How we did it: Mitigating homes' impact with green space

The provision of green spaces near a new housing development in Berkshire is helping to protect rare habitats, reports David Dewar.

Natural alternative: EPR managing director Ben Kite (left) at the Langley Mead SANG, with Nick Paterson-Neild, director at planning consultants Barton Willmore (centre), and University of Reading strategic estates manager Nigel Frankland
Natural alternative: EPR managing director Ben Kite (left) at the Langley Mead SANG, with Nick Paterson-Neild, director at planning consultants Barton Willmore (centre), and University of Reading strategic estates manager Nigel Frankland

Project: Langley Mead and May’s Farm suitable alternative natural greenspace (SANG)

Organisations involved: Ecological Planning and Research (EPR), Barton Willmore, University of Reading, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, David Wilson Homes, Taylor Wimpey West London, Natural England, Wokingham Borough Council

With development pressure growing across much of the South East, an increasing number of housing schemes are coming into close proximity with protected habitats. In such cases, many councils require developers to provide mitigation to offset the impact of development.

One solution for developers and councils is creating a suitable alternative natural greenspace (SANG), an area of high ecological value to accompany new housing. Pioneered by government conservation body Natural England, SANGs aim to mitigate the impacts of new housing by drawing new and existing residents away from European Union-designated special protection areas (SPAs), which safeguard rare wildlife and plant habitats, towards the new spaces.

Two SANGS have been created in the South of the M4 strategic development location (SDL) near Reading to protect the nearby Thames Basin Heaths SPA, which is designated for its habitats of nightjars, Dartford warblers and woodlarks. The SANGs are designed to accommodate dog walking and other activities that could be harmful to the protected birds’ nesting areas.

In line with Natural England advice, Wokingham Borough Council’s core strategy, adopted in 2010, bans development within 400m of the SPA. Any development beyond this radius and within 5km must mitigate its impacts through the provision of SANGs.

The South of the M4 development, which proposes 2,500 new homes, is being delivered by a consortium including the University of Reading and David Wilson Homes. As the site falls within the 5km zone, planning and ecology consultancy EPR was hired to prepare the necessary evidence to show the developers could deliver the required mitigation for the SPA. EPR used data from its survey work, including an assessment of visitor numbers and patterns, to help prepare a planning application, a masterplan and a management plan for the SANG. "The main challenge was to provide sufficient confidence to Natural England and the local authority that what was a fairly new solution would actually work," says managing director Ben Kite.

EPR identified a 40-hectare area in the Loddon Valley for four SANGs. For the first, Langley Mead, the consortium submitted a detailed planning application seeking change of use for the agricultural land. The other three were later included as proposals in other housing applications within the SDL.

The Langley Mead application appeared "fairly straightforward", Kite says, because of the SANG’s "relatively uncontroversial" proposals to improve the local environment. However, the applicants and the council disagreed over the interpretation of the EU’s Habitats Regulations. The application was taken to appeal in 2010 after the council failed to determine it in time.

"The regulations require the effect of plans and projects on the SPA to be considered ‘in combination’ with each other," says Kite. "The council believed this meant the SANG could not be consented if the potential impacts of a related housing application hadn’t been fully addressed. Thankfully, the inspector and the secretary of state shared our view that the SANG was not itself contributing to any pressure on the SPA, and so wasn’t contributing towards any combination impact."

The 18.5-hectare Langley Mead SANG opened in May 2015. Once land of low ecological interest, the site has been transformed through a habitat creation exercise, says Kite. Hay meadow seeds were planted, and have produced rare wildflower species such as Ragged Robin, Great Burnet and Fen Bedstraw. According to EPR, early survey results indicate that the SANG attracted close to 13,000 visitors in its first year. The university, which owns the land, will manage the SANG in perpetuity.

Langley Mead and the site’s recently opened second SANG, May’s Farm, offer a semi-natural environment – "an experience of land that is slightly untidy and rural, like open countryside", Kite says.
It also has benefits for local communities. "It provides access to wildlife-rich, complex green spaces as well as improving individuals’ health," Kite says. EPR has been appointed by the consortium for the next two SANGs for the SDL.

"The SANG draws people away from the SPA, so the community can use a more localised facility to walk dogs and exercise," says Nigel Frankland, the university’s strategic estates manager. "It wouldn’t have been possible to bring the area forward for housing without mitigation against the impacts on the SPA. It was a question of ‘no SANG, no houses’ basically."

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