A new plan for our planet: What does the Environment Bill mean for developers, landowners and local authorities?
When enacted later this year, the Environment Bill will require all development to deliver a minimum uplift of 10% in the amount of biodiversity as a result of the developers activity - called Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG).
The initiative, that I introduced to the UK as a concept when I set up the Environment Bank in 2007, will be a major game-changer in the way biodiversity is considered within the development sector. Biodiversity loss poses a massive existential threat to us - we cannot afford not to restore biodiversity at scale globally; BNG will play a significant part in restoring nature and building back resilience in the habitats and species with which we share the planet.
But what does it mean in practice for developers, planning authorities and landowners? Planning authorities, especially, will have a legal duty to ensure developments deliver BNG. Landowners see a new and significant income stream as they put land into biodiversity offsets. Developers can use the initiative to give greater clarity and certainty to their developments. Let's look in more detail.
What does this mean for local planning authorities?
Under the new legislation, local planning authorities will be responsible for delivering BNG for all Town & Country Planning Act developments, though the principal also applies to all national infrastructure projects too. They, therefore, must have a mechanism in place to deliver it, and evidence that BNG can be secured for at least 30 years, either within the development site boundary (which will constrain the net developable area achievable) or more helpfully, on large-scale offset sites set up for wildlife conservation, which will provide better biodiversity.
How do planning authorities, therefore, provide a transparent, independent and effective means of facilitating biodiversity net gain? The answer lies in habitat banking.
The Environment Bank works closely with planning authorities, developers and landowners to enable them to meet, or indeed exceed, their BNG targets. We’ve developed the concept of habitat banking – also highlighted in the Environment Bill – as the most effective way of delivering biodiversity net gain.
Habitat banks are large-scale areas of land that can be joined to existing reserves or used to link different habitats and sites together. The conservation credits generated from habitat banks can service multiple developments in an area. The developer is told the cost of the credits early on so that these can be factored into their development plan financials and may ultimately be accommodated through modified residual land values.
We measure and validate the biodiversity units impacted by development, apply a minimum 10% gain uplift, evaluate the effectiveness of having some of the total requirement placed within the development site boundary and then sell conservation credits to the developer for the residual units impacted. We provide all the upfront funding to create our habitat banks and guarantee 300 years of management finance. There is no cost to the planning authorities – we do all the heavy lifting.
What does this mean for developers?
To secure planning permission for any development, developers will need to create a biodiversity gain to be submitted with their planning application. This plan will have to evidence, through the purchase of conservation credits and on-site provision, how biodiversity net gain is delivered. Where a developer can ‘fit’ some of the BNG requirement within the development site boundary, that BNG has to be registered with Government, and the means by which its management is guaranteed for 30 years will also have to be set out – probably using an Escrow account. That guarantees the BNG will survive once the developer has left the site. Where BNG is delivered offsite, bona-fide credits are purchased prior to development starting, and Enviornment Bank assumes the liability for the 30 year delivery.
Whilst developers may be thinking about placing areas for BNG on-site, this is rarely an efficient use of land or a good deal for bodiversity because of the disturbance that takes place upon occupancy and the fact that resident committees like tidiness – biodiversity is rarely tidy!. Clearly developers will deploy great landscaping and planting in order to sell those houses, but that isn’t great biodiversity. Large commercial developments such as logsitics distribution sites, ports etc., have no capacity to deliver BNG on-site and so off-site provision is needed for them to be compliant with the law.
Developers will also have to undertake and fund 30 years of monitoring otherwise the industry will be under-reporting the gains and creating business risk. There will be a legally binding contract for on-site delivery that guarantees the 30 years of funding of both habitat management (to maintain it in a condition which enabled planning to be permitted) and monitoring and reporting. The developer retains the liability for all on-site BNG whereas they discharge that liability for BNG provided off-site, as long as they don’t do the off-site provision themselves.
What does this mean for landowners?
Under the Enviornment Bank model, BNG delivered through habitat banks, provides landowners with a realistic and commercial income stream ie. long-term funding and their land status is not affected. Buying land on which to deliver BNG is not usually an option – land rarely comes on the market and if it does it is usually in the wrong place. We partner with landowners to create new wildlife habitat at scale and pay them annually for managing it.
We create habitat banks on many land types, usually 20ha+ in size where sufficient biodiversity uplift can be delivered with the appropriate conservation management interventions. The best uplift occurs where we convert arable farmland into woodlands, wood meadows, species-rich grasslands, wetlands or rewilded sites. We produce the Biodiversity Management Plan for the landowner, working with them to set the objectives for the land. We pay the cost of conversion upfront and then its management to achieve and maintain target condition.
Raising the bar
Our overarching objective is to make nature economically visible because only then will it receive the investment it deserves. The Environment Bill, when enacted, will ensure development does the right thing for biodiversity, it will provide the regulation necessary to ensure planning authorities consider biodiversity properly, and it will provide the essential funding to enable our ambitions for nature recovery in this country to be realised. We are on the brink of creating a new future for our environment, a new plan for our planet and the Act and BNG is a catalyst for change that can’t come soon enough.Professor David Hill CBE