For anyone who has seen the recent Wild Isles series with David Attenborough you will know that there has never been a more critical time than to safeguard our wildlife and their habitats for both their own protection and for our benefit.
In October 2022, Welsh Government (WG) published recommendations from a Biodiversity Deep Dive. These set out collective actions to support the delivery of the COP15 ’30 by 30’ goal. A series of recommendations for the planning system were identified. A consultation is now taking place on changes to Planning Policy Wales to embed a greater priority to the protection and enhancement of biodiversity and ecological resilience.
Some of the proposed changes result in extensive tinkering with existing wording but there is also significant new text, which if taken forward, will introduce new requirements for applicants and local authorities.
Summary of key proposed changes
Net Benefit for Biodiversity - principles
1. WG says it recognises that development needs to take place and as such some biodiversity may be impacted. In all cases, a net benefit for biodiversity (NBB) will be required. The concept of securing a NBB is not new for PPW but there is greater reference and commitment to its delivery. The need to balance the enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem resilience with wider economic and social needs of business and communities is retained.
2. NBB is defined as that which is over and above what is required to mitigate or compensate any negative impacts. Significant weight will be given to its absence and permission will be refused unless other significant material considerations indicate otherwise, the draft wording states.
3. There is a change in emphasis, from solely supporting the conservation of biodiversity, to the maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity and the resilience of ecosystems to adapt to climate change and other pressures such as pollution, invasive species, and over exploitation. There is a shift from protecting priority species from just direct impacts, to protecting species of principal importance from direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.
4. A legally required metric (as per England) is not being brought in at this stage as WG sees the drawbacks to this approach given the difficulties in applying it to a complex system. However, WG will work with NRW to develop a common approach measuring the benefit… so this might change.
5. NBB must be achieved within as short a timeframe as possible and management must be secured in accordance with an agreed management plan for the long-term.
6. Reemphasis of the DECCA Framework for evaluating ecosystem resilience, taken from the Environment (Wales) Act i.e. Diversity, Extent, Condition, Connectivity and other aspects to adapt to, resist and recover from pressures.
7. Where pre-emptive site clearance has taken place, there will be the need to deliver NBB over any pre-existing baseline status. Habitat status will be assumed to be good in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.
8. Irreplaceable habitats and sites containing protected species must be safeguarded. Development in a designated site which is not necessary for the management of the site must be avoided.
9. For SSSIs, where local planning authorities are minded to grant planning permission against the advice of NRW they will need to notify the Welsh Ministers.
Green infrastructure statements and standards
10. Planning authorities will need to develop multi-functional, coherent and spatial frameworks of green infrastructure to improve the overall well-being and health of communities and the environment. The consultation includes a proposed list of minimum requirements for the outputs.
11. Green infrastructure statements, incorporated into design and access statements, will be required to accompany planning applications to demonstrate multifunctional outcomes. There is a greater focus on being able to demonstrate how decisions on design, siting, scale, density etc have been informed by biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Development proposals should address well-being priorities and the nature and climate emergencies.
12. In the absence of an adopted LPA approach, the Building with Nature Standards should be applied as a checklist in a way that is proportionate to the type and scale of the development proposed. Welsh Government is urging accreditation under the standards albeit will not require them.
The step-wise approach to addressing impact
13. Greater detail on the step-wise approach to addressing impact:
Avoid: The first principle will always be to retain and enhance existing habitats and species. There will be the need to demonstrate that reasonable alternatives which would result in less harm, no harm or benefit have been considered and cannot be achieved.
Minimise: When locational and siting options have been exhausted, there will be a requirement to minimise the impacts by maintaining the largest possible area of habitat, retaining existing features and using innovative solutions to minimise damage and maintain features and ecosystems.
Mitigate: Residual losses should mitigate any damage, and planning conditions, obligations or advisory notes will be used to secure outcomes. Mitigation measures should be like for like in the case of priority habitats and species.
Compensate: As a last resort, compensation must be provided, usually in the form of habitat restoration or creation or long-term management arrangements.
Having mitigated or compensated for losses, enhancement must then be secured.
Allocated sites and Local Development Plans
14. Where sites are already allocated in an adopted development plan and the plan is reviewed, allocations will be considered afresh against the step-wise policy and in light of the present biodiversity condition and role they may play in enhancing ecosystem resilience. In some circumstances WG suggests it may be necessary to de-allocate sites.
15. Where local authorities have not mapped non-statutory designations on a proposals or constraints map, the development plans should include a criterion-based policy to provide for sites that meet the qualifying criteria for non-statutory designation. Those sites will carry equal weight to mapped sites.
16. Considerable weight should be given to the protection of peat soils and where peat is identified within proposed developments, permission will be refused unless there are other significant material considerations.
Trees, hedgerows and woodlands
17. Planning authorities must protect trees, hedgerows, groups of trees and areas of woodland where they have ecological value, contribute to the character or amenity of a particular locality or perform a beneficial green infrastructure function (the reference to identified green infrastructure function has been removed).
18. Planning authorities should adopt time sensitive minimum tree canopy cover targets for their authority areas.
19. Permanent removal of trees, woodland and hedgerows will only be permitted where it would achieve significant and clearly defined public benefits. Where individual or groups of trees are removed, compensatory planting must be provided onsite and at a minimum ratio of at least 3 trees of similar type to every 1 lost. Where a woodland or shelterbelt area is lost, compensation planting must be at a rate of at least 1600 trees per hectare for broadleaves, and 2500 trees per hectare for conifers.
20. The loss or deterioration of ancient woodland, semi-natural woodland and individual ancient, veteran and heritage trees would only be allowed in very exceptional circumstances with significant and required public benefits that can be clearly defined.
The Welsh Government’s focus on delivering net benefits for biodiversity seems timely and in line with wider environmental objectives. Neither the context nor the step-wise approach is new to PPW nor the industry. However, having it embedded in national policy in the way that is proposed will strengthen the focus that will be needed for decision-making at application and plan stage and there are new limits and requirements that are being introduced.
Designing schemes with ecology in mind from the outset will sit alongside other factors such as drainage and in most cases for larger schemes is already par for the course when preparing well-thought out projects, But WG should be mindful not to require burdensome documents across multiple regulatory systems.
Not introducing minimum benefit percentages and a detailed metric at this stage is probably going to be welcomed across the industry. There is some reference to the need to be proportional – albeit, this could be emphasised further for both information collecting, justification of scheme and enhancement proposals.
The big difference for applicants will be the need to better explain how the integration of biodiversity and ecological resilience has been achieved in the proposals and how the DECCA principles have been met. Reference to external standards, such as the Building for Nature, has caused problems in this past (think Code for Sustainable Homes) and therefore a pragmatic approach to the use of the checklist should be sought by local authorities.
There are some elements that may prove more difficult for landowners and developers, such as the approach to re-allocation of sites in reviewed plans, the need to compensate 3:1 tree losses on site and there being little mention of local authority mechanisms to help with compensation delivery. There is also a bigger question around resourcing: Do local authorities have sufficient resource and expertise to cope with the changes coming through?
Setting aside that WG might have been better putting a lot of the detail into a revised TAN5 to keep PPW punchy, the direction of policy is clear and it’s important that responses are made to the consultation in order to ensure that the practical side of applying the requirements are reasonable, effective and justified.
If you would like us to consider how the proposed changes might affect your proposals or portfolios, please contact us. We can help make suitable representations to the consultation.
The consultation ends on 31 May 2023.
 By 2030: Protect 30% of Earth’s land, oceans, coastal areas, inland waters.
 The concept that development should leave biodiversity and ecosystems in a better state than before, through securing long term, measurable and demonstrable benefit, primarily on site.