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You can build what you want, providing...

10th June 2003 - The Telegraph

. . . bus passes, doctor's surgeries, free bicycles and a new home for the bats and badgers. Christopher Middleton reports on the increasingly bizarre trade-offs between developers and local councils

Once upon a time, developers just built houses. These days, their responsibilities extend way beyond bricks and mortar and into the provision of bus passes, free bicycles and regular inspections of badger droppings.

It's called "planning gain" and it's the strangely medieval system whereby - in return for being granted permission to build - developers have to agree to a list of demands drawn up by local councillors.

The number-one request for any council is the provision of affordable housing, to be rented out by either the local authority or a housing association. Sometimes this can account for as little as 5 per cent of the total development, sometimes as much as 25 or 30 per cent (Mayor Livingstone's target for London is 50 per cent).

Then there is usually the odd demand bunged in for a sports centre, or a GP's surgery, or, as in one new Docklands development, a fully functioning fire station with firefighters' sleeping quarters attached. However, as well as all these conventional community facilities, councils are now starting to tack some altogether quirkier extras on to the bottom of their wish lists.

"There's an estate in the West Midlands where the housing developers have been required to give out free bus passes to all the residents," says Pierre Williams, of the House Builders Federation. "The council say it's because they want to encourage greater use of public transport."

It is this same desire to keep cars off the road which has prompted a local authority in Gloucestershire to insist that developers Bellway give away two free bicycles with each property they sell on their Walnut Grove estate. The same company is also paying for police speed cameras on a stretch of road beside one of its West Country developments, as well as forking out for the reconstruction of an entire Victorian lake on a 300-home site outside Swansea.

Talk to any private developer and it will have similar stories of eccentric planning-gain stipulations, involving everything from putting up statues to installing skateboard ramps. But it is not just humans that housebuilders have to accommodate; it's also the birds and bees.

This is the point at which the negotiable requirements of planning gain (under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act) meet the rather more rigid strictures of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This piece of legislation stipulates that any environmental disruption must be counterbalanced by provision for the flora and fauna that are being displaced. Which is why 20 square metres of common, spotted orchids have had to be uprooted en masse from a housing development at Greenhaugh West Moor, in Northumberland, and transported to the Rising Sun Country Park at nearby Wallsend, still encased in soil.

It is also why ecologists (hired by the developers) spend many hours at the 3,000-home Camborne Village development, in South Cambridgeshire, peering at little piles of badger dung. "The location of the droppings supplies vital information about where the badgers see the boundaries of their territory," explains David Denman, of English Nature. "By discovering the extent of their patch, we can get a better idea of how to accommodate the various badger populations in the area."

It turns out, in fact, that not only do badgers get the chance to put their mark on where they would like to live, but they also get their own transport network. In several cases, where Man and Brock have come into conflict over a particular thoroughfare, the result has been the construction of a whole network of underground badger tunnels, leading the animals in and out of their setts, safe from the traffic overhead.... continued

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