EVERYTHING you ever wanted to ask about Biodiversity Net Gain
What is Biodiversity Net Gain?
Since the Environment Act gained royal assent in November 2021 and passed into UK law, biodiversity net gain – along with other core policies – has been a consideration that all current and future developers will be required to adhere to.
The principle of biodiversity net gain (BNG) is to deliver a habitat quality and quantity enhancement on or off-site following the completion of development projects. It is possible to measure the current and projected state of biodiversity present on a development site using the DEFRA biodiversity metric, and the national policy sets to mandate net gains for biodiversity across all future developments in England, including major nationally significant infrastructure projects and private planning projects on smaller development sites.
By following the biodiversity net gain requirements, the architect, developer, planner or project manager can make certain alterations to the development proposal to ensure that the outcome of the project causes a net gain in biodiversity. As a result, local planning authorities will possess all they need to pass a planning application on the site.
Where did BNG come from?
Previously, biodiversity was protected by legacy laws transposed into the UK from the European Union, including the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, the Wildlife Countryside Act 1981 as amended, and the Natural Environment and Rural communities Act 2006. Moreover, the concept of using a planning policy requirement to secure enhancement to the natural environment has been around since the inception of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 (since revised in 2018 and 2019), in section 175(d), as follows:
“opportunities to incorporate biodiversity improvements in and around developments should be encouraged, especially where this can secure measurable net gains for biodiversity.”
Source: NPPF (2019)
However, in an effort to enhance the natural world to a measurably better state – and as a side effect of the UK losing protection from the European Union following Brexit – mandatory biodiversity net gain is a government response that will ensure new developments only go ahead if any unnecessary disturbance or destruction of habitats and biodiversity loss are strictly prevented. Under this framework, not only will any impacted natural assets on the site be reversed back to their original condition, but mandated biodiversity net gain will ensure that they are improved upon to a superior standard.
Rather than damaging the environment, habitats, air quality and overall biodiversity value, the Environment Act will maintain the suggested structure that the government announced in the new Environment Bill, following the prior unveiling of the Environment Bill in the 2019 Spring statement. In essence, the core aims are to carry out land management and environmental management in a sensible and sustainable manner, retaining irreplaceable habitat sites and sections of ancient woodland, enhancing habitats, combatting the effects of climate change and ensuring that local authorities, the UK government, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, the British Standards Institute (BSI) and other organisations are suitably happy that the local planning process is being followed accordingly.
How does biodiversity net gain actually work in practice?
Mandatory BNG will be delivered through the planning system of the corresponding local planning authority committing the developer to biodiversity enhancements that sufficiently equate to a net gain of 10% or more. Although the government have confirmed that biodiversity net gain is undergoing a two-year transition period, meaning that it may not in fact apply until it is universally enforced in 2023, many local planning authorities are already following BNG guidelines in preparation for nationwide acceptance. As such, it would be advisable that anyone planning a land development project follows the rules of biodiversity net gain and intends to deliver BNG, even if it is likely to complete prior to 2023.
Based on the strict 10% net gain increase, the next question might be, well, 10% of what? That’s where the DEFRA metric (versions discussed below) come in.
As an integral part of your planning permission application, you will ordinarily need to provide strong support of evidence to achieve acceptance in the form of baseline ecological survey data, perhaps a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA), for example. However, the Environment Act (formerly the Environment Bill prior to royal assent) requires that this biodiversity net gain survey includes a British standard assessment using the appropriate DEFRA metric to quantify the level of biodiversity on your site in what are referred to as biodiversity units or statutory biodiversity credits.
Say, for example, your existing site has been assessed as having ten BNG units. Achieving 10% net gain means that your completed scheme will have to deliver 11 units. Usually, you will need to instruct an ecologist on the back of your planning permission to produce a net gain plan in order to secure the extra biodiversity units, and either discharge your conditions of planning consent or achieve release from a section 106 agreement.
What is a Biodiversity Net Gain Plan?
Biodiversity net gain plans are simple, plan-led management and enhancement documents that demonstrate to the local authority exactly what units will be created and over what timescale. During a biodiversity net gain assessment, an ecologist will begin writing reports specifically produced using the mitigation hierarchy to determine suitable next steps that will appease the local council, prompt measurable improvements to improve biodiversity, and enable your project to continue as planned.
As shown in the image above, the first step with any identified potential damages to biodiversity is to minimise impact. If this isn’t possible, the second step would be to mitigate the impacts and prevent them from being as damaging. In circumstances where this also isn’t possible, the ecologist will suggest avoiding the impacts entirely. At this point, if it isn’t possible to minimise, mitigate or avoid the impacts on-site, the ecologist will be left with no choice but to make off-site enhancements – such as developing a plan for habitat creation away from the site – to meet the mandatory BNG criteria.
Following the biodiversity net gain survey, the ecologist will develop an effective plan with pragmatic solutions to ensure that the rules of biodiversity net gain are followed and biodiversity gain is achieved, the 10% increase to improve biodiversity is met, and the local council have enough evidence to accept unequivocally that your development project resides comfortably within the guidelines of the policy.
What if delivering biodiversity net gain makes the economics of my site unworkable?
Revert back to the example above: your site was assessed by an ecologist pre-development and they calculate biodiversity net gain on the site as being set at ten units, as determined by the relevant biodiversity metrics. The proposed scheme will therefore need to deliver a post-development score of 11 to reach a suitable better state of biodiversity value.
Perhaps you don’t have the gross development value (GDV) in your site to redesign the scheme or reduce the number of units to meet the net gain requirement in the form of biodiversity metric 3.1. So now, assume for the sake of example that your final scheme can only accommodate just four biodiversity units. Net four units off eleven and you have a deficit of seven.
What now? Well, you needn’t panic.
Although technically a last resort (because the mitigation hierarchy argues for avoidance first, then mitigation, then on-site enhancement), you can buy biodiversity net gain credits off-site as a form of compensation – the highest tier of the hierarchy.
What are BNG Off-Site Credits?
What typically happens is this: say a landowner wants to generate a new income stream on poorly performing land. At the same time, a developer has been given planning permissions for a scheme that cannot deliver the mandatory 10% net gain within the subject site, and thus, requires off-site land to enhance as a mechanism of compensating for the inability to deliver net gain on-site. This overlap of interests produces an opportunity for both parties, to the net benefit of UK biodiversity.
There are several steps in the process, so follow along closely and we’ll explain everything you need to know…
Developers: 6 Steps to Buying Off-Site Biodiversity Credits
Step 1 – The Ecological Assessment
In the first instance, a landowner that wants to produce an alternative source of income needs to get their land appraised by an ecologist using the DEFRA metric 3.1 to demonstrate what biodiversity units are presently extant. Then, a net gain plan needs to be drawn up to, again, demonstrate how many units are available. The difference between the two is the number of units that are available to sell.
Step 2 – The Legal Agreement
Next, a mandatory conservation covenant of at least 30 years is written into a legal agreement that codifies the net gain plan via provisions in section 39 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This agreement covenants to the landowner and his successors in title to ensure the success of the creation of new biodiversity units and contains a recovery provision if the plan is not adhered to. The ecological assessment and net gain management plan are usually appended to the agreement.
Step 3 – Regulation
At this stage, the landowner now has a plan and legal agreement to deliver biodiversity net gain. The next move is to approach the regulator: the local authority. For example, in Warwickshire, it’s Warwickshire County Council. If the local authority is satisfied that the net gain is achievable and appropriate, it will then recognise those biodiversity units officially (certification).
Step 4 – Credits
The word units and credits are essentially interchangeable at this stage. Once recognised by the land authority, the landowner can enter the open market to sell the newly created biodiversity units (credits). Ecologists – as well as land agents and specialist brokers – act as market makers for credits, connecting landowners and developers. The price for credits is determined by the open marketplace’s natural ebbs and flows that come with fluctuations in supply and demand.
Step 5 – Planning Consent
On sites that don’t qualify for exemption, many developers may find attached to their planning consent are either conditions or a section 106 agreement. This strategy is designed to commit the developer to biodiversity net gain with the threat of enforcement or legal action for non-compliance with the obligations of the planning decisions of the local authority. By buying credits certified by the planning authority from landowners, the developer is immediately released from the section 106 agreement or conditions of planning consent.
Step 6 – Post-Credit Purchase Obligations
After the transaction – as well as the payment of corresponding legal costs (normally paid by the landowner) – the developer has no further obligations to mandatory BNG. The landowner must, however, ensure that the net gain plan is followed exactly as covenanted, using the income from the credit sale. As the legal agreement contains recovery provisions, if the biodiversity net gain is not 10% at the expiration of the long-term covenant (maintained for at least 30-years), the landowner can reasonably expect the local authority to take action.
Speak to Biodiversity Net Gain Experts
Following an extensive background in providing expert advice to achieve biodiversity net gain, encourage developers in the planning process and eliminate negative impacts, our team of specialist ecologists are correctly suited to meeting the required increase to appease the biodiversity gain requirement on development sites for at least 30 years.
Whether you suspect likely biodiversity losses through the irreplaceable habitat of a protected species featuring on your site, or you simple want an expert to implement a biodiversity net gain plan at report stage to enhance biodiversity, satisfy the local planning authority and achieve a planning condition, we are here to help.
Reach out to our team by visiting our Contact page or call us using the number at the top of this page, and our friendly team will be on hand to support you in your mandatory biodiversity net gain needs and reach the enforced planning policies of corresponding local planning authorities.
Additionally, for more detail on the Environment Act, the original Environment Bill, existing legal implications and legislation, and the involvement of key stakeholders, local decision makers, local authorities, the general public, land owners and public bodies such as DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and Natural England / Natural Resources Wales, we answer more questions on implementing BNG on our biodiversity net gain Q&A page. Here, you will also find further details on biodiversity net gain assessments, calculating biodiversity net gain, delivering net gain, conservation covenants and the current biodiversity metric.