“Newt counting” delays to development have been ended with a new approach that speeds up and improves protection of the rare amphibians, experts said.
In a recent speech on rebooting the economy Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the “newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag” on productivity in the UK, holding up construction.
The comments prompted concern among conservationists that the Government was planning to strip away wider environmental protections.
But wildlife experts involved in a new approach say great crested newts should no longer represent a delay to developers, and the outcomes should be better for the protected but declining amphibians.
Protecting great crested newt populations has previously involved catching and counting them, and creating “compensation” ponds to replace those that were lost to new homes or roads.
This caused lengthy delays, with the Government estimating an average 14.5-week hold-up under the old licensing scheme.
But a scheme run by NatureSpace in the south Midlands, which brings together local planning authorities, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and other experts, takes 10 days for the developer to meet the requirements on newts.
New technology has replaced newt counting, with “environmental DNA” samples taken from soil, sediment and water and computer modelling used to assess and create colour-coded maps of newt distribution.
Developers joining the scheme are charged according to the impact they will have on newts or their habitat, based on the maps already drawn up by NatureSpace.
Conservationists look after the newts, using the money from developers to create and manage new ponds and habitat in parts of the landscape not being developed.
Eight ponds are created for every one lost, and are high-quality habitats with benefits for wider freshwater wildlife, the experts said.
It provides a better outcome for great crested newts than the old scheme. Data show that after two years, 60% of the sites where new high-quality ponds have been created have already been colonised by the animals.
Developers and planners can even use the maps to avoid “red zones” with the largest likely populations of newts when drawing up proposals.
If work goes ahead at sites where newts are expected to be most abundant, traditional methods of rescuing and relocating them are still used.
The NatureSpace scheme, which is part of government agency Natural England’s new district licensing approach, is running across 21 local planning authorities, with another 40 about to join.
Dr Tom Tew, chief executive of NatureSpace, who leads the south Midlands scheme, said: “We think that this new district licensing scheme already delivers much better newt conservation without any of the previous problems and delays for developers.
“This is exactly what we’re doing right now across the Midlands and soon in many other parts of the country.”
Dr Jeremy Biggs of Freshwater Habitats Trust said: “With the new district licensing scheme we have the scope to create ponds in the best places and make new high-quality, unpolluted habitats.”
He said the new habitats contrasted with poor-quality ponds often created next to developments in traditional schemes, which were often polluted and a “disaster” for great crested newts.
Dr Tony Gent of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said: “With so much of our wildlife in steep decline, we need to ensure that species like the great crested newt are helped back to recovery.”
He said the new approaches could provide the tools to ensure the UK can build greener and faster.