The role of Local Authorities in Conservation Covenant Agreements

23rd June 2022

The public sector has a key role to play, not just as a place shaper, but also in how it meets the pressing need for environmental change. Many local authorities have already declared some form of climate change emergency, and therefore now is the time to revisit their Climate Change Action Plans to see if they should add the ability to enter into Conservation Covenant Agreements.

What are Conservation Covenant Agreements?

In 2014 the Law Commission issued a list of recommendations for the introduction of conservation covenants. They included within their report a Conservation Covenants Bill. In 2018, the Government issued “a Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment” which recognised the need to explore the introduction of conservation covenants. Now, provisions in the Environment Act 2021 (which are set to come into force later this year) set out what Conservation Covenant Agreements are and how they are to be used.

Conservation covenant agreements are intended to be a voluntary but legally binding agreement that will run with the land, in the same way section 106 Agreements do. The new agreements will be made between a landowner and a designated responsible body, where a landowner promises to do, or refrain from doing, something on its land for the purposes of conservation.

The agreement’s goal is to be for a conservation purpose, intended for the public good.

How can local authorities get involved?

Unfortunately, local authorities are not deemed as responsible bodies for the purposes of the Environment Act.  Instead they have to apply to the Secretary of State to be designated as a responsible body. It is important to note that the Secretary of State will only designate a local authority, if satisfied that the authority is suitable to be a responsible body.

Therefore, the local authority will need to:

  • make an application; and
  • be a “suitable” body.

As yet there is no guidance as to what is considered “suitable“, and we await published criteria from the Secretary of State.

It is however important that Local Authorities start to engage with their local communities, partners and stakeholders about whether there is a driver to seek designated status.  They must also start to consider their governance processes in terms of the authority they will need to secure to seek designated status.

What are the benefits of Conservation Covenant Agreements?

The agreements aim to conserve the natural environment; to conserve land as a place of archaeological, architectural cultural or historic interest. The Law Commission provides some useful instances of when conservation covenants could be used – these include philanthropic uses, selling heritage property, protecting woodland etc.

We expect conservation covenant agreements to be a useful mechanism to deliver biodiversity net gain and secure long-term maintenance of sites for conservation purposes. For example, if an area of land contains key habitats, a conservation covenant agreement could be used to ensure that the land is to be maintained as such for the purposes of delivering on or off site biodiversity net gain. Or if heritage assets are found, a conservation covenant agreement could ensure that the land is to remain undisturbed.

So to conclude, clearly Conservation Covenant Agreements can be a very useful tool in the environmental change toolkit. Local authorities seeking to further their climate change action plans would be well advised to revisit their Climate Change Action Plans and put Conservation Covenant Agreements on their ‘to do’ list.

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