WILL SIMPLIFIED RULES FOR DEVELOPERS HARM WILDLIFE?
“The mere presence of great crested newts has been able to delay building projects”
It’s a small, striking-looking (and, for developers, troublesome) creature with mighty powers. For years the mere presence of great crested newts has been able to delay or even stop multimillion pound building projects right across the UK. But not for much longer.
The Government’s environmental adviser Natural England is rolling out a plan to give enhanced legal protection to the species, which is classified as rare across Europe. It’s a scheme that, at first sight, seems contradictory because it will allow builders to potentially destroy all but the great crested newt’s most important habitats.
“If we focus too much on protecting individual newts, the whole population may be lost,” says Rob Cameron, the protected species reform manager at Natural England. So here comes the second and crucially important part of the plan – developers will have to foot the bill for improving great crested newt habitats in a much wider area beyond the one they are concreting over.
Until now, individual licences have been issued on a site-by-site basis for tracking down, removing and then excluding the newts before any work can begin – an expensive, inefficient process. There have even been allegations of great crested newts being deliberately ‘imported’ onto controversial sites to impede construction.
Natural England says it wants to create more habitat for newts while simplifying the licensing system for developers. It will carry out a three-year survey of 150 districts where great crested newts are most prevalent, mapping out all their significant populations across the UK, assessing the impact of development and proposing conservation strategies.
From this, developers will get a better picture of newt ‘hot spots’. Should they get the go-ahead to build, local authorities will impose charges on them on a sliding scale, dependent on how much habitat is damaged, to help the newts elsewhere.
“It will radically improve our knowledge of this species so we can better plan the conservation effort,” says Cameron. “We can accept losses on development sites because the new system will provide a really substantive gain overall.”
The project, broadly welcomed by conservationists, would link habitats together across the country, allowing great crested newts to move freely and giving their survival a better chance.
But the Wildlife Trusts do have some reservations. Steve Trotter, their Director England, tells me: “This approach has been given the green light nationally before the pilot project has been completed. “Will enough compensatory habitat be created to make up for building over areas that are important for this rare species and will it be in the right place? We don’t want new housing estates to be wildlife-free zones. What are the thresholds for deciding a colony is so important it should be left in place? And are there enough people with the right expertise to manage and monitor the new approach?
“While we do have these concerns, we will still be working with Natural England to do our best to ensure the roll-out of this new approach is a success.”
Watch John on Countryfile on Sunday evenings on BBC One.
Great crested newts are strictly protected in the UK. But new rules for developers could see some populations destroyed