Resolving conflicts between housing needs, countryside visitors and protected bird species

The importance and impact of our research is set by the background competing pressures and priorities. With the UK population projected to rise by 12% to 70 million by 2027 (ONS 2011), a current and growing problem for planners, developers and conservation agencies in the UK is how to accommodate increasing pressure for new homes and other development without compromising the integrity of legally protected wildlife sites. These issues are particularly acute in southern England, where the remaining fragments of these internationally important habitats often lie adjacent to, or even within, large urban developments.

Under European Court ruling, any local government Development Plan Document (DPD) must be subject to a Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA), making use of the best available information and science and in consultation with Natural England, to consider whether the development plan is likely to have any significant detrimental effect to the integrity of any nearby internationally protected (e.g. Special Protection Area (SPA)) sites and species and thus needs to be modified and/or mitigation measures included, wherever feasible.

Our research and spatial modelling practical approach was driven by these urgent needs for scientific information and detailed evidence on specific housing-visitor-protected bird relationships to support any development plans. Our research was mostly commissioned by end-user nature conservation local government planning organisations that consequently had immediate and on-going interest and use of our results and conclusions in deriving acceptable development planning agreements.

The following are specific examples of our impact:

(A1) Housing and stone curlews conflicts in Breckland

On bare heath, downland and arable habitats Breckland Special Protection Area (SPA) supports populations of nightjar and woodlark, as well as 75% of the UK population of summer migrant stone curlews (142 nesting pairs in 1998).

BU’s research conclusion that stone curlew nest distribution is lower up to distances of 1500m from the nearest settlement was used as scientific evidence to the HRA. This recommended the Breckland Core Strategy does not support any housing development within 1500m of the SPA areas and outside 1km cells known to have stone curlew.

Following examination, the national Planning Inspectorate accepted the restriction on the basis of the European Commission’s precautionary principle. The 1500m exclusion buffer was adopted in 2009 by Breckland Council into its Core Strategy Plan for the allocation of 15200 new homes by 2021.

Road development mitigation for stone curlews

In early 2009, RSPB and Natural England (NE) objected to the proposed dual-carriageway improvement to the A11 Trunk road crossing the Breckland SPA, scheduling a Public Inquiry.   In summer 2009, Jacobs Engineering Limited, on behalf of the Highways Agency (HA), commissioned Clarke and colleagues to provide independent evidence.

Clarke’s modelling report prediction of a loss of about 11 stone curlew nests from the effects of an anticipated 64-70% increase in A11 traffic was used directly to by NE, RSPB and HA to agree mitigation of 16ha per predicted lost nest, equal to the creation of 176ha of nesting habitat. This enabled the Inquiry to end and approval for the A11 dualling to proceed.

Impact on government housing development plans and polices near heathland

UK lowland heaths have SPA status because of their populations of nightjar, woodlark and/or Dartford warblers. However, the Countryside Rights of Way (CRoW) Act (2000) provides right of public access on foot to heaths and downland for healthy enjoyment and appreciation. This and presence of nearby household development  can increase bird disturbance (and predation by pets). Clarke’s heathland and greenspace visitor survey research report on visitor behaviour and rates with distance has been used as evidence to support  Dorset Councils’ heath planning framework plans and planning application decisions.