Out of all the disciplines and technical studies that are often required to inform a planning application, I’m often told by developers that it is ecology that fills them with the most dread. And who can blame them? Ecology is rarely black and white, abounds in uncertainty and can often push project timescales to the brink.
Whilst there is nothing we can do to alter the lifecycles of protected species, there are a number of things that can be done to reduce the risk of ecology unduly delaying your project. Here are my top five tips, based on a decade of experience within the sector.
1. Engage Your Ecologist Early
Ecologists often find themselves being brought into a project team at the 11th hour. This may be because the site didn’t, at first glance, appear to have the potential to support biodiversity, or it may be as a result of a consultation response once a planning application has been submitted. Checklists (such as this one from Devon Council) are a great help in determining whether an ecology survey is required. Having an ecologist embedded in the project team from the start can often result in both cost and time savings. Which leads nicely on to tip number two…
2. Involve your Ecologist in the Design Process
Once engaged, make sure that your ecologist is fully involved in the design process. Having completed the Preliminary Ecological Appraisal, your ecologist should have identified the ecological constraints and opportunities on your site. These should then be carefully considered at the design stage. Often the need for further survey work can be avoided through sensitive design which avoids impacting the most valuable habitats/features.
3. Factor in the Survey Seasons
Sometimes it is simply impossible to avoid negative impacts through sensitive scheme design, no matter how hard you try. This will often then lead to the need for further ecological survey work in order to quantify & evaluate the potential impacts. Unless your project is in an extremely sensitive location, or it’s of a significant scale, it is unusual for survey work to take longer than 12 months to complete. But I would always advise that 12 months may be required to complete surveys, starting from the first site visit. An ecological survey calendar can help with project planning – a free one can be downloaded here: Survey Calendar.
4. Engage in Pre-Application Consultation
Ecology is one of the disciplines that benefits the most from pre-application consultation with the local planning authority (remember what I said about the uncertainty & grey areas?!). Giving your ecological consultant the opportunity to discuss the project and, perhaps most importantly, agree the scope of further survey work with the council ecologist (if they have one!) can be a huge benefit to project efficiency.
5. Engage your Ecologist Wisely
The ecological consultancy sector has seen huge growth in recent years, particularly as being an ecological consultant has become a recognised career for young graduates in an otherwise tough environmental sector. So what should you look for when engaging an ecologist? Firstly, bigger isn’t always better. Sometime the individual specialist can provide a more bespoke service, tailored to your requirements than the larger companies. Look for an ecologist with plenty of experience and ensure that you’re not then fobbed off on to a more junior staff member. Ask to see examples of other projects they’ve worked on – they should be able to provide these on demand. Look for an ecologist based close to your project site – they’ll be more familiar with the local biodiversity and you don’t want to be paying excessive travel time! And finally, find someone that you think you can work well with. Obtaining planning permission can sometimes be a frustrating journey, but it’s made far more pleasurable working with a team of dedicated and good humoured colleagues.