19 July 2012
Natural England is to give planning and licensing applicants greater access to the advice of its case officers and wildlife advisers, ensuring their proposals can benefit from high-quality conservation advice at an early stage of plan development.
Developers and consultants will have the chance to tap into the expertise of Natural England’s staff, who will be able to highlight potential environmental impacts at an early stage and offer advice on possible solutions, potentially saving time and money in the planning and licensing process. These services will be supported by an increase in staff capacity which will be funded by the introduction of user charges and backed-up by service standards designed to ensure a level of consistency which meets customer needs.
New and improved services will be offered in the following areas:
Known as the Discretionary Advice Service (DAS), this is geared towards cases with the potential for significant impact on protected sites, landscapes and species, or which could bring environmental gain. Natural England will offer an initial level of advice – free of charge - to help identify key issues and opportunities on a development proposal. The developer/consultant would then have the option of paying for further access to Natural England’s expert advice to help in the further development of their proposals. This could help applicants planning a development affecting a protected area, such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), for example.
A large number of developments involve the need to obtain a licence to disturb protected species such as bats, and normally this can only happen once planning permission has been granted, which can cause uncertainty and delay for the developer. Natural England will offer a new chargeable screening service for European Protected Species mitigation licence applications, enabling the applicant to find out at an earlier stage whether their plans are likely to meet licensing requirements, thus potentially saving them time and money.
Following government approval a pilot service begins this week, which will enable Natural England to test and refine the services on a small number of cases under the Town and Country Planning Act. The aim is to launch these services fully later in the year, extending the Discretionary Advice Service to cover other case types such as offshore work and Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs).
Charging for more in-depth advice will enable Natural England to invest more in existing services – particularly pre-application advice – and create new ones such as pre-submission screening for wildlife licence applications. This will enable Natural England to improve customer service for developers and consultants by ensuring they have more access to its expertise and by providing a consistent level of service across the country.
Charging is only being introduced for discretionary services; in other words those which the customer can choose not to use or can buy elsewhere. Charging rates will be set at a level to cover costs – the aim is not to compete with the private sector or profit from the service and any surplus income will be invested in expanding the service to cater for all who seek to use it. The charges do not extend to statutory services, such as responding to statutory consultations or processing wildlife licence applications
David Drake, Natural England’s Commercial Services Manager, said: “Good quality, pre-application advice is recognised as the key to securing better outcomes for the natural environment while saving developers time and money. These measures will increase our ability to provide that advice, helping to support sustainable development.”
He added: “We have recognised that developers and consultants are at times looking to Natural England to provide a level of service that is not sustainable with current resources. By introducing these chargeable services, we will be able to invest in the staff capacity needed to offer more quality, tailored advice to these customers at an early stage in the development of planning proposals.”
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About Natural England
Natural England is the government’s independent adviser on the natural environment. Established in 2006 our work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.
We establish and care for England’s main wildlife and geological sites, ensuring that over 4,000 National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest are looked after and improved.
We work to ensure that England’s landscapes are effectively protected, designating England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and advising widely on their conservation.
We run Environmental Stewardship and other green farming schemes that deliver over £400 million a year to farmers and landowners, enabling them to enhance the natural environment across two thirds of England’s farmland.
We fund, manage, and provide scientific expertise for hundreds of conservation projects each year, improving the prospects for thousands of England’s species and habitats.
We promote access to the wider countryside, helping establish National Trails and coastal trails and ensuring that the public can enjoy and benefit from them.