The Great Crested Newt (GCN) Task Force is an initiative instigated by Defra a couple of years ago, with the aim of improving intelligence on GCN status in the UK, whilst supporting the sustainable development agenda. There are several parallel workstreams, each involving a committee to deliberate and progress aspects of policy and capacity that need improvement. One workstream is defining Favourable Reference Values (FRVs) for example, so that we know what conservation goals we should be aiming for, nationally and locally.

I was asked by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) to represent it on the Planning Policy workstream. CIEEM is the UK's leading professional body for ecological consultants and related professions. I am a consultant ecologist, and I have some background in GCN surveillance and conservation. Other participants in the workstream involve Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, local authority representatives, RSPB, Defra and Natural England (NE).

The first few meetings in 2013 and early 2014 seemed to be about the workstream finding its feet, identifying the nature of the planning policy and capacity gaps affecting GCN conservation in the UK. Indeed, journeying to Defra's Nobel House office in Westminster, Central London, for two or three hours of intensive debate was frustrating at times. There simply was not enough time to discuss - let alone solve - the issues identified as important. (It must have been even more difficult for the teleconferencers).

Then things went quiet for a year. However, today I was again invited to represent CIEEM on the GCN Task Force Planning Policy workstream, and it was altogether a more enlightening and positive experience. Policy staff from Defra and Natural England have been busy coming up with novel and progressive policy ideas that really are quite interesting, and perhaps even inspired. I can't go into detail, as most of the content discussed today was confidential. Suffice to say that changes are afoot. For those of us that have been calling out for pragmatism and proportionality in mitigation licensing for GCN, and indeed other species, may be satisfied quite soon.

The proposed changes in policy are significant, and if applied would make GCN mitigation more proportionate and cost-effective. The chief driver is a desire to improve GCN conservation whilst simultaneously facilitating development. The assumption is that both are possible, and that currently opportunities are being wasted by ineffective policy application and inefficient systems. Nobody likes negative headlines about a fortune being spent to save a handful of newts. It is bad in the public eye, and it is equally frustrating for consultants delivering overmitigation with money that could be directed at proactive conservation initiatives.

The development agenda rules the roost currently, and whilst the 'Red Tape Challenge' might have fizzled out when it landed in the real world, the Government is keen to build several million houses in the next two decades. GCN conservation policy is seen as a hindrance to development, and one that fails to contribute to GCN Favourable Conservation Status (FCS). A lot of development money is being spent inefficiently on GCN mitigation, keeping developers within the law, but delivering questionable benefits to GCN. Something must give.

Some might smell a rat here, and suspect that the development agenda is driving this Task Force. But let's see where these new policy shifts take us. There really is a lot of 'wasted conservation' in the system currently, and I genuinely think Defra and NE have been listening to conservationists, consultants, volunteer groups and other stakeholders; and they know the system must change. Some sensible and well-thought-out changes, well-consulted, could radically improve the effectiveness of GCN conservation in the UK. To do that, rural policy instruments also need to be more effective, and we need a robust GCN surveillance system. Both of these things are currently receiving attention, hopefully to good effect.

The GCN Task Force will draw its business to a close by the end of 2015, and I look forward to assisting its Planning Policy workstream for the rest of this year. We will be exploring new policy proposals, novel approaches to mitigation and compensation, and shifts in NE's licensing systems. NE is already trialling a Class Licence system for vetted and trained bat consultants in 2015; perhaps 2016 will see something similar introduced for GCN consultants.

Dr Chris Gleed-Owen MCIEEM, Director & Principal Ecologist of CGO Ecology Ltd, 20 February 2015