Concerns over Biodiversity Net Gain

Apex Biodiversity Net Gain

As rules requiring provisions on major developments for environmental enhancement come into place (with requirements for minor developments due to come into force in April 2024), industry experts have expressed doubts over how achievable they really are…

Biodiversity Net Gain Concerns

Rules that require major housing developments to deliver at least 10% biodiversity net gain (BNG) came into play on 12 February 2024 – making England the first country in the world to make it a legal requirement.

However, research by national green space management charity the Land Trust, along with the Land Promoters & Developer Federation (LPDF) and the Home Builders Federation (HBF), has revealed that almost half the developers and land promoters surveyed believed that achieving the requirements would be ‘very challenging’.

In fact, only 7% thought that the strictures were actually ‘comfortably achievable’.

This despite the vast majority (95%) supporting the introduction of BNG.

The rules form part of the government’s mission to halt the decline in species abundance while creating more beautiful communities and also delivering new homes. BNG was introduced in the Environment Act 2021.

While BNG will be required for all major development applications from 12 February 2024, the rules for minor developments will come into force for applications made from April 2024 onwards. Therefore, the thresholds for what constitutes major and minor developments will be critical. Currently, a major development is identified as 10 or more dwellings or more than 1000sqm of commercial floorspace, or the site exceeds 1 hectare.

BNG Credits

It will also be vital for developers to be able to demonstrate on-site BNG and, if they can’t, they will have to contribute to off-site provision and purchase BNG credits. More details are included in our previous blog: Biodiversity Gains Traction in Development.

The research also found that respondents were concerned about the availability of on-site land that would allow them to deliver the BNG required (with 83% stating that it was very likely or likely that they would need to go off-site to deliver BNG), while doubts were also raised about costs, and the ability of local planning authorities to administer the scheme. The availability of third-party BNG credits is another issue that raises concern.

Wildlife Trust Concerns over BNG

Four days before the rules came into place, the Wildlife Trusts also raised concerns that they didn’t go far enough, suggesting that developers and local authorities should aim for 20% rather than 10% BNG.

In an outline of measures it believed should be considered, it added that there should be policy and guidance in place to prevent an excess of BNG units being sold, and that BNG should be a matter for local consideration, rather than part of blanket guidance across the country. Meanwhile, the government has issued advice to local authorities that are preparing emerging Local Plans, advising them not to seek more than 10% BNG unless it can be locally justified. This is likely to be a relief for many developers.

Like those surveyed in the research, the Wildlife Trusts also want to ensure that local planning authorities have the necessary skillset and resources to monitor and enforce the scheme.

A survey by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) revealed that planning professionals are reporting low confidence in their ability to handle the new BNG requirements.

Funding worth £10.6m has been earmarked by the government to help local authorities manage the scheme, with money available for recruiting and expanding ecologist teams, creating wildlife-rich habitats next to developments and investing in green jobs.

Meanwhile, an RTPI survey of its members has found that planning professionals continue to report low levels of confidence in their ability to handle BNG requirements that have come into force, with many looking for more guidance, advice and support, more staff and skills, and more case studies of best practice.

It looks like the scheme may experience some teething troubles and possible planning delays in the near future. What is clear however, is that developers/applicants must consider BNG requirements from the outset, designing enhancement into their proposals, and seeking support and guidance from ecologists along the way. Apex Planning Consultants routinely works with ecologists and introduces their services to client projects.

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