Tom Hunt, ALERC, & Rosie Whicheloe, The Ecology Consultancy
The Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) requires its members to share data with Local Environmental Records Centres. Yet in many cases this is not happening. Should ecologists, developers or records centres be concerned? A group of Build UK members teamed up with GiGL, ALERC, and The Ecology Consultancy to investigate why more wildlife information is not currently being shared, and to find a solution.
In 2014, just over 413,000 planning decisions were made in England. In the same period, only a small proportion of wildlife records compiled for planning applications, were passed on to records centres. While it is not clear how many developments needed wildlife surveys, a large volume of wildlife data must be being produced but not shared, as only around 3.5% of all records within LERC databases nationally are obtained from consultants.
Mandy Rudd, GiGL CEO, confirms the same is true for London. “Every additional record has the potential to positively impact conservation efforts in our city, but most records held by GiGL, currently come from volunteers.” There is a great opportunity to liberate a huge amount of information on the natural environment bringing multiple benefits, beyond its original intended purpose.
Up-to-date wildlife data is vital to ensure the ecological baseline is robustly understood and the impacts quantified and assessed thoroughly. A lack of data can increase costs and cause unnecessary delays for developments, as a precautionary approach may be needed or further surveys required. Historical data is also important in monitoring species distribution and habitat change.
So what’s the problem? And what might be the solutions?
CIEEM’s code of professional conduct requires its members to be mindful of the confidentiality and commercially-sensitive nature of data. This is one of the major barriers to sharing data for consultants, whose work primarily comes from commercial developers and contractors. Permission to share data may not be granted due to a lack of understanding of its value to the industry and also a fear of its misuse. However, in most cases, data within ecological reports are eventually made public via planning portals, so passing data onto records centres should not pose a significant problem. Up until now, data sharing has primarily been the responsibility of individual companies. After recognising the problem, a number of Build UK members have looked at revising the scope of works – what they require from ecological consultants working for them – to promote better data sharing.
Sharing species data
The current methods of sharing species data require submitting a spreadsheet and sending it via email to the relevant local records centre or uploading to iRecord www.brc.ac.uk/irecord. These methods are effective and used by many consultants, but the task can be laborious when records are contained within a number of species-specific reports. Another method for sharing data is to use the NBN’s consultants’ portal, as described by Ella Vogel.
Changing the scope of works solves this problem for consultants as any costs, such as additional staff time, can be passed back to the developer. However, finding alternative, faster methods would be an added bonus, reducing the cost to all involved and making the process more efficient.
Sharing GIS data
With this in mind, the group recommends consultants consider sharing species data created in GIS, a method that was tested successfully by The Ecology Consultancy, with GiGL, ALERC, and Hampshire and Wiltshire LERCs. Originally created for displaying wildlife data in reports, the features mapped in GIS can be easily shared with records centres, who use a similar system for managing and storing data. There is no need to create separate spreadsheets, upload data or dig it out of reports, so reducing administrative time for both consultants and records centres.
However, it does require that consultancies use GIS and attribute information to features within a GIS environment. The level of detail in GIS may vary from company to company, or project to project. It is likely that for large or complex sites or projects that use Building Information Modelling (BIM) or similar software, data is already stored and managed digitally for the sake of efficient, project-specific, data sharing.
Another benefit of sharing data created in GIS is the ability to share, not only species data, but habitat data too; something not currently possible via alternative processes. This could include surveys of both existing habitats (e.g. phase 1 habitat surveys) and proposed habitats; such as those suggested by an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report or BREEAM (a sustainability assessment for master planning projects, infrastructure and buildings). What’s more, green infrastructure features (e.g. location of bat boxes, green roofs and Sustainable Urban Drainage (SuDs) features such as green walls and rain gardens) could also be shared with records centres in this way. These datasets would help developers and planners alike to identify wider, cumulative benefits to proposed biodiversity enhancements, guiding impact assessments beyond the site boundary.
Knowledge gaps occur in urban and rural areas as a result of data not being shared and collated. We know this data is in demand; by local planning authorities understanding, for example, the coverage of green roofs in their borough, and by researchers modelling ecological networks or climate change. Working together, the group has identified ways to resolve some fundamental issues that will help improve data sharing and bring benefits across the industry.
We would encourage planning authorities to make sharing ecological data obligatory as part of a planning application, and so raise awareness of the importance of wildlife data to the industry.
The group would like also like to encourage other organisations to test the method and begin sharing data using files created in GIS. In the first instance, making contact with the local records centre is advised. For other questions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The group involved in this project comprises GiGL and:
Build UK, who bring together 27 of the construction industry’s largest main contractors and 40 leading trade associations representing over 11,500 specialist contractors, providing a strong collective voice for the contracting supply chain in construction. Build UK focuses on key industry issues that can deliver change and enable the contracting supply chain to improve the efficiency and delivery of construction projects to the benefit of the industry’s clients. Build UK was created as a result of a merger between the NSCC & UKCG.
The Ecology Consultancy, who are part of Temple Group and offer a wide range of ecological expertise to inform planning and development decisions.
The Association for Local Environmental Record Centres (ALERC), who represent LERCs across Great Britain, providing them with a central voice. It also aims to raise standards and promote best practice.
Tom Hunt is the National Coordinator for the Association of Local Environmental Record Centres (ALERC). Tom’s main objectives are to facilitate the wider adoption of new biodiversity data management technology, improve data flow, encourage exchange of ideas and promote collaborative working between local record centres and National Biodiversity Network partners throughout the UK.
Rosie Whicheloe works for The Ecology Consultancy, based in Bermondsey. Her experience straddles habitat assessment and landscape planning, and she is currently working with a number of London boroughs on their SINC reviews and open space strategies. She hopes mobilising records will benefit the whole consultants industry.