The great crested newt is our most strictly protected amphibian, yet it is also widespread in much of lowland England. This means that the species sometimes finds itself at odds with changes in land use, particularly the major changes associated with development. Indeed proposed development taking place where large numbers of newts occur, may be curtailed because of the newts, though in many cases it proceeds with appropriate “mitigation measures” in place. Mitigation measures are essentially actions that reduce the harm to newts, and offset impacts on newt populations, by creating suitable new habitat for them. This process is strictly regulated through a licensing regime run by Natural England, and is undertaken on a project by project basis. Under the present scheme each development is responsible for compensating for its own specific impacts, typically by creating or improving habitat for the newts on the site or very close by.

In recent years, the scale of licensed newt mitigation has grown substantially, and this has triggered much debate about the costs, uncertainty, and outcomes flowing from the process. In particular, there have been concerns from some in the construction industry and government that the current system is too onerous. In the current context, with threats to the legislation never far away, it’s especially important to achieve regulation that works harmoniously for newts, developers and regulators.

Natural England has just announced plans for major changes to the way it regulates development impacts on great crested newts. Essentially, the proposals are to extend the “strategic licensing” approach trialled in Woking. This would mean a presumption against development in areas with high newt interest, steering impacts into less harmful areas. Habitat would be created in advance of planned development, and licensing would have a lesser emphasis on capturing and excluding individual newts.

ARC is in discussion with Natural England about these plans. Our key advice is to ensure that there are measurable and sustainable benefits to great crested newt conservation over the current licensing regime. We think there is great potential for gains, though the way any new system is delivered will need significant planning. The regulatory regime should incorporate clear and transparent outcomes for newts and be based on sound evidence. It should run alongside a national surveillance programme, and needs a well-communicated and supported framework to help engagement by all stakeholders.

Watch out for future updates on this important work area.