Natural environment

Explains key issues in implementing policy to protect biodiversity, including local requirements.

Where plans are being prepared under the transitional arrangements set out in Annex 1 to the revised National Planning Policy Framework, the policies in the previous version of the framework published in 2012 will continue to apply, as will any previous guidance which has been superseded since the new framework was published in July 2018. If you’d like an email alert when changes are made to planning guidance please subscribe.


How can the character of landscapes be assessed to inform plan-making and planning decisions?

One of the core principles in the National Planning Policy Framework is that planning should recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside. Local plans should include strategic policies for the conservation and enhancement of the natural environment, including landscape. This includes designated landscapes but also the wider countryside.

Where appropriate, landscape character assessments should be prepared to complement Natural England’s National Character Area profiles. Landscape Character Assessment is a tool to help understand the character and local distinctiveness of the landscape and identify the features that give it a sense of place. It can help to inform, plan and manage change and may be undertaken at a scale appropriate to local and neighbourhood plan-making. Natural England provides guidance on undertaking these assessments.

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Revision date: 06 03 2014

How can I find out about National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty?

Information about the National Parks and Broads and the government’s priorities for these protected landscapes is in the National Parks circular, English National Parks and the Broads: UK government vision and circular 2010. There is no equivalent circular on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but Natural England has published information on these areas.

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Section 11A(2) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, section 17A of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 and section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 require that ‘in exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land’ in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, relevant authorities ‘shall have regard’ to their purposes. A list of the public bodies and persons covered under “relevant authorities” is found in Defra guidance on the ‘have regard’ duty. Natural England has published good practice guidance on the ‘have regard’ duty.

This duty is particularly important to the delivery of the statutory purposes of protected areas. The duty applies to all local planning authorities, not just national park authorities. The duty is relevant in considering development proposals that are situated outside National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty boundaries, but which might have an impact on the setting of, and implementation of, the statutory purposes of these protected areas.

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Revision date: 06 03 2014

Does planning need to take account of management plans for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty?

Planning policies and decisions should be based on up-to-date information about the natural environment and other characteristics of the area. As part of this, local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning bodies should have regard to management plans for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as these documents underpin partnership working and delivery of designation objectives. The management plans highlight the value and special qualities of these designations to society and show communities and partners how their activity contributes to protected landscape purposes.

National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty management plans do not form part of the statutory development plan, but may contribute to setting the strategic context for development by providing evidence and principles, which should be taken into account in the local planning authorities’ Local Plans and any neighbourhood plans in these areas.

National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty management plans may also be material considerations in making decisions on individual planning applications, where they raise relevant issues.

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Revision date: 06 03 2014

How is major development defined in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, for the purposes of the consideration of planning applications in these areas?

Planning permission should be refused for major development in a National Park, the Broads or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated to be in the public interest. Whether a proposed development in these designated areas should be treated as a major development, to which the policy in paragraph 172 of the Framework applies, will be a matter for the relevant decision taker, taking into account the proposal in question and the local context. The Framework is clear that great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in these designated areas irrespective of whether the policy in paragraph 172 is applicable.

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What are Heritage Coasts and where can I find out about them?

Local planning authorities should maintain the character of the undeveloped coast, protecting and enhancing its distinctive landscapes, particularly in areas defined as Heritage Coast, and improve public access to and enjoyment of the coast. Heritage Coasts are stretches of our most beautiful, undeveloped coastline which are managed to conserve their natural beauty and, where appropriate, to improve accessibility for visitors. Most of the defined Heritage Coast is covered (on land) by either Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Park designations. Natural England has published advice on Heritage Coasts. The Marine Management Organisation produces guidance on marine planning which may also be relevant to protecting Heritage Coasts.

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Biodiversity and ecosystems

Is there a statutory basis for planning to seek to minimise impacts on biodiversity and provide net gains in biodiversity where possible?

Yes. Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which places a duty on all public authorities in England and Wales to have regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. A key purpose of this duty is to embed consideration of biodiversity as an integral part of policy and decision making throughout the public sector, which should be seeking to make a significant contribution to the achievement of the commitments made by government in its Biodiversity 2020 strategy.

Guidance on statutory obligations concerning designated sites and protected species is published separately because its application is wider than planning and links are provided to external guidance. Local planning authorities should take a pragmatic approach – the aim should be to fulfil statutory obligations in a way that minimises delays and burdens.

The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that pursuing sustainable development includes moving from a net loss of biodiversity to achieving net gains for nature, and that a core principle for planning is that it should contribute to conserving and enhancing the natural environment and reducing pollution.

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How should local planning authorities set about planning for biodiversity and geodiversity?

Local and neighbourhood plans and planning decisions have the potential to affect biodiversity or geodiversity outside as well as inside designated areas of importance for biodiversity or geodiversity. Local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning bodies should therefore seek opportunities to work collaboratively with other partners, including Local Nature Partnerships, to develop and deliver a strategic approach to protecting and improving the natural environment based on local priorities and evidence. Equally, they should consider the opportunities that individual development proposals may provide to enhance biodiversity and contribute to wildlife and habitat connectivity in the wider area. In considering how development can affect biodiversity, and how biodiversity benefits could be delivered through the planning system, it is useful to consider:

  • the policies and commitments in Biodiversity 2020;
  • the contents of any existing biodiversity strategies covering the relevant local or neighbourhood plan area and any local biodiversity action plans;
  • the potential effects of a development on the habitats or species on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 section 41 list (in Biodiversity 2020)
  • whether an ecological survey is appropriate;
  • the factors listed in guidance on local ecological networks that supports National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 117.

The statutory obligations in regard to international and national designated sites of importance for biodiversity must also be considered.

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Revision date: 06 03 2014

What are local ecological networks and what evidence should be taken into account in identifying and mapping them?

The components of an ecological network are explained at section 2.12 of the Natural environment white paper.

Relevant evidence in identifying and mapping local ecological networks includes:

  • the broad geological, geomorphological and bio-geographical character of the area, creating its main landscapes types;
  • key natural systems and processes within the area, including fluvial and coastal;
  • the location and extent of internationally, nationally and locally designated sites;
  • the distribution of protected and priority habitats and species;
  • areas of irreplaceable natural habitat, such as ancient woodland or limestone pavement, the significance of which may be derived from habitat age, uniqueness, species diversity and/or the impossibilities of re-creation;
  • habitats where specific land management practices are required for their conservation;
  • main landscape features which, due to their linear or continuous nature, are important for the migration, dispersal and genetic exchanges of plants and animals, including any potential for new habitat corridors to link any isolated sites that hold nature conservation value, and therefore improve species dispersal;
  • areas with potential for habitat enhancement or restoration, including those necessary to help biodiversity adapt to climate change or which could assist with the habitats shifts and species migrations arising from climate change;
  • an audit of green space within built areas and where new development is proposed;
  • information on the biodiversity and geodiversity value of previously developed sites and the opportunities for incorporating this in developments; and
  • areas of geological value which would benefit from enhancement and management.

Local Nature Partnerships can be a useful source of information for existing ecological networks.

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How can evidence on ecology be gathered and kept up to date?

A Local Record Centre can be an effective mechanism for facilitating access to environmental information which may be held across many public and voluntary organisations. Such centres provide a one-stop information source, often serving a specific county or grouping of local authorities. Their main function is to collate, manage and disseminate biodiversity information but they may also hold other types of environmental data and can also advise on evidence gathering.

The local planning authority can provide contact details if it supports a Local Record Centre.

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What are the legal obligations on local planning authorities and developers regarding European sites designated under the Birds or Habitats Directives, protected species and Sites of Special Scientific Interest?

Updated guidance on the law affecting European sites, protected species and Sites of Special Scientific Interest is being prepared by Defra and will replace the advice set out in Circular 06/05: biodiversity and geological conservation.

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Revision date: 12 06 2014 See previous version

Why are Local Sites important and how can I find out more about them?

Local designated sites (which include ‘Local Wildlife Sites’ and ‘Local Geological Sites’) make an important contribution to ecological networks and are overseen by Local Sites systems. These systems vary considerably in terms of size (both the administrative area they cover and the number of sites selected) and cover contrasting landscapes in coastal, rural and urban situations. Local Sites systems encompass both biodiversity and geological conservation. Natural England has published advice on the development and management of systems to identify locally designated sites. The advice proposes frameworks and standards for their operation as well as for the selection, protection and management of the sites themselves.

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How are ecosystems services taken into account in planning?

The National Planning Policy Framework states that the planning system should recognise the wider benefits of ecosystem services. Information about ecosystems services is in Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s biodiversity and ecosystems services. An Introductory guide to valuing ecosystems services has also been published by Defra along with a practice guide, which could, where appropriate, inform plan-making and decision-taking on planning applications. The National pollinator strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England is a 10 year plan to protect pollinating insects which support our food production and the diversity of our environment.

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Revision date: 11 02 2016 See previous version

What are Nature Improvement Areas?

Natural England has published information about Nature Improvement Areas and progress in 12 pilot areas from which local planning authorities and other partners elsewhere can learn.

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How should biodiversity be taken into account in preparing a planning application?

Information on biodiversity impacts and opportunities should inform all stages of development (including, for instance, site selection and design including any pre-application consultation as well as the application itself). An ecological survey will be necessary in advance of a planning application if the type and location of development are such that the impact on biodiversity may be significant and existing information is lacking or inadequate. Pre-application discussion can help scope whether this is the case and, if so, the survey work required.

Where an Environmental Impact Assessment is not needed it might still be appropriate to undertake an ecological survey, for example, where protected species may be present. Separate guidance is to be published by Defra on statutory obligations in regard to protected species which will replace the advice set out in Circular 06/05: biodiversity and geological conservation.

Local planning authorities should only require ecological surveys where clearly justified, for example if they consider there is a reasonable likelihood of a protected species being present and affected by development. Assessments should be proportionate to the nature and scale of development proposed and the likely impact on biodiversity. Further guidance on information requirements is set out in making an application.

Planning conditions, legal agreements or undertakings may be appropriate in order to provide for monitoring and/or biodiversity management plans where these are needed.

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Revision date: 12 06 2014 See previous version

How can development not only protect but also enhance biodiversity?

Biodiversity maintenance and enhancements through the planning system have the potential to make a significant contribution to the achievement of Biodiversity 2020 targets.

Biodiversity enhancement in and around development should be led by a local understanding of ecological networks, and should seek to include:

  • habitat restoration, re-creation and expansion;
  • improved links between existing sites;
  • buffering of existing important sites;
  • new biodiversity features within development; and
  • securing management for long term enhancement.

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What questions should be considered in applying policy to avoid, mitigate or compensate for significant harm to biodiversity?

The following questions are relevant when applying the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ at paragraph 175 of the National Planning Policy Framework:

  • in cases where biodiversity may be affected, is any further information needed to meet statutory obligations as signposted in guidance published by Defra/Natural England
  • where an Environmental Impact Assessment has been undertaken, what evidence on ecological effects has already been provided in the Environmental Report and is this sufficient without having to undertake more work?
  • is the significance of the effects clear? And
  • is relevant internal or external expertise available?
  • Avoidance – can significant harm to wildlife species and habitats be avoided for example through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts?
  • Mitigation – where significant harm cannot be wholly or partially avoided, can it be minimised by design or by the use of effective mitigation measures that can be secured by, for example, conditions or planning obligations?
  • Compensation – where, despite whatever mitigation would be effective, there would still be significant residual harm, as a last resort, can this be properly compensated for by measures to provide for an equivalent value of biodiversity?

Where a development cannot satisfy the requirements of the ‘mitigation hierarchy’, planning permission should be refused as per paragraph 175 of the National Planning Policy Framework.

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Where significant harm to biodiversity is unavoidable, how can mitigation or compensation measures be ensured?

The usual means to ensure that mitigation or compensation measures are secured is through planning conditions or planning obligations, depending on circumstances.

Where compensation is required a number of avenues have been available. The applicant might offer a scheme tailored to the specific context, or consider the potential for biodiversity offsetting with the local planning authority.

Biodiversity offsets are measurable conservation outcomes resulting from actions designed to compensate for residual adverse biodiversity impacts arising from a development after mitigation measures have been taken. The goal of biodiversity offsets is to achieve no net loss and preferably a net gain of biodiversity.

Special compensation considerations apply in the case of sites protected by the European Habitats and Wild Birds Directives. If harm to such sites is to be allowed (because there are no alternatives and ‘imperative reasons of overriding public interest’ can be shown) the Directive requires that all necessary compensatory measures are taken to ensure the overall coherence of the network of European sites as a whole is protected.

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How can I find out whether an area is ‘ancient woodland’?

A starting point to establish whether an area is ancient woodland is to look at the relevant ancient woodland inventory. These inventories comprise county maps of sites (generally greater than 2 hectares) that are thought to have been continuously wooded since 1600 AD. The national inventory is published and updated by Natural England. Both Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW) as well as Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) are ancient woodland. Both types should be treated equally in terms of the protection afforded to ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework. The Forestry Commission can also advise on all issues in relation to ancient woodlands.

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Should local planning authorities consult the Forestry Commission where development proposals affect ancient woodland?

Local planning authorities are advised to consult the Forestry Commission about development proposals that contain or are likely to affect Ancient Semi-Natural woodlands or Plantations on Ancient Woodlands Sites (PAWS) (as defined and recorded in Natural England’s Ancient Woodland inventory, including proposals where any part of the development site is within 500 metres of an ancient semi-natural woodland or ancient replanted woodland, and where the development would involve erecting new buildings, or extending the footprint of existing buildings. Natural England and the Forestry Commission have prepared standing advice to provide assistance to local planning authorities in considering proposals which impact on ancient woodland or veteran trees.

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Revision date: 19 05 2016 See previous version

How can I find out whether trees that could be affected by a development proposal are ‘aged or veteran’ trees?

Guidance on the features and importance of veteran trees is provided by Natural England. Local Records Centres and other organisations with an interest in trees may be able to advise on the location of known veteran trees.

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Green infrastructure

What is green infrastructure?

Green infrastructure is a network of multifunctional green space, urban and rural, which is capable of delivering a wide range of environmental and quality of life benefits for local communities.

Green infrastructure is not simply an alternative description for conventional open space. As a network it includes parks, open spaces, playing fields, woodlands, but also street trees, allotments and private gardens. It can also include streams, canals and other water bodies and features such as green roofs and walls.

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Why is green infrastructure important to delivering sustainable development?

Green infrastructure is important to the delivery of high quality sustainable development, alongside other forms of infrastructure such as transport, energy, waste and water. Green infrastructure provides multiple benefits, notably ecosystem services, at a range of scales, derived from natural systems and processes, for the individual, for society, the economy and the environment. To ensure that these benefits are delivered, green infrastructure must be well planned, designed and maintained. Green infrastructure should, therefore, be a key consideration in both local plans and planning decisions where relevant.

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What is a strategic approach to green infrastructure?

To assist in planning positively for green infrastructure local planning authorities may wish to prepare an authority-wide green infrastructure framework or strategy. This should be evidence-based by, for example, including an assessment of current green infrastructure provision that identifies gaps in the network and the components and opportunities for improvement. The assessment can inform the role of green infrastructure in local and neighbourhood plans, infrastructure delivery plans and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) schedules.

Local Plans should identify the strategic location of existing and proposed green infrastructure networks. Where appropriate, supplementary planning documents can set out how the planning, design and management components of the green infrastructure strategy for the area will be delivered.

This strategic approach to green infrastructure may cross administrative boundaries. Therefore neighbouring authorities, working collaboratively with other stakeholders including Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), may wish to consider how wider strategies for their areas can help address cross-boundary issues and help meet the Duty to Cooperate.

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How can green infrastructure help to deliver wider planning policy?

Green infrastructure can help to deliver a variety of planning policies including:

  • Building a strong, competitive economy

Green infrastructure can drive economic growth and regeneration, helping to create high quality environments which are attractive to businesses and investors.

  • Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes

Green infrastructure can help deliver quality of life and provide opportunities for recreation, social interaction and play in new and existing neighbourhoods. More broadly, green infrastructure exists within a wider landscape context and can reinforce and enhance local landscape character, contributing to a sense of place. Green infrastructure is also an important approach to delivering ecosystem services and ecological networks.

  • Requiring good design

Well-designed green infrastructure helps create a sense of place by responding to, and enhancing, local landscape character. Green infrastructure can also help create safe and accessible environments in new development and the regeneration of brownfield sites in existing built up areas.

  • Promoting healthy communities

Green infrastructure can improve public health and community wellbeing by improving environmental quality, providing opportunities for recreation and exercise and delivering mental and physical health benefits. Green infrastructure also helps reduce air pollution, noise and the impacts of extreme heat and extreme rainfall events.

  • Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change

Green infrastructure can help urban, rural and coastal communities mitigate the risks associated with climate change and adapt to its impacts by storing carbon; improving drainage (including the use of sustainable drainage systems) and managing flooding and water resources; improving water quality; reducing the urban heat-island effect and; where appropriate, supporting adaptive management in coastal areas. Green infrastructure networks also help species adapt to climate change by providing opportunities for movement.

  • Conserving and enhancing the natural environment

The components of green infrastructure exist within the wider landscape context and should enhance local landscape character and contribute to place-making. High quality networks of multifunctional green infrastructure provide a range of ecosystem services and can make a significant contribution to halting the decline in biodiversity.

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How should green infrastructure be planned for in the long term?

As with other forms of infrastructure, green infrastructure requires sustainable management and maintenance arrangements to be in place if it is to provide benefits and services in the long term. Arrangements for managing green infrastructure, and for funding its management over the long-term, should be identified as early as possible when planning green infrastructure and factored into the way that it is designed and implemented.

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How should green infrastructure be considered in planning decisions?

Where appropriate, planning proposals should incorporate green infrastructure in line with local and neighbourhood plan policies and site specific considerations. As a component of sustainable development, green infrastructure should be considered at an early stage of a planning proposal. Depending on individual circumstances, planning obligations, conditions or the Community Infrastructure Levy may all be potential mechanisms for securing and funding green infrastructure.

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Revision date: 1 21 2160

Brownfield land, soils and agricultural land

Can brownfield land have a high ecological value?

It can do. A core principle in the National Planning Policy Framework is to encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value. This means that planning needs to take account of issues such as the biodiversity value which may be present on a brownfield site before decisions are taken.

Defra has published information on Open Mosaic Habitats, a specific type of habitat that is of high ecological value and which occurs on brownfield land. Where insufficient information is available, survey work may be appropriate to assess ecological value before decisions on development are taken.

In addition, planning may need to take account of contamination.

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Should planning take account of soil?

The National Planning Policy Framework states that the planning system should protect and enhance valued soils and prevent the adverse effects of unacceptable levels of pollution. This is because soil is an essential finite resource that provides important ‘ecosystem services’, for example as a growing medium for food, timber and other crops, as a store for carbon and water, as a reservoir of biodiversity and as a buffer against pollution.

As part of the government’s ‘Safeguarding our Soils’ strategy, Defra has published a Code of practice for the sustainable use of soils on construction sites, which may be helpful in development design and setting planning conditions.

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How can planning take account of the quality of agricultural land?

The National Planning Policy Framework expects local planning authorities to take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. This is particularly important in plan making when decisions are made on which land should be allocated for development. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of a higher quality. The Agricultural Land Classification provides a method for assessing the quality of farmland to enable informed choices to be made about its future use within the planning system.

Natural England provides further information on Agricultural Land Classification. The Agricultural Land Classification system classifies land into 5 grades, with Grade 3 subdivided into sub-grades 3a and 3b. The best and most versatile land is defined as Grades 1, 2 and 3a and is the land which is most flexible, productive and efficient in response to inputs and which can best deliver food and non food crops for future generations. Natural England has a statutory role in advising local planning authorities about land quality issues.

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Published 21 January 2016