Last month, Michael Gove launched a new consultation on a proposal to introduce Conservation Covenants into English environmental policy. We hope that all members and supporters who might find this of interest take advantage of this consultation to have their say. You can complete the consultation here.
These legal safeguards – already used successfully in other countries – are private, voluntary agreements between a landowner and a ‘responsible body’ such as a conservation charity, government body or local authority.
Considered for inclusion on the forthcoming Environment Bill, covenants would be legally binding on future owners of the land and could be used to enhance the environment in many ways. Examples given in the consultation include:
A landowner who has inherited extensive moorland which includes a crag much used by rock climbers. The landowner intends to leave the land to his children. They use a conservation covenant to ensure that the moorland is properly managed and that the public continue to have access to the crag.
Securing heritage assets
A farmer, who is also a keen amateur archaeologist has the buried remains of a Romano-British villa on her land. She is keen to ensure its protection and agrees to take the land out of cultivation. She would like the appropriate management to be maintained after she has disposed of the land and uses a conservation covenant to secure this outcome.
An alternative to land purchase by conservation organisations
A wildlife charity identifies a plot of land as containing a rare plant species. It makes a financial offer to the landowner in return for the land being maintained to preserve that species. The landowner agrees. The conservation covenant sets out the obligations that the landowner has to undertake to receive the financial offer.
Disposals of land by conservation organisations
A heritage group has invested funds in buying and restoring a Victorian house. The organisation wishes to sell the land but ensure that the work it has undertaken, and the heritage value of the property, are preserved. A conservation covenant ensures that future owners of the property maintain the conservation improvements made through the restoration work.
Payment for ecosystem services
An area of woodland upstream of a river which passes near homes has helped to mitigate localised flooding. After negotiations, the landowner agrees to continue with current land management practices, restoring and maintaining the woodland in return for a yearly payment. The obligations for land management and annual payments are set out in a covenant between the landowner and the responsible body.
Net gain for biodiversity
A local planning authority receives a planning application for a new housing development on land with some nature conservation value. The proposed development has retained habitat where possible and undertaken nature enhancement within the design but cannot entirely mitigate its impacts on site. In accordance with the recently updated National Planning Policy Framework, the local authority asks the developer to agree to improve habitats elsewhere in the local area to ensure the development leads to a net positive impact on wildlife habitats before granting permission. A conservation covenant provides one possible mechanism for securing permanent land-management obligations for the area of improved habitat.
This consultation builds on the 2013 consultation, to which the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust were one of 57 individuals and organisations to submit a response. In our response Dr. Alastair Leake, head of policy at GWCT, noted that “it is our view that a properly drawn framework for conservation covenants would be beneficial. Correctly established they have the potential to create and preserve habitats and species through a partnership between private landowners and conservation organisations whilst providing both capital and income payments. They may serve a particularly useful purpose in providing a better alternative to compulsory designation and consequently are likely to be more effective since the participation is voluntary and the agreement parties retain responsibility for drawing up and implementing the covenant.”
The equivalent of Conservation Covenants have been available in the USA, with more than 95,000 covenants covering 18 million acres, and in New Zealand where they cover almost 1% of the total land area. Since similar legislation was launched in Scotland in 2003, around 200 agreements have been put in place.
Have your say
Your feedback could help to inform the future of this policy. The consultation asks for your thoughts on issues ranging from whether tenants should be able to enter into conservation covenants and if the proposal is capable of delivering lasting conservation benefits.
Whether you’re a landowner, academic or just have a passion for environmental policy, you can submit your opinions here: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-management/conservation-covenants/
We would also look to hear from you. If there is anything you feel we should be considering when writing our response, please email Henrietta Appleton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The consultation closes at midnight on Friday 22 March. GWCT will be submitting an organisational response.