Back in November 2022 we held a couple of workshops for some volunteers from our BNG network. They were quite small events that Defra had asked us to arrange to road-test some guidance they are making to support the new “strengthened” version of a duty to report on the actions local authorities are taking to conserve and enhance biodiversity. You can see the deck we used on the main site. I recommend the timetable on slide 10 to get some sense of the changes required, and the survey results towards the end of it if you want to spoil the surprise of this post.
Some of what I go on to write will inevitably get a bit whingey, so let me start by being very clear that I think this sort of informal testing and engagement is truly EXCELLENT. Well done Defra. Working with the people who do the work can make policy and guidance more robust and pragmatic. We have established networks of clever and experienced people (BNG, NSIP and CIL are three we have set up in the last year) and they are very generous with their brains and thoughts. More, please. We don’t bite.
The “weak” duty
To recap slightly, there has been a duty for public bodies to consider biodiversity for many years, but it wasn’t particularly effective. The House of Lords select committee in 2017 does a great job at setting out the problem, and leads to the conclusion that the duty (in something we call the NERC Act) was weak because it lacked a reporting mechanism.
This missing reporting mechanism was therefore addressed in section 103 of the epic Environment Act 2021. This requires Local Authorities to regularly publish what they have been up to, and extends the duty to include how biodiversity net gain is working.
So, problem fixed? We roadtested the guidance contents and template in the workshops to see what our network thought. Whilst we were focused on seeing if the guidance was helpful, inevitably we spent some time talking about how the whole duty might work out in the real world. I thought the headlines worth sharing more widely. This is quite new to me, so any errors and misunderstandings are mine to own.
Resources and Capacity
Let’s get this one out of the way. It wouldn’t be a local government event if we didn’t talk about the difficulty of introducing change, especially change that
- relies on a very rare resource (ecologists in this case) that local government has to compete with consultancies to employ
- seems to be unfunded [edit: there is a big pot of money to prepare for BNG, so perhaps some of it is also for reporting, enforcement and the rest of it?]
- is landing in stressed organisations where there are already lots of other things on the corporate radars
The Act says (confusingly) that the Act applies to Local Authorities and Local Planning Authorities. But Local Government can be a complicated animal. In places where there is an obvious lead unitary authority (probably also a responsible body for LNRS) the exercise should be straightforward. But big chunks of the country have several tiers of local government. Are County councils supposed to collate this on behalf of districts? Should all the districts do their own reporting to ensure local buy-in and political oversight? What about MCAs?
These sound like nit-picky points but they mean you can’t be sure that the duty to report is being applied everywhere. Imagine a map that gets coloured in when a report is published. There might be gaps in the map. Or the map might be coloured in twice. Or 3 or 4 times if there is an AONB or protected site strategy also reporting on biodiversity. It’s not just a compliance problem – things (interventions, results) might be double-counted, or triple counted. Messy.
Where to put the reports?
Where should the reports live? I know from bitter experience that trying to find reports on council web pages is grim. Our audience wanted some way of finding them, partly at this early stage so they could follow the noble Planner’s tradition of copying each others work. Publishing them all together in one place was one idea.
You can see from north of the border that it is not easy to run this kind of library, and any suggestion that we in PAS were to have some kind of role here is one tried to ignore.
I don’t know how much of a problem this will be for members of the public and other stakeholders. I’d imagine if you are a local you might not worry too much about the minute or two it might take you to find the report on your own council’s website – but if you want to compare and contrast or keep an eye on all the councils trying to improve some particular class of habitat it could get boring really fast.
We also had a useful segue into how BNG registers might work, and how it will be a challenge to knit together the various data stores for onsite, offsite and national projects. This difficulty is going to be compounded if registers are kept by lots of different organisations some of whom might not last forever or have a great deal of interest beyond their own boundary.
It may be that the LNRS process might be the driver for some collaboration more generally, and that the duty data will be integrated with other organisational reports. But it would be nice to give some pushes in the right direction.
What to report?
The idea of a template was warmly welcomed. Common structures and approaches make for easier reporting and improve read-across and compatibility.
However the idea that there wouldn’t be any numbers (even voluntary numbers) baffled people. Many of the national targets (subsequently published in the EIP) can only be understood in numerical terms, so why not take the opportunity to hoover them up from local authorities? In fact there was a genuine gap between the LPAs, who wanted this to be based on facts and evidence expressed as numbers, and Defra who didn’t see that as important.
There is an unhelpful difference between the thinking behind this NERC reporting duty with where we are heading in the “digital planning” arena. The NERC duty is still in the “lets put a narratives in a pdf”, and the wider world of planning is thinking about machine-readable data in discoverable containers.
This for me was the question we didn’t spend enough time on. In short I think there are probably two views:
- Local Authorities have to report because they have to comply with the duty. This is a compliance thing.
- Making big organisations think about their potential to positively and negatively influence the environment and then doing something about it is big & difficult and we can learn from each other what works. This is a learning thing.
Unfortunately I think the first view tends to crowd out the second. I don’t do “cross” in public so I’ll say no more.
It might be “stronger” but is it going to be a “better” duty?
Clearly only time will tell but my audience thought that it would not. Against which, I suppose, it is worth remembering the very low base we start from. This new model might not be perfect, but it represents a step on the way. Better perhaps to begin rather than waiting for perfection.
Merely having anything to report – perhaps even something that requires clearance from cabinet might improve political visibility and traction. It might work well for those councils who have declared a biodiversity emergency to have a vehicle to explain what they are doing about it. It might also be a good way of playing to the council strength of convening partnerships and encouraging organisations to do the right thing by showcasing action in a public document.
It is also true that mandatory “must dos” can be quite helpful for officers in cash-strapped organisations where anything that isn’t statutory is unlikely to survive member scrutiny.
Lastly there was definitely a sense that while we might whinge about some of the implementation details, there was an enormous appetite to genuinely improve how councils work to improve nature. Better understanding, and better reporting, and avoiding greenwash are all things our audience was very keen to do. The reporting duty appears to be in force since January, and we’re still waiting for guidance and forms. Perhaps there’s hope that it will have picked up some of these helpful points from our group.