As part of their efforts to tackle the on-going biodiversity decline in England, the Government instituted reforms to the planning system which seek to embed ecological sustainability into the strategic planning and development management processes.
Substantive changes have been made to the requirements placed on local planning authorities to plan for nature through the National Planning Policy Framework, which mandates local planning authorities to plan strategically for nature, identifying and mapping ecological networks in order to deliver the protection, enhancement and maintenance of biodiversity.
Ecological networks are the basic, joined up infrastructure of existing and future habitat needed to allow populations of species and habitats to survive in fluctuating conditions. As a short term benefit, a landscape that species can move through easily allows re-colonisation of areas after disturbance events, preventing local extinctions.
In the long term, as our climate begins to change, well connected habitats offer opportunities for populations to move as conditions become more or less suitable. The movement of individuals between populations in a connected landscape maintains genetic diversity which allows populations to adapt to future changes in environmental conditions.
Somerset’s strategic ecological networks
Somerset’s strategic ecological networks have been produced for four broad habitat types in Somerset:
- Broad-leaved woodland
- Priority grasslands (including calcareous, acid and neutral grassland)
- Heathland and acid grassland
- Fen, marsh and swamp
The networks were created using the BEETLE least-cost network model developed by Forest Research with the parameters of the model based on the requirements of Somerset Priority Species for the minimum area needed to maintain a healthy population and typical dispersal distances.
The components of Somerset’s Ecological Network should be viewed in combination with data relating to other elements of the landscape that are likely to influence the functioning and resilience of the ecological network. The ecological networks are fragments of what was once a much larger network, and as a minimum every effort should be made to maintain what remains in line with national and locally adopted policy.
Somerset’s ecological network will continue to be updated as new data becomes available that will contribute to the mapping and evaluation of the networks currently identified.
Who can use it
Under the provisions of the National Planning Policy Framework, ecological networks are required to be included in local plans.
The local plans are for Mendip, Sedgemoor and South Somerset District Councils, Somerset West and Taunton Council, and Somerset County Council plans, including the Waste and Minerals local plans.
As well as planning, the ecological network can inform the management of green spaces in urban areas. It can also inform the location of any replacement habitat arising from the Somerset Habitat Evaluation Procedure applied to development sites.
National Planning Policy Framework
The National Planning Policy Framework states that local authorities should take a strategic approach to biodiversity. Local Plan policies should
- plan for biodiversity at a landscape-scale across local authority boundaries
- identify and map components of the local ecological networks
- promote the preservation, restoration and re-creation of priority habitats, ecological networks
- promote the protection and recovery of priority species populations
Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England's wildlife and ecosystems services
Biodiversity 2020 details a strategy for delivering the Government’s natural environment policy. It includes a commitment to ‘…take a strategic approach to planning for nature’ through reform of the planning system (see National Planning Policy Framework) whilst still retaining ‘…the protection and improvement of the natural environment as core objectives of the planning system.’
Biodiversity 2020 also features a number of Priority Actions, including to ‘establish more coherent and resilient ecological networks on land that safeguards ecosystem services for the benefit of wildlife and people’.