The government’s paper on biodiversity net gain, published in July, places greater onus on developers to restore the environment. Anna White reports
Cities in the UK are caught in a web of interwoven crises: the critical decline of ecosystems is compounded by the affordable housing shortage and climate emergency.
Paul de Zylva, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, sums it up. “Rising temperatures are causing soil erosion and eradication of habitats, and we swing between drought and flood. On this land we continue to hurriedly build more homes rather than true sustainable communities with a sense of place and permanence.”
The government’s paper on biodiversity net gain, published in July following a 10-week industry consultation, is an attempt to put greater onus on the development community to protect and restore the natural environment when building new schemes.
It includes a new metric from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to quantify the ecology output by developers.
Register now for our one-day conference on Biodiversity Net Gain at The Developer Live: Risk & Resilience on 8 November at Illuminate, Science Museum, in London.
The response – to be subsumed into the Draft Environment Bill – was muffled by the noise surrounding the appointment of Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, but needs rigorous analysis.
It will get this treatment at The Developer’s Risk & Resilience Conference on Friday 8 November at the Science Museum, London, when the development industry and conservation experts assess the impact and up-take of the new guidelines.
Biodiversity net gain seeks to ensure that when delivering commercial, residential and mixed-use schemes developers improve the environment, not just compensating for the biodiversity loss when concreting over habitats, but increasing their number.
“Biodiversity net gain requires developers to ensure habitats for wildlife are enhanced and left in a measurably better state than they were pre-development,” explains Alex Green, sustainability director at the British Property Federation (BPF).
“Developers must assess the type of habitats and their condition before submitting plans, and then demonstrate how they are improving biodiversity – through actions such as the creation of green corridors, by planting more trees or forming local nature spaces.”
It is not a massive departure from recent procedure, Green continues, and planning permission is contingent on green compensation. But new proposals will take this a step further.
“It’s no longer enough to mitigate. Now the industry must ecologically enhance a site,” he says.
The consultation solicited responses from the development industry, conservation community, planners and the public on updating Defra’s biodiversity net gain metric.
The government describes it as “designed to provide ecologists, developers, planners and other interested parties with a means of assessing changes in biodiversity value (losses or gains) brought about by development or changes in land management. The metric is a habitat-based approach to determining a proxy biodiversity value”.
A 10% gain measured over time may still result in a loss of biodiversity due to ongoing decline and the reality that some biodiversity net gain projects will simply not succeed
The revised metric includes the following new features: improved consideration of ecological connectivity, an extended range of habitat types including green infrastructure and rivers, and a forthcoming spreadsheet-based tool which will support the application of the metric in practice.
“Before any plans are made, the biodiversity score of a site is taken. Plans must then set out ways the developer can increase the ecological content of the site by a minimum of 10%,” Green explains.
The BPF is supportive of the proposals: “It provides an opportunity to consistently know what is required of the developer who wants to know where they stand with planning,” he adds.
De Zylva believes it is a micro-step in the right direction. “Public mood is changing, we are becoming more disparaging of schemes with low natural value. Developers can no longer get away with sticking trees in concrete and laying turf, and through biodiversity net gain there’s a chance to incentivise the right behaviours.”
He commends the UK government for attempting to enshrine biodiversity net gain (or “the son of offsetting”) in law but says: “On this subject that’s as generous as I am going to get.”
Much to the surprise of the BPF, the tariff was dropped in the response – deemed too complicated to enforce
Only 8% of respondents to the consultation were developers – the majority were planners and conservation campaigners – but Taylor Wimpey argued against an update to the metric. The volume house builder was concerned that biodiversity was being elevated above other planning considerations.
“It is not clear why biodiversity should be made mandatory and hence elevated above other important social and environmental priorities. We therefore cannot support the mandatory aspect of the consultation,” the formal response reads.
Developer Redrow was also involved in the consultation. “A 10% target has been proposed but it hasn’t yet been made fully clear why the government has settled on this figure. Some of our schemes have seen significant net gains by as much as 60% but others will not be as high. In the absence of robust evidence we feel 5% is a more appropriate target in which to start, reviewing this, as appropriate, as the industry gains experience,” says Nicola Johansen, its group sustainability manager.
Redrow has taken a proactive approach, forming corporate partnerships with The Wildlife Trusts and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to introduce a variety of pollination-friendly measures, bat bricks, bird boxes and hedgehog highways.
“Redrow is working in partnership with The Wildlife Trusts to create a new biodiversity strategy that will include achieving biodiversity net gains. Our new strategy will go beyond net gain in that it will seek to ensure that enhancements are made in a way that is relevant to the local landscape’s character and considers local species,” says Johansen.
The Saxon Brook development in Exeter is forecast to achieve net gains of 15%, partly due to the planting of species-rich wildflower meadows, native woodland including a community orchard, new ponds with emergent and marginal vegetation and marshy grassland.
The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) criticised the 10% minimum gain requirement: “This is disappointing as a 10% gain measured over time may still result in a loss of biodiversity due to the ongoing decline and the reality that some biodiversity net gain projects will simply not succeed. Local authorities will have the ability to be more ambitious, but we will have to see if they do so given their continued under-resourcing.”
“Ninety-eight per cent of previously developed land in London scores a zero on the biodiversity net gain metric... Biodiversity net gain does not even start us on the journey to re-wild London”
The House Builders Association (HBA), typically representing smaller development organisations, supported the metric but said: “There should be efforts made to simplify certain sized/types of sites so that smaller house builders are not subject to long delays and costly assessments.”
At first glance, the proposals should level an uneven playing field. Chris Brown is the founder of Igloo Regeneration – an ethical developer that ‘makes profit for purpose’. He believes the ecological assessment of a site has for too long been easily manipulated by the larger players.
“The big boys can afford to hire a consultant who can tell them what they want to hear regarding the biodiversity of the site and bend the ecology report to planners,” he says. In theory, the metric system – which seems relatively straightforward – should give a more consistent and measurable approach.
However, he’s unconvinced. “The perception of the small and medium-sized developer will be that this is yet another barrier to entry, another one of an increasingly long list of things they need to tick off for planning,” he says.
New guidance was needed to address the “patchwork” of different approaches to greenwashing, says de Zylva, but the government’s response could create confusion as every local authority planning body interprets it differently.
“Nature is on the brink. The fact that once-common birds such as starlings are now on the endangered list tells us how intense the ecosystems crisis has become”
“It’s near impossible to work out the net gain/loss without an ecologist and then they just argue with the local authority ecologist. The value of greenfield is so subjective,” says a source from a national house builder.
Prior to 23 July the industry was expecting a hierarchy system. The first expectation was that the developer would leave the site in a better ecological state than when it was acquired. If there were restrictions on the site, the second requirement was that the developer and planner could agree that this environmental contribution could be made elsewhere. If this was not possible then the third and final resort was the payment of a levy to the local authority to cover habitat creation locally.
Much to the surprise of the BPF, the tariff was dropped in the response – deemed too complicated to enforce but potentially rendering the mechanism toothless.
The response reads: “The government will not introduce a new tariff on loss of biodiversity. By not instating a rigid tariff mechanism, government will make it easier for local authorities, landowners and organisations to set up habitat compensation schemes locally where they wish to do so.”
This will give each council the freedom to devise their own compensation schemes which could vary widely, and potentially cost the developer more in fees to agree upon compensation and dispute resolution than the tariff itself.
One county or city council may have a more favourable approach over another, driving inconsistent levels of housebuilding in different parts of the country with an inevitable impact on local pricing and residents.
There are also exemptions, namely small sites and brownfield. “Small sites will remain in scope of the mandate, but consideration will be given to whether minor residential developments should be subject to longer transition arrangements or a lower net gain requirement than other types of development,” explains Green.
“There will be a targeted exemption for brownfield sites that meet a number of criteria including that they do not contain priority habitats or if they face genuine difficulties in delivering viable development.”
However, in London the vast majority of large residential schemes are former industrial brownfield transformations.
As Brown explains: “Ninety-eight per cent of previously developed land in London scores a zero on the biodiversity net gain metric so will require very little ecological input. This low-level biodiversity net gain does not even start us on the journey to rewild London.”
“The government is pulling a distracting lever rather than focusing on the intensive and radical restoration of nature that is needed”
De Zylva agrees: “Nature is on the brink. The fact that once-common birds such as starlings are now on the endangered list tells us how intense the ecosystems crisis has become.”
Further consultation is underway on marine sites, deemed too complex to be wrapped into this paper, and large infrastructure projects have been excluded, too.
CIEEM had this to say: “We are extremely disappointed that nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) will remain outside of the scope of mandatory biodiversity net gain. NSIPs are at a scale that they have disproportionately large impacts on the natural environment. They should be seen by government as an opportunity to lead the way in delivering biodiversity net gain and in realising the ambition of leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it.”
The current political landscape is highly relevant to the natural one. Over the course of the UK’s prolonged period of austerity, planning departments have suffered staff cuts, and therefore a local authority’s ability to ensure each site is assessed properly, thoroughly read site reports and devise their own compensation schemes is a tall order.
On 5 August, the HM Treasury report Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2019 was published and revealed an increase in the Defra budget of £213m to day-to-day spend of £2.16bn. Much is being spent on increased administration and salary costs due to Brexit preparation. And yet, funds for the protection of the landscape and biodiversity continue to fall and have halved since 2016/17.
“The dramatic decline in funding for landscape and biodiversity is at odds with the government’s stated ambitions in its 25-Year Environment Plan to restore biodiversity and recognise the value of nature to our social and economic well-being,” CIEEM complains.
The increase in the Defra budget is being spent on Brexit, while funds for biodiversity have halved since 2016/17, a decline “at odds with the government’s stated ambitions”
For de Zylva the updated metric and biodiversity net gain proposals do not go far enough. “The government is pulling a distracting lever rather than focusing on the intensive and radical restoration of nature that is needed,” he says. “We need a comprehensive plan from government to reverse the ecosystem emergency,” he concludes.
The absence of a far-reaching and cohesive strategy and the perception that Brexit will delay the Draft Environment Bill means some developers are dismissive of the incoming legislation.
“It’s not something we are concerned with at the moment,” the boss of a small house builder tells The Developer, referring to biodiversity net gain.
Yes, they are sensitive to the environment in which they are building. Yes, they plan to preserve the existing habitat and build around it as much as possible. But this particular developer – which specialises in small luxury boutique residential schemes in south-west London – is not as yet required by law to put back on to the site more ecology than they bought it with.
When that changes, they might find the government’s new guidance leaves them with more questions than answers.
Anna White is a journalist, copywriter and communications consultant. She was head of property at the Telegraph Media Group and has worked for KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young
Designing and adapting places in response to environmental risks including drought, heat-islands, biodiversity and habitat loss and flooding is a focus of The Developer Live: Risk & Resilience conference taking place on 8 November at Illuminate, Science Museum, in London. Register today.