Done well, Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) could be good for nature and people. It could back up policy protections for nature at the same time as harnessing a contribution from development to meeting the challenges of nature’s recovery. With nature in crisis, every sector must play its part.
The phrase “done well” is doing some heavy lifting in the opening sentence: if the processes are not robust, then damaging development could be permitted on an empty promise of creating some habitat somewhere else. This would deepen that nature crisis and we will all lose out.
As the final pieces of regulations and guidance are being developed in advance of BNG becoming mandatory for most development in England there are a number of rules that need to be made clear for BNG to be a success.
International experience of biodiversity offsets shows that lack of capacity in and enforcement by local councils is a key reason why offsets fail to deliver. [i]
This mistake must not be repeated in England. While the recent £9 million of funding from Government to support Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to recruit ecologists is welcome, further investment and guidance is needed to enable and empower LPAs to monitor and enforce the delivery of BNG. Expanding the biodiversity gain register to include onsite delivery of BNG is also an important step to support this.
A pilot scheme of biodiversity offsets in England a decade ago enabled irreplaceable habitats to be traded away: opening up the scheme to greenwash. By definition, you cannot achieve a ‘net gain’ where irreplaceable habitats are destroyed by development and BNG must not undermine their key policy protections. The definition of irreplaceable habitats and rules to protect them should be consulted upon to ensure they are robust and enable lessons to be learnt from the past.
BNG is just one piece of the puzzle of the nature recovery jigsaw. The Government’s decision to allow developers to sell excess units caps the size that the BNG puzzle piece can be, and could make it harder for more ambitious councils to demand more from development and for BNG to deliver something additional. By the Government’s own assessment, the 10% BNG requirement is the lowest level to meet no net loss. If gains are to be achieved, BNG must aim higher.
Wildlife and Countryside Link have recently written to Minister Harrison to highlight these concerns that must be addressed ahead of mandatory BNG this autumn.
The remaining pieces of the jigsaw are also essential. BNG will only contribute towards part of the funding required to deliver nature rich sites and Government’s commitments to 30% of land being managed for nature by 2030. [ii]
As all stakeholders get to grips with the BNG system, those components that will ensure that BNG is a success in terms of supporting the protection of irreplaceable habitats and delivers genuine gains for nature cannot be left to chance.
[i] As summarised in table 1: The Society for Conservation Biology (wiley.com).
[ii] A study in Oxfordshire has found that the BNG offset market could finance a maximum of between 10% and 13% of the costs of creating additional habitats to meet the 30x30 target - BNG-report-final-29-June-2023.pdf (ox.ac.uk).
Rebecca Pullinger is Lead Policy Advocate at the Woodland Trust and the Chair of the Link Land Use Planning Group.
Follow the Woodland Trust on Twitter at @WoodlandTrust and Link on Twitter at @WCL_News.
The opinions expressed in this blog are held by the authors and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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