Streamlining the protection of Great Crested Newts: What does this mean for developers?

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After much delay, the Government launched its housing white paper (“HWP”) entitled Fixing Our Broken Housing Market in February 2017. The HWP details the Government’s vision for increasing the supply of new homes and increasing delivery to deal with the country’s ongoing housing crisis. Whilst public reception to the HWP will always attract criticism, there was one thing that came out of the HWP likely to provide welcome relief to housing developers – the potential change in the handling of Great Crested Newts.

Great Crested Newts, together with their eggs, breeding sites and resting places, are a protected species. They have full legal protection under UK and European law, making it an offence to kill, injure, capture, disturb or sell them, or to damage or destroy their habitats. Despite being endangered in some parts of Europe, however, Great Crested Newts are fairly common in large parts of England and that has led some to deem their protection as over-zealous and unnecessary red tape.

Current Licensing Scheme

Currently, if developers wish to develop land which is impacted by the presence of Great Crested Newts, they have to go through the onerous licensing process for each site affected. As described in the HWP, this process requires developers to commission site surveys, put in place mitigation measures and, after planning permission is granted, obtain a licence from Natural England. The current licensing process has been described in the HWP to be a “significant impediment to timely housing delivery“, and has caused many-a headache for developers as it can add considerable costs, delays and uncertainty to the progression of development.

Streamlined Licensing Scheme

The HWP suggests adopting a new, strategic approach to the habitat management of protected species, such as that piloted by Natural England and Woking Borough Council. The new scheme streamlines the licensing system for managing Great Crested Newts by replacing site-by-site licensing with a new system of plan licensing; with surveys and habitat compensation undertaken at the district level by Natural England, together with the local authority. Developers would then have the option to buy into the mitigation plan at local authority level, rather than undertaking costly and timely individual licensing for each development site.

What does this mean for housing developers?

Until the streamlined licensing scheme is rolled out, the current licensing scheme will remain in place and so, for the time being, housing developers should apply for a licence in the usual way. However, it is worth enquiring with your local authority to determine whether they have an appetite for rolling out the streamlined scheme sooner rather than later.

Although no definite timelines are given for the introduction of the scheme, the Government has made clear that they are committed to building more homes, and doing so as quickly as possible. The introduction of the streamlined licensing scheme will certainly make it easier for housing developers to make progress on some sites that could otherwise be sitting dormant for years.