Whoops I did it again: agreed to give a talk on a subject before researching it. These are no more than my notes but I hope the links at least are useful.
The Chancellor announced in his Spring Statement that “following consultation, the government will use the forthcoming Environment Bill to mandate biodiversity net gain for development in England, ensuring that the delivery of much-needed infrastructure and housing is not at the expense of vital biodiversity.”
A DEFRA blog post was published the same day, quoting Michael Gove:
“Mandating biodiversity net gain will ensure wildlife thrives at the same time as addressing the need to build new homes. Whether it’s through planting more trees or creating green corridors, developers will now be required to place the environment at the heart of new developments.
This new approach will not only improve habitats for wildlife and create healthier places to live and work, but is central in our ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations.”
This is what we have committed to do in any event so as to comply with our obligations under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which we ratified in 1994. In order to seek to meet the Aichi 2015 – 2020 biodiversity targets the UK has committed as one of its “priority actions“, that it will, “through reforms of the planning system, take a strategic approach to planning for nature within and across local areas. This approach will guide development to the best locations, encourage greener design and enable development to enhance natural networks. We will retain the protection and improvement of the natural environment as core objectives of the planning system.”
The UK’s Joint Committee for Nature Conservation reported on progress in its 6th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (January 2019), submitted to the Convention’s Secretariat on 11 March 2019.
The principle of requiring biodiversity net gain is supported not just by environmental groups but by development industry bodies – see for instance UK Green Building Council open letter dated 1 March 2019 to the Chancellor:
“We […] look to the Government to establish the long-term legal framework needed to fulfil its pledge to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it” – and the proposed Environment Bill is the opportunity to do so. The Bill can provide the foundation for a shift from an economy in which business aims to limit its impact on the environment towards an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.
We are calling on the Government to use the Bill to set legally binding targets for the achievement of environmental objectives – including tackling biodiversity loss, improving water and air quality and cutting down resource use and waste. By setting binding targets, the Government can give the construction and property sector the confidence and certainty we need to help drive nature’s recovery, and set a level playing field that enables businesses who do the right thing to be rewarded.”
The letter was signed by representatives of the following organisations (a pretty good list!):
Argent (Property Development) Services LLP
BAM Construct UK
BAM Nuttall Ltd
Barratt Developments Plc
Berkeley Group Holdings
Clarion Housing Group
Kingspan Insulation Ltd
Telford Homes Plc
William Hare Ltd
So what lies ahead? This is an initiative which has real momentum, but requires careful implementation if it is not on the one hand to be adding unreasonably to the burden of applicants and authorities (in terms of what further documentation and analysis is required and/or in terms of placing the hurdle for an acceptable scheme impossibly high) or on the other hand to be so lax as to be providing nothing over and over present policy requirements.
DEFRA published on 2 December 2018 its Net gain: consultation proposals document, giving a deadline for responses of 10 February 2019.
The document defines net gain as follows:
“Net gain is an approach to development that aims to leave the natural environment in a measurably better state than beforehand. This means protecting existing habitats and ensuring that lost or degraded environmental features are compensated for by restoring or creating environmental features that are of greater value to wildlife and people. It does not change the fact that losses should be avoided where possible, a key part of adhering to a core environmental planning principle called the mitigation hierarchy. Net gain is not a new concept. Several countries around the world have already adopted biodiversity net gain policies and net gain for biodiversity is already supported through national planning policy.”
A footnote to passage notes:
“NPPF paragraph 170 states that planning policies and decisions should minimise impacts on and provide net gains for biodiversity; paragraph 174 requires plans to pursue opportunities for securing measurable net gains; paragraph 175 requires planning decisions to encourage biodiversity improvements in and around developments and paragraph 118 states that the planning system should take opportunities to secure net environmental gains“.
The consultation document is a detailed document, but this inset within it summarises the proposed role of biodiversity net gain in the planning system:
“Our proposal is that biodiversity net gain will be delivered within the existing planning and development process. This summary is illustrated in the infographic that follows.
When assessing potential development sites, habitat surveys will identify habitats and their condition as is already done for much development. Surveys help identify opportunities for enhancement as part of green infrastructure as well as possible constraints.
Development design will proceed as normal, but better informed by figures for biodiversity losses and gains. A standard biodiversity metric will be populated with habitat information from the site assessment and landscape plans. This will help demonstrate at an early stage that harm has been avoided as far as possible and that new green infrastructure will be of good environmental quality. The metric could also help to anticipate the costs of achieving net gain to factor these into land purchase where possible. No existing planning protection for the environment will be weakened and the principle of avoiding harm first (known as the “mitigation hierarchy”) will continue to ensure that preventing damage to nature will always be prioritised, wherever possible.
If net gain cannot be achieved on site, the metric would provide the right information to discuss habitat enhancement or creation with local providers or with the local authority during pre-application negotiations. The tariff rate would offer a guide for the upper limit of habitat compensation costs, alongside information from growing habitat creation markets.
When preparing local plans, local authorities are able to identify opportunities for habitat improvement that would benefit local people and support nature recovery. They would be able to choose to bring improvement sites forward themselves or work with other providers.
When developers and local planning authorities are consulting with the local community prior to submitting a planning application, it will be possible to use biodiversity net gain figures and habitat enhancement measures to explain the benefits and costs of a development proposal more transparently.
With clearer expectations, developers will be able to submit planning applications with greater confidence that proposals can be supported on biodiversity grounds.
For local authorities, transparent figures for biodiversity losses and gains can be quickly checked and provide confidence that impacts will be positive. Figures will also indicate the environmental quality of green infrastructure as part of development design.
As part of the planning permission, developers would sign up to predictable conditions, obligations or a tariff payment to secure biodiversity net gain. The availability of a tariff would prevent planning permission from being delayed by net gain requirements, and local authorities will be able to demonstrate that positive impacts to help improve the environment for local communities have been secured.”
The full list of the 45 consultation questions within the document demonstrates the potential complexity of what is proposed:
From a practical perspective, key issues are plainly going to include
⁃ establishing a robust ‘biodiversity unit’ metric
⁃ determining what would the required level of improvement (where does 10% come from?)
⁃ determining the circumstances in which a tariff or other off-site arrangement is appropriate and calculating its quantum
⁃ arriving at practical delivery mechanisms, by way of planning conditions, section 106 obligations and/or CIL, that meet relevant legal and policy requirements.
What I would love to understand is really how “mandated” the proposed requirements will be in practice. Does the Government envisage that the detailed regime can be bolted into the existing planning system by way of amendments to the PPG (which seems implausible given the potential nature of the tariff measures in particular) or will the Environment Bill be prescriptive in terms of what precisely will be required?
DEFRA is apparently due to respond to the consultation shortly, with the Bill likely to be published before the summer recess but, dear reader from the near future, you are possibly looking back at this blog post thinking “well that didn’t age well…”
Simon Ricketts, 30 March 2019
Personal views, et cetera