BNG 2024: Is it a positive force for nature recovery?

Article by Robert Hindle, Executive Director of Rural Solutions – As planners, ecologists, developers and communities start to get their heads around the implementation of Biodiversity Net Gain within the planning system, Executive Director of Rural Solutions Rob Hindle considers the impacts.

It’s fair to say that not all involved in nature conservation see Biodiversity Net Gain as a positive force for nature recovery.

Concerns have often been expressed that the very principle of ‘compensatory’ gain is a problem, and that developers should be required to choose sites and design schemes to avoid, or at worst case to minimise biodiversity loss.

The ability for developers to ‘offset’ harm, some claim, makes it more likely that the interests of the scheme, and perhaps the developer, will be put before the interests of wildlife, and the local communities that have previously enjoyed the benefit of that wildlife.

First avoid harm
Whilst concern of this nature is understandable, the planning system already embraces a sequential requirement on developers to first avoid harm, and then to minimise and mitigate before it is acceptable to compensate. This principle remains and is enshrined in both the regulations and all published guidance.

Concerns have also been expressed about the irreplaceable nature of some habitats, and the folly of allowing developers to work on the basis of compensating for loss of something that simply cannot be replaced, or where even exceptional efforts at replacement will be unlikely to deliver something as precious as has been given up.

Planning policy and national guidance applies a significant level of protection to irreplaceable habitats. Arrangements relating to BNG do not erode these protections. This issue is directly addressed within regulations, within the methodology of calculating loss and compensatory gain, and in published guidance. The regulations identify ancient trees and woodland, salt marshes, blanket bog, lowland fens, limestone pavements, and coastal sand dunes as irreplaceable habitats. They state that these habitats are not subject to a 10% gain and require developers to find other ways to mitigate any impacts.

Local authority delivery
Of greater practical concern is the way that local authorities will respond to their obligations arising from the introduction of BNG within the planning system, and whether they can do so in a way that brings a strategic approach to delivering nature recovery.

There can be no doubt that these obligations are extensive, onerous and in many areas are new and additional.

Local planning authorities must update their planning policy to meet new national requirements, most likely via Supplementary Planning Guidance as an interim pending the next formal review of their Local Development Plan.

They must incorporate BNG into their development management processes, considering BNG as part of every planning application. They will need to produce guidance to applicants, address BNG in pre-application discussions, receive, consider, accept and authorise detailed technical information, draft, negotiate, agree and implement specific legal agreements, set up 30-year monitoring programmes, receive review and check monitoring reports, and if necessary enforce against underperformance or breach.

These are significant obligations, replicated over many thousands of planning applications each year. They must be delivered with very little increase in funding or resources. Simply processing these requirements will be a challenge for many hard pressed planning authorities.

Concerns have already been expressed about the ability of Planning Authorities to meet these new obligations. In their report published 17th May the National Audit Office stated: “Defra has launched a novel and complex biodiversity scheme without having all elements in place to ensure its long-term success”.

This echoes what the Royal Town Planning Institute has repeatedly said: that planning services have not been given sufficient guidance, advice, and support, and lack the staff and skills to avoid delays to an already stretched planning system.

Bigger, better and joined up
Many nature promoting professionals feel, with some justification, that an approach limited to compliance and process is unlikely to deliver much in the way of tangible biodiversity gain. In many ways the description of Biodiversity Net Gain is somewhat confusing, as the initiative is actually based on habitat rather than biodiversity per se. It is habitat loss that must be measured, assessed and replaced rather than the biodiversity that it hosts. This means that the act of habitat creation (and a commitment to maintenance and appropriate management) is sufficient to meet regulatory requirements, regardless of the success or otherwise of the new habitat in attracting and hosting biological life.

A process led approach will, many argue, create a series of small, isolated patches of habitat that, even if well maintained, are likely to have little actual nature value.

The potential for privately financed habitat creation and management via BNG to drive nature recovery at scale is however significant and, in my view at least, should be the objective of all involved in the planning process.

Using BNG to deliver more bigger, better and joined up spaces for nature as advocated by Professor Sir John Lawton’s seminal Making Space for Nature report is eminently possible and hugely attractive. It will however require far more than simple compliance with a regulatory process, however effective this is may be in enabling appropriate development.

Leadership and strategic commitment
Delivery of more, bigger, better joined-up spaces for nature requires a pro-active approach which seeks to understand where and how BNG should be directed within local authority areas to best drive nature recovery. An approach likely to require the use of off-site BNG delivery via ecologically valuable habitat banks, sited in the right place, offering the right habitat connectivity.

Examples of this approach are emerging, such as that promoted by the South Downs National Park Authority via its ReNature Credits scheme, and advocated by other local authorities taking a lead in this space such as Somerset and Buckinghamshire.

Whilst likely to be hugely worthwhile, setting up such an approach is complicated, time consuming and costly. It will require input and involvement of organisations and partnerships beyond the local planning authority, including nascent Local Nature Recovery Partnerships, environmental specialists, ecologists and landowners. It will require leadership and strategic commitment from local planning authorities to go beyond simply what is required, to deliver what is needed.

Added to this, such an approach requires willing landowners and managers to bring forward land for habitat banks, to invest in habitat creation and management, and to enter into legal agreements and obligations with regulatory bodies, often in a advance of any certainty of revenue. Currently there are no shortage of interested parties, but far fewer examples of successful enaction. There remain very few places where all the actors needed to get habitat banks operating are far enough down the path of preparation and readiness to get things moving. Even where all parties are organised, differences remain around the apportionment of costs, risk and revenue.

An evolving process
It will be fascinating to see how BNG evolves over the remainder of this year and into the next as planning applications received after the implementation dates of February and April begin to roll through the development management system.

At Rural Solutions we are working on BNG as a matter of course with our planning clients, engaging with many landowners and managers interesting or already engaged in habitat banking, and do what we can to help all actors in the process, including local planning authorities, get ‘BNG ready’. We will look to share learning from our various experiences in due course.

Robert Hindle is Executive Director of Rural Solutions

Rural Solutions are a team of dedicated consultants, designers, and planners, working to enable sustainable stewardship across rural Britain.


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