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Evidence shortfalls in the recommendations and guidance underpinning ecological mitigation for infrastructure developments

Citation

Hunter, Sara Bronwen et al. (2021), Evidence shortfalls in the recommendations and guidance underpinning ecological mitigation for infrastructure developments, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.sj3tx9658

Abstract

1. In the UK and European Union, legal protection of species from the impacts of infrastructure development depends upon a number of ecological mitigation and compensation (EMC) measures to moderate the conflict between development and conservation. However, the scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness has not yet been comprehensively assessed.

2. This study compiled the measures used in practice, identified and explored the guidance that informed them and, using the Conservation Evidence database, evaluated the empirical evidence for their effectiveness.

3. In a sample of 50 UK housing applications, we identified the recommendation of 446 measures in total, comprising 65 different mitigation measures relating to eight taxa. Although most (56%) measures were justified by citing published guidance, exploration of the literature underpinning this guidance revealed that empirical evaluations of EMC measure effectiveness accounted for less than 10% of referenced texts. Citation network analysis also identified circular referencing across bat, amphibian and reptile EMC guidance. Comparison with Conservation Evidence synopses showed that over half of measures recommended in ecological reports had not been empirically evaluated, with only 13 measures assessed as beneficial.

4. As such, most EMC measures recommended in practice are not evidence-based. The limited reference to empirical evidence in published guidance, as well as the circular referencing, suggests potential ‘evidence complacency’, in which evidence is not sought to inform recommendations. In addition, limited evidence availability indicates a thematic gap between conservation research and mitigation practice. More broadly, absence of evidence on the effectiveness of EMC measures calls into question the ability of current practice to compensate for the impact of development on protected species, thus highlighting the need to strengthen requirements for impact avoidance. Given the recent political drive to invest in infrastructure expansion, high-quality, context-specific evidence is urgently needed to inform decision-making in infrastructure development.

Methods

This dataset consists of a) database of recommended EMC measures applied to housing developments and b) details of citations contained within guidance supporting recommended measures.

Data were extracted from a sample of planning applications made to two adjacent local planning authorities in South-East England, Maidstone & Swale Borough Councils. Relevant documentation was reviewed for every large (>10 dwellings) housing development granted planning permission in the two councils during the 9-year period 2011-2020.  Planning applications were only included if they comprised relevant ecological reports, restricted to Ecological Impact Assessment, protected species surveys, Ecological Mitigation Plans or Preliminary Ecological Appraisal, due to their requirement for impact assessment and EMC measure recommendation. EMC measures recommended in each ecological report were identified and recorded, based on typologies defined both a priori (in line with Conservation Evidence ‘actions’, to enable subsequent effectiveness assessment) or inductively through the data extraction process. Development metadata (size, number of dwellings, dates) were also extracted from planning application forms. Subsequently, guidance documents, cited either in bibliographies or as in-text references supporting specific measures, were recorded.  Literature cited within these documents was then identified and recorded using a standardised data extraction protocol.