Developers must meet biodiversity net-gain requirements from this November, Defra confirms
The UK Government has confirmed that developers will need to achieve 10% biodiversity net-gain at all large domestic, commercial and mixed-use sites from this November. It has, however, delayed the implementation of this mandate for smaller sites.
Ensuring biodiversity net-gain at all developments was a key facet of the Environment Bill, which received Royal Assent in late 2021 after a frought passage through Parliament and the Lords which took more than two years. The Bill stipulated
The implementation of this mandate was delayed amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Some developers set their own biodiversity net-gain targets out for some or all developments, but others have been waiting for the mandate.
This week, the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has confirmed that the mandate will come into effect for all large domestic, industrial, commercial and mixed-use sites from November 2023. It applies in England only.
The mandate will not come into effect for smaller sites until 2024, with Defra having heard evidence that local authorities and very small developers, in particular, are not yet prepared for the mandate due to the fallout of the pandemic. This is a move that has disappointed some environmental groups.
Regardless of site size, developers will need to deliver – and prove they have delivered – a minimum uplift of 10% in the amount of biodiversity at the site, relative to its biodiversity prior to their intervention.
To secure planning permission for any development, developers will need to create a biodiversity gain plan to be submitted with their planning application. They have to guarantee management of the biodiversity at the site for a minimum of 30 years. Where habitat is impacted within the project boundary, developers will need to replace it with habitat of equal or better biodiversity, and of equal or greater size.
The Government will permit, in some cases, the delivery of net-gain through improvements off of the site. Developers will need to purchase credits before commencing work at the site and, in this case, the Environment Bank assumes liability for biodiversity management for the 30-year period. The credit scheme is still in development and Defra has stated that this approach should be used “as a last resort”. Funding raised through credits will be invested in habitat creation schemes spearheaded by the Government.
In addition to confirming the timelines for implementation and rules on onsite and offsite work, Defra announced £16m of funding to help expand and upskill planning teams at local authorities. Councils will be invited to apply for a share of the funding in the coming weeks.
Last month, the UK’s post-Brexit environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), warned that the nation is on course to miss every key nature and environmental policy target. It cited particular concerns about species abundance.
Defra subsequently published an updated Environmental Improvement Plan, setting out key short-term and mid-term targets on issues including biodiversity, water quality and soil quality. There is debate about how much of the Plan is new (both in terms of funding and targets), but Defra maintains that it is “pioneering”.
Green economy response
Responding to Defra’s decisions, the UK Green Building Council’s director of communications, policy and places Simon McWhirtier said they are “broadly encouraging” and in line with the sector’s advice.
“Decisions to include brownfield sites, to legislate to further protect irreplaceable natural habitats, and to prevent duplicating the recording of biodiversity net-gain and carbon offsets will be welcomed by our members,” he elaborated.
“However, by extending the transition period for small sites until April 2024, the Government risks removing up to 100,000 developments a year from the scope of biodiversity regulations – impeding nature’s recovery instead of supporting the industry with the clear, stable demand called for by Chris Skidmore MP to secure green growth.
“The Government has also missed the opportunity to outline how biodiversity net gain could develop into the broader concept of ‘environmental net gain’ that would integrate and deliver the wider social benefits of nature-positive built environments.”
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has stated that the biodiversity net-gain requirement will complement the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. The Bill is currently in the Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
Related article: Can Defra end its ‘culture of delay’ in 2023?