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Infrastructure and the environment

Large scale infrastructure projects: how environmental factors impact on time, cost effectiveness and delivery; we speak with Lynnette Pearce, Principal Ecological Consultant (Guildford) and James Turner, Regional Office Manager (Birmingham), Thomson Environmental Consultants.

Large-scale infrastructure projects have the power to shape and re order our lives and the countries we live in by creating new job opportunities, faster and easier travel and increased productivity. These projects take years to plan and build, providing employment for hundreds, if not thousands of people. A key part of the strategic planning process is to ensure that any negative environmental impacts as a result of the project are avoided or mitigated and that steps are taken to ensure compliance with any relevant legislation to preserve natural habitats and environments. Therefore, the expertise and diligence of an environmental consultant is key to a project’s success. A project will go through various stages as set out below in order to help bring a project to fruition and ensure that environmental issues are fully considered and addressed.

Environmental consultancies, like Thomson, are well versed in working with their clients from the earliest planning stages to ensure that their proposed scheme rigorously complies with UK environmental legislation.

Stage one: Surveys and compliance requirements for planning consent

Most development projects that we provide assistance with require a Preliminary Ecological Assessment (PEA) which will provide a baseline knowledge of the ecology of the site. For large scale development, a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) may be required and legislation and planning policy relevant to the ecological constraints affecting the development would then be presented as an Environmental Statement Ecology Chapter.

A PEA is essentially an assessment of the ecological value of a site and the potential of a site to support protected and priority habitats and species. This assessment helps to determine the need for any further surveys and/or mitigation solutions required in order to comply with legal and planning policy considerations. The potential impact of the development on designated ecological sites is also considered and the report will include recommendations on what ecological requirements are likely to be needed for the project to comply with legislation and planning policy considerations.

Depending on the outcome of the PEA, there are various mitigation options that may be available to avoid impacts and therefore reduce the requirements for further survey and mitigation. This involves the environmental consultant working strategically with the developer to ensure all parties understand the options and can work together to develop the most pragmatic, cost effective and timely solution to facilitate the project and ensure that it complies with the law. The PEA report along with the further survey reports are often used to provide evidence in support of a planning application and therefore have to provide a clear assessment of how the project will be compliant with environmental legislation and policy.

In reaching planning decisions, Local Planning Authorities will need to ensure that the requirements of relevant wildlife legislation and policy are addressed. Early surveys such as PEAs are vital because, if a developer does not carry out a PEA or any subsequent recommended surveys at an early stage in the project, it can cause severe delay to a project which can lead to significant additional costs.

The Legal framework

UK environmental legislation, such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2017), give legal protection to a range of habitats, designated sites and individual species such as great crested newts, bats and reptiles. The level of protection afforded to each type of habitat, site and species varies considerably.

This legislation gives developers and ecologists a lawful basis to work from when assessing projects and planning applications. However, further consideration is required to ensure the project will also comply with good practice guidance and planning policy.

Planning policy, such as that found in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Local Plans created by Local authorities, set out how decision makers should promote the protection and enhancement of the environment throughout the planning process. This may include, for example, refusing planning consent where significant harm to biodiversity cannot be avoided. Planning policy not only sets out how local planning policies and decisions should contribute towards protecting the environment, but also requires measures to enhance the environment. Enhancement of biodiversity in planning policy can relate to particular ‘priority’ species and habitats and more generally biodiversity and eco-systems as a whole, and the habitat corridors which connect them.

As may be evident from the description above, the framework for environmental compliance can be confusing and vast and therefore the expertise of experienced environmental consultants is vital to help navigate through the requirements. Careful consideration of the development impacts must be made in determining the scope for appropriate further surveys and mitigation, required to address any identified threats to protected species, habitats or designated sites.

The following examples demonstrate how the legislation works in practice particularly on large scale infrastructure projects and looks at the role of the environmental specialist:

Strategic environmental advice: Habitats Regulation Assessment and European Impact Assessment

In addition to expertise in the residential development and rail sectors, the team at Thomson also have specialist expertise in the ports and harbours sector. New ports and harbours are generally construction sites on a large scale. To ensure that environmental issues are considered, the team is brought in at an early planning stage to provide strategic advice, assess the site and suggest appropriate mitigation.

On one such site, which was part of a large UK port construction project, the ecology team were called in to conduct initial baseline surveys as the potential for impacts to protected species and European designated sites was identified. A Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site were located within 20m of the proposed works. The team advised the client and subsequently provided all information and analysis for the Competent Authority to complete the Appropriate Assessment (part of a Habitat Regulations Assessment) of the impacts on the European sites adjacent to the development.

We produced the ecology chapter of the Environmental Statement, which was informed by the initial PEA survey and a full suite of protected species surveys, to gain consent for the proposed work. Bespoke mitigation packages, combining different species mitigation to maximise efficiency and manage costs, were proposed by the team, and the mitigation plans approved by the Statutory Authority.

In order to ensure full compliance with legislation following approval of the planning application, we applied to Natural England for numerous protected species development licences including for great crested newts, badgers, water voles and bats.

Diligent assessment and project planning ensured all relevant surveys, assessments and mitigation plans could be undertaken at an early stage and in line with best practice. This resulted in the timely preparation of robust planning application and licence application packages, which gained approval from the Statutory Authority and Natural England and avoided costly delays.

Stage two: Implementing plans

The different facets of the environmental role: project management and mitigation

Once a project is through the planning process, physical work can begin. This often involves large numbers of people working on site undertaking a variety of roles as well as a large supply chain. If we look at any large-scale railway construction project, the sheer size and complexity of infrastructure projects of this type can involve several sites and therefore a number of different project managers. On one such rail project recently, project managers in all four of our offices were looking after seven sites in total under a large contract involving a supply chain of over 40 suppliers.

The aim of ecological mitigation works on this project was to create suitable habitat for great crested newts, other amphibians and reptiles, to be moved to, once their translocation from areas along the route takes place. Often sites are situated far from road access, and across some extremely soft ground. Therefore, temporary road ‘trackway’ comprising aluminium panels may have to been installed, to allow plant and equipment access to the site for habitat creation work. Once that work is complete the team may need to continue to visit the site as part of ongoing maintenance until the site matures.

Following habitat creation, the work required to physically catch and move species such as great crested newts and reptiles can be undertaken. All stages of the mitigation, including habitat creation, species translocation, clearance of the proposed development site and subsequent monitoring need to be undertaken in line with the methods set out in the plans submitted with the planning application as well as protected species development licence documents.

The role of strategic environmental advice and management of large-scale infrastructure project sites is key to successful completion.  Due to their scale and size they can take many years to complete and involve hundreds of ecological and environmental specialists to ensure that they comply with environmental legislation, mitigation plans and licences. There is a wide range of roles that fall to the remit of environmental and ecological consultants and it is imperative that these are carried out efficiently and to budget while minimising environmental impact.

The wider role:  environmental specialists working alongside developers

The current legislation framework around protection of environment and wildlife in the UK is rightly comprehensive and detailed. With the need for new major infrastructure and housing in the UK, a careful balance has to be met between meeting the needs of development and following UK wildlife and environmental guidance. Helping to ensure this balance is met, through careful consideration and adoption of a pragmatic approach, will help to ensure that we create a landscape which meets the requirements of our population but also preserves our fragile natural landscape and protects native wildlife.  The role of environmental consultancies like Thomson is to provide such expertise to help developers meet their project objectives, whilst complying with environmental laws, guidelines and planning consent requirements effectively.

Through designing appropriate, species-specific mitigation for any loss or damage of habitat resulting from development, populations of protected and priority species can be maintained, and biodiversity protected.

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