Biodiversity net gain legislation changes: time to get on board
14 Dec 2023
In September, the government confirmed a delay to new regulations requiring developments to create a net improvement to the local environment. Originally set to come into force in November 2023, the new rules mean that developers will have a statutory obligation to improve habitats for wildlife, delivering a biodiversity net gain (BNG) of 10%.
As with many of the changes in green policies coming out of government in recent months, the push back of these new regulations was naturally met by a mixed reaction across the industry – however, with the new rules pushed back to the 12th February 2024, the need for change is still rapidly approaching.
What do the new rules mean?
The new rules will be covered by a statutory metric for calculating BNG, as well as advice for landowners, developers and local planning authorities on their roles and responsibilities. The delay was explained by the government as being to “ensure that developers and planning authorities have access to the necessary tools and information” to implement BNG, which “will ensure new developments work for both wildlife and people.”
For developers, this means working to avoid loss of habitat or substituting habitat on the most developable land. Ideally habitats will be retained, enhanced or re-provided on site within the areas less well-suited to development, but if this cannot be achieved on site, then an off-site solution will be required. Failing this, there will be a ‘last resort’ option to buy statutory credits from the government to allow investment in habitat creation elsewhere in England, for which evidence must justify the route.
Another clue lives in the term ‘biodiversity’ and reflects the attitude that should be taken for every built environment scheme – rooted in quality. BNG does not automatically mean habitats need to gain physical size. That is to say, it’s just not about ‘adding grass and plants’, it’s about enhancing habitat and making sure what is there is as high-quality as possible to encourage that all-important biodiversity.
What will the challenges be?
The obvious challenge will be site limitations – how do we find a ten per cent gain on a site if there’s not much space? Equally, certain types of sites will be limited in what can be done due to contamination risks, such as petrol stations for example. There will be the option to create and enhance habitat elsewhere, but developers need to be aware that the further this is away from the original site, the lower its score will be worth.
Once the changes have come into force, design and management plans will need to become more ecology heavy when it comes to planning. These plans – whether referring to habitats on or off-site – will be critical to demonstrating their retention into the future. Councils and planning committees will be looking for evidence on everything from funding to physical maintenance responsibilities.
The Environment Act 2021 details that habitat enhancement must be maintained for at least 30 years after the development is completed. In some specific circumstances – such as mitigation provided for sites or species protected under the Habitats Regulations – the requirement may be for management and maintenance ‘in perpetuity’, with the planning authority responsible for determining the appropriate and reasonable timescale to be covered within planning submissions.
The final challenge will be public perception. From an aesthetic point of view, people are now very used to seeing curated, manicured landscapes and a jump to anything less will have a jarring effect on expectations. However, we are starting to see a step change in contemporary landscape projects towards creating visually and seasonally pleasing design.
For parks and rain gardens, this comprises increasing the use of native species mixed with conventional planting to create plant communities, which support insects and pollination. If spaces are left to grow for longer to aid biodiversity and other places left to ‘re-wild’ with minimal cutbacks other than for safety reasons, many of the public won’t understand this is intentional and the best thing to do for nature.
What are the opportunities?
This transition marks a shift from viewing biodiversity measures as mere luxuries to recognising them as essential components of projects, which allow for the meticulous planning, designing, and management of spaces that align both with aesthetic values and ecological imperatives. This legal framework transforms the landscape architecture field, positioning biodiversity not as an optional add-on, but as a fundamental, integral element in shaping sustainable, resilient, and vibrant ecosystems within our built environments.
Herein lies a big opportunity to educate the wider public on biodiversity matters. For example, grass may be mown less frequently to allow other plants and flowers to grow more as well. Weeds don’t need to be seen as bad, and there are plenty of small spaces that can be maximised to create microclimates that have a huge impact. The benefits of these plants and how people can contribute with wild corners in their own gardens must be more widely understood – and would benefit from more investment into public education programmes.
In larger spaces like parks, there is the opportunity to be very deliberate with this approach. People utilise parks for all sorts of means, and have huge benefits for communities and wellbeing, and as such they still need to be usable in their current form and not left to completely re-wild. However, by leaving pockets to grow and ‘do their own thing’, the juxtaposition of manicured and wild areas showcases deliberate choice. Even by adding simple interpretative signage, and providing those learning touchpoint opportunities, a huge difference could be made for biodiversity and public understanding simultaneously.
Looking at the bigger picture, certain types of clients have huge opportunities across their estates and regions that can be unlocked for the benefit of communities and nature. Local authorities in particular own all sorts of land across their region – not only can they enhance the habitats around their built assets, but they will also own open land that can be further enhanced too.
For example, there will be land under council and local authority ownership that may not be suitable for particular uses, such as areas prone to flooding. These spaces are a perfect example of making best use of what is there – whether developing it for built assets or not. When looking around any town, county or district, there will be vast spaces of land that need to stay green – providing ample opportunities to enhance habitat and allowing us to get creative with native species to help biodiversity recovery.
Elsewhere, education establishments have lots of opportunities too, typically owning larger plots of land, which often have outdoor spaces for physical education. By introducing meadows, wildflower areas and more, not only can schools and multi-academy trusts provide practical, hands-on learning environments for pupils and community groups, they work on their biodiversity too.
The changes to BNG may be a shock to the system for many, despite knowing they are coming. The way in which sites are often developed today does not marry up cohesively with the new approach required, meaning there will be a transition period and the logistics of how rules will be applied are yet to be proven in full.
The first few years will prove interesting, and for some may prove a hard transition. Many organisations will see plans rejected without the suitable BNG requirements and plans in place. Indeed, many may have a default position to buy the aforementioned government credits, which is why specialists like our own have a crucial education role to play to make sure this option remains the last resort it is designed to be.
We foresee that many clients will examine offsite solutions – and as already mentioned, in some cases this will be the only option. However, meeting the 10% BNG is something that all clients need to do moving forwards. The train is almost at the station, so it’s best to get on board.
At Pick Everard, we are continuing to enhance our service offering and bring in the require disciplines as new guidance and legislation comes into force for the industry. We work tirelessly to make sure we continue to be the trusted delivery partner with everything a client needs consultancy wise in one place.
As with all of our services, we already work closely with clients and wider project partners to stay ahead of changing legislation. This includes the delivery of projects with BNG constraints, making sure we’re achieving that 10% net gain across different sectors, including with clients such as the Ministry of Justice. Together, we make sure that such considerations are taken into account as early on in projects as possible, making sure that we not only deliver on briefs, but exceed our clients’ expectations every time.
Contact our experts to find out more
Nicola Hamill - Director - Landscape Architecture
Emelye Kenyon - Director - Head of Environmental Services