What Are Conservation Covenants?

The Environment Act 2021 was born on 9 November 2021, over 22 months after the first version of the Bill received its first reading on 30 January 2020 – a gestation period equalled in the animal kingdom only by the African elephant.

One of the less controversial but potentially most useful elements of the Act is Part 7, namely the introduction of a mechanism for land owners to enter into “conservation covenants”. What is this new beast?

In simple terms, a conservation covenant is a private voluntary agreement between a land owner and a local authority or other responsible body designated by the Secretary of State with commitments given by the land owner, enforceable against successors in title, to do or not do specified things on the land that have a “conservation purpose”.

The Law Commission first recommended in a 2014 report that this regime be introduced in legislation, given that existing legal mechanisms each have significant legal and/or practical limitations, for instance planning obligations need to fall within the types of commitment specified in section 106(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and regulation 122 of the CIL Regulations will often be a constraint on the authority’s ability to take the obligation into account in its decision making; restrictive covenants more generally carry with them the constraint of requiring the party with the benefit of the covenant to have an interest in land that will take the benefit of the covenant (the “dominant tenement” as any legal fule kno) and with the covenant having to be a negative obligation in order to be automatically enforceable against successors.

The Commission gave three examples of how conservation covenants might be used:

• “protecting woodland over the generations

“Example: The owner of an extensive family estate, much of which is forested and used by the public for hiking, intends to leave the land to her children. She wants to ensure that the forest is maintained and that public access continues, but she is not sure that her children – or future generations – would share those priorities”

• “selling heritage property”

Example: A heritage group has invested funds in buying and restoring a Tudor house. The organisation wishes to sell the property, but wants to ensure that the work it has undertaken, and the heritage value of the property, is preserved.

• “”protecting a biodiversity offsetting site”

Example: A local planning authority is faced with a planning application for an affordable housing development. The proposed development site is a wild flower meadow. If the development were to go ahead the meadow would be destroyed completely. In this instance the planning authority is willing to grant planning permission, provided the damage caused to the meadow is offset by the creation and long-term maintenance of a similar site elsewhere.

(Of course there has since been significant progress in relation to the principle of biodiversity net gain – see the provisions in Part 6 of the Act summarised in my 2 October 2021 blog post Ecology By Numbers: Biodiversity Net Gain In The Environment Bill).

DEFRA then carried out a consultation in 2019. Its subsequent response to the consultation process confirmed that it would proceed with legislation, by way of the Environment Bill, and would develop guidance.

The provisions in Part 7 of the Act the provisions do indeed give effect to what was proposed. For a good summary I recommend that you look at the explanatory notes to the Act (pages 132 to 141). Some highlights from that summary:

• It must be apparent from the agreement that the parties intend to create a conservation covenant.

• Any provision must be of a “qualifying kind”, which can take one of two forms. “First, it may require the landowner to do, or not to do, something on specified land in England, or require the landowner to allow the responsible body to do something on such land. Second, it may require the responsible body to do something on such land.” The agreement can also include ancillary provisions.

• The land owner must have a “qualifying estate” in the land – namely a freehold interest or a leasehold estate of more than seven years.

• A conservation purpose “extends to the natural environment of the land, such as plants and animals and their habitats; the land’s natural resources, such as water on the land; the land as a place of archaeological, architectural, artistic, cultural or historic interest; and the setting of the land. The reference to setting provides for the protection of land around a conservation site, which may affect its conservation status. For example, the architectural or artistic value of a country house could derive in part from the landscape in which it is set.” This is important! Conservation covenants are not just about nature conservation but can also be used in relation to, for instance, heritage conservation (see back to that second example from the Law Commission report).

• Bodies (including local authorities) need to apply to the Secretary of State to be designated by the Secretary of State to be a responsible body. If not a local body, the applicant body “will, additionally, have to satisfy the Secretary of State that at least some of its main purposes, functions or activities relate to conservation”. Criteria will need to be published by the Secretary of State. (Interesting that local authorities are not automatically designated).

• A conservation covenant is a local land charge and once registered is effective against subsequent owners of the land. It has indefinite effect unless otherwise stated in the agreement (and subject to the length of the relevant lease if entered into by a leaseholder). Enforcement will usually be by way of seeking an injunction or order for specific performance. It can be discharged or modified by agreement or by application to the Upper Tribunal.

• Section 135 (1) “gives the High Court, the county court or the Upper Tribunal, on application of any person interested, the power to make a declaration as to the validity of a conservation covenant, whether land is subject to an obligation under a conservation covenant, who is bound by or has the benefit of such an obligation, and the true construction (that is, meaning) of such an obligation. It will be for the court or the Upper Tribunal to decide whether an applicant has sufficient interest to make an application. The power to make a declaration extends to any agreement or order that modifies a conservation covenant. A person might seek a declaration under subsection (1) in circumstances where they needed to know the status of a conservation covenant – for example, in order to resist an action enforcing a breach or because the land was wanted for a different use.”

There is no news yet as to when the Regulations will be made to bring Part 7 into force. The biodiversity net gain provisions are likely to be a couple of years away from being switched on. Let’s hope that conservation covenants are not that far off, although of course we do need some good guidance to accompany what could prove to be a well-used procedure, because the opportunities for use of conservation covenants are wide: commitments to provide biodiversity net gain off-site are an obvious example but think also about commitments in relation to offsetting to address nitrate, phosphate or water neutrality for instance, as well as commitments which might previously have involved transferring land to a conservation or heritage group – the land will now be able to be retained with long term commitments given by way of a CC.

This week’s Clubhouse session (6pm 7 December) will be a descent into the strange world of planning enforcement. Whatever your perspective, Scott Stemp and Nicola Gooch will be leading us through the murky depths. Stories welcome. Link to app here.

Simon Ricketts, 3 December 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Extract from photo by Hu Jiarui , courtesy Unsplash