming more proportional to the situation.  You need to read the details, but this means no more 20 page documents justifying a loft conversion or putting in a dormer window from NPPF. It also may reduce the paperwork burden on barn conversions under Permitted Development rights.

The exemptions are below.

Exemptions for Bats

“The following categories of work for all bat species and their roosts*:
i. repairs and maintenance, roof replacements, loft conversions, extensions and renovations of existing domestic dwellings and associated structures (eg garages).
ii. small-scale housing developments, including those that may require the demolition of existing buildings (whether domestic dwellings or other types of building).
*Unless the population is of regional or national importance – in which case please contact Natural England (see below) to discuss whether a Reasoned Statement is required.”

Exemptions for Great crested newts
“The following categories of works:
i. repairs and maintenance, extensions and renovations of existing domestic dwellings and associated structures (e.g. garages).
ii. small-scale housing developments within the curtilage of developed or previously developed (brownfield) sites, including those that may require the demolition of existing buildings (whether domestic dwellings or other types of building).”

There are also similar improvements around applications to conserve and protect Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments and places of worship.

You will need to read the fine print to see if this applies to you or contact us for advice.

A very sensible development from Natural England.

The document from Natural England is attached below :

Does my application need supported by a Reasoned Statement April 2015

Bat and newt licence delays – April

We thought an update of European Protected Licence delays for bats and great crested newts on our previous February stats article might be of assistance.

Natural England are still unfortunately experiencing delays in reviewing European Protected Species Licence applications. If you need to gaining a licence and how it might affect your project, please contact us as soon as possible.

The Natural England FCS test are also now processed and signed off at a regional level, which may have lead to some teething issues.  It has helped by improving lines of communication once an advisor has been allocated.  Generally discussion on allocation dates are “vague”, but once the licence is allocated and processed this is generally quick. As a corollary, then it is difficult for clients to plan with certainty when a licence will arrive, except at short notice.

Delays with bat licences have not worsened, but remain steady at around three to four weeks.  Hopefully newly trained staff should be assisting now, but our forecast is for no improvement in the immediate to near future.

With respect to Great Crested Newts, we would forecast that there will be additional delays, which are shown by the lengthening queue, due to the normal “spring surge” of new applications.

The following are based on ‘New’ Application processing time during the four week period 2nd March 2015 to 3rd April 2015 :

Bat Update (as of 6th April 2015)

  • 368  ‘New’ Applications outstanding [ Up from 355 on 10 February, 279 on 22 December ]
  • “New application processing time: Average delay of 17 days (47 days versus 30 working day decision deadline) [ No change from 48 days on February and 47 days on 22 December ]

Similar processing times were reported for Modifications and Resubmissions.

Great Crested Newt Update (as of 6th April 2015 )

  • 162 ‘New’ Applications outstanding [ Up from 52 in February, 19 on 22 December ]
  • “New” application processing time: Average delay of 5 days (35 days versus 30 working day decision deadline) [ 32 days on February, 37 days on 22 December ]

There were similar processing times for Modifications and Resubmissions.

 

Natural England – update on European licences delays : 16/2/15

We thought an update of statistics on our previous article might be of assistance.

Natural England are still unfortunately experiencing delays in reviewing European Protected Species Licence applications.  It looks like the situation with bats has slightly worsened, although the issues with great crested newts now appear to have improved.  They are training more staff, but our forecast is for no improvement in the immediate to near future.

Bat Update (as of 16th February 2015)

  • 355 ‘New’ Applications outstanding [ Up from 279 on 22 December ]
  • “New application processing time: Average delay of 18 days (48 days versus 30 working day decision deadline) [ Increase from 17 days on 22 December ]

Great Crested Newt Update (as of 16th February 2015)

  • 52 ‘New’ Applications outstanding [ Up from 19 on 22 December ]
  • “New” application processing time: Average delay of 2 days (32 days versus 30 working day decision deadline) [ Down from 7 days on 22 December ]

If you are concerned about gaining a licence, please contact us as soon as possible.