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Planning talking points: can our homes be good for nature?

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Beavers are often celebrated by ecologists as ‘nature’s engineers’. When they build dams, their digging, tree-chewing and pool-making helps to create habitats for other creatures like birds, voles and amphibians.

When you think about the homes that human beings build, you probably don’t think of them as helping other species. Indeed, for centuries, people didn’t generally pay much attention to the way their building impacted wildlife, insects and plants. However, modern science and recently increasing attention to our impact on the natural world means that we now understand what this has done to biodiversity – the glorious variety of life on our planet, from plants and animals to fungi and microscopic beings. The World Wildlife Fund reports a shocking 69% drop in this variety across the world since 1970 as many species have lost their natural habitats through human activity.

Dealing with a housing crisis and an ecological crisis

There’s a housing crisis across the country and to prevent homelessness, new homes need to be built – but there’s also a climate and ecological crisis, and the city council has set itself goals in response which include boosting biodiversity. How can these seemingly conflicting issues be balanced?

The answer is to be a little more like beavers, creating homes for other species as well as ourselves. In its emerging new Local Plan, Chelmsford is setting clear rules for new developments. City planners don’t just want new buildings to avoid harming nature – they want them to actually leave the environment better off.

Supporting nature to recover

Chelmsford’s levels of biodiversity are reasonably high, at least in comparison to other areas of the UK. However, a study by the Natural History Museum in 2021 showed that the UK is in the worst 10% of countries for biodiversity loss. This is why the city council declared an ecological as well as climate emergency in 2019 and set itself fifteen tasks, including increasing local biodiversity.

A major opportunity to help make this happen is the council’s consultation on Chelmsford’s next Local Plan. This document sets out where certain kinds of development may be allowed up until 2041 and beyond. If a council doesn’t have a Local Plan, development still happens, but it’s much more difficult for local people to have a say in where and to ensure developers include infrastructure like schools and community facilities.

The Local Plan also gives a set of principles which all developers must abide by when building something new. One of these proposed rules is that development must “preserve or enhance the historic and natural environment and biodiversity.” There are specific targets attached to this. Since 2021, law has required most new developments to increase biodiversity by 10%. The next Local Plan proposes to set this even higher at 20% for the garden community near Springfield.

So the environment should not only not be harmed by development, but left in a better state than before. But how?

Building biodiversity into the fabric of new developments

Natural habitats are included in city planning at different levels. On a big scale, the draft Local Plan includes creating a ‘network’ of green areas and water across the city. In the same way that our paths and roads create a network that we use to reach food, shelter and other people, ‘corridors’ of water and greenery enable wildlife and plants to do the same. The draft plan includes three new country parks in the east and north-east of Chelmsford to add to this network.

Green spaces can be parks, but also include different habitats like hedgerows, woods and even verges. Protecting habitats is also an important consideration when the council decides how it carries out its day-to-day work. For example, in some areas of Chelmsford, grass is now mowed less often to give the flora and fauna that live in it a chance to thrive. Hedgerow trimming is only done at certain times of year to make sure nesting birds aren’t disturbed.

Alongside these wider plans, biodiversity is also considered in individual planning applications. The council expects developers to design not only high-quality homes for people, but for other species too. The Local Plan proposals mean every major development must include plenty of new trees, but there’s much more developers can do.

Boxes can be built for bats, birds and swifts to live in. Special bricks can be built into walls to provide homes for other types of bats and solitary bees. Green roofs, covered in plants, provide habitats on top of buildings along with insulation for the people inside. As well as roads and paths for humans, safe passageways and ‘bridges’ can be built so that animals don’t have to cross traffic. Small gaps in the bottoms of garden fences allow animals like hedgehogs to roam freely, while keeping larger pet animals like dogs enclosed.

Aquatic life is vital to biodiversity too. When a development is next to a main river, developers can help improve water-related biodiversity. Strips of grass and other plants are often seen between built land and rivers. These are to slow and catch water running into the river. They can be quite wide, even including trees, and are great for wildlife and insects to live and forage on. Ponds and channels to reduce flooding can also provide habitats.

Sometimes, there may be invasive plants and animals on a site that are stopping other species from flourishing, and it can be appropriate to remove them. In certain cases, careful changes to a water channel can also be helpful – adding pieces of wood or boulders to water, for example, can make a stream liveable for more creatures and plants.

How do we know this actually helps biodiversity?

All this raises some questions. How can the council know that what a developer promises during planning will actually increase biodiversity? What happens to the habitats once the developer moves on to their next site? And what’s to stop someone destroying an important habitat, then just replacing it with different ones that suit their plans better?

The way biodiversity is calculated and measured has changed over recent years, and will continue to change as we learn more and technology develops. Under the proposed Local Plan, developers have to prove that their work will result in the required biodiversity net gain with a set of reports and plans, carried out by suitably qualified professionals using the government’s latest biodiversity calculators.  This includes setting a ‘baseline’. To know if biodiversity has increased, you have to know what you started with, so a qualified ecologist must survey the site. The wrong action could upset rather than help the ecosystem – it’s vital that an expert is involved.

Where protected habitats are concerned, the draft Local Plan doesn’t allow any “offsetting”. Although biodiversity is one goal, planners have to sensitively balance it with others, like protecting irreplaceable habitats and protected sites. So, a developer can’t remove an important protected habitat and then install something else to ‘make up for it’.

In some cases where it’s impossible to increase biodiversity on the site where the development is taking place, the council can accept works that improve biodiversity somewhere else. This would need to be close to the development, in the right place for nature conservation, and fit in with plans for the ‘network’ of green spaces and water. Alternatively, developers can purchase statutory credits, administered by government.

The biodiversity net gains that a development provides have to last for at least 30 years after completion. Even if a developer has a really good plan for increasing biodiversity, the council won’t accept it unless they also show how biodiversity will be managed and looked after in the future. Wherever possible, the council will push for biodiversity net-gain for as long as the development stands. Stopping the decline of nature in the UK and rebuilding biodiversity will take decades, but with careful attention to how we treat the environment today, it is possible.

Be part of local planning

The Local Plan is everyone’s chance to decide the future of Chelmsford together. To read the draft and have your say, visit www.chelmsford.gov.uk/lp-review.

You can also get involved with nature recovery across the whole county. Essex County Council is organising a local nature partnership, which brings together councils, residents, agencies, farmers, landowners, environmental groups and others to develop a shared vision for helping nature in Essex.

A public consultation will start soon on a strategy and targets for nature recovery to guide councils like Chelmsford in increasing biodiversity. To find out more and join the newsletter for updates, visit https://essexnaturepartnership.co.uk.

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Corporate Communications
Corporate Communications

Corporate Communications is our central account for writing about Chelmsford