I thought I’d write a blog to celebrate the 18th anniversary of when I started working in planning for the natural environment with English Nature in Kent. Looking back on my career, I feel we’re in a more positive place than we have ever been in terms of environmental planning, but we are also much more aware of the huge challenges we face – Monday’s IPCC report and its ‘code red for humanity’ bringing these into sharp focus. My feeling is we’ll only deal with these challenges if we take action now and learn as we go, not expecting any solution to be perfect, but taking small steps to move us forward all the time.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running workshops for local authority officers and Councillors to inform our PAS project helping LPAs get ready for mandatory biodiversity net gain. These have generated a huge amount of useful information and input both for our project, but also to pass on to Defra and Natural England as they develop details of how the scheme will work.
There is a lot of positivity out there about this new initiative, but also significant concern about how it’s going to work. How can overwhelmed planning departments with no ecological expertise make decisions on whether an application is compliant? How do we avoid developers gaming the system? How do we make sure this actually delivers gains? Won’t biodiversity net gain make schemes unviable?
In the meantime, there have been some articles in the press criticising biodiversity net gain, seeing it as a spreadsheet exercise or numbers game and implying that it will lead to more habitat loss and environmental destruction, plus that it is incompatible with ‘re-wilding’.
At the moment, we don’t have all the details of how mandatory biodiversity net gain will work, as the Environment Bill provisions will be accompanied by secondary legislation and guidance. However, we do know that a number of key safeguards mean it should be a significant improvement on what happens now. An important point is that biodiversity net gain does not replace any of the existing protections for sites, habitats and species in place now, nor does it replace the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ of avoid impacts first, then mitigate them and only compensate as a last resort. We also know that net gain provisions will not apply to certain irreplaceable habitats (as yet to be confirmed, but undoubtedly to include ancient woodland) and that councils will receive ‘new burdens’ funding to implement the new requirements.
Undeniably there are issues with biodiversity net gain and it won’t (and doesn’t yet) work perfectly, but we need to compare it to the currently very imperfect system where the majority of unprotected habitats (outside designated sites, like SSSIs) are lost through development and not replaced in any way, even to achieve no net loss.
The Biodiversity Metric provides a way of calculating habitat losses and gains to enable us to try and achieve a net gain. Yes, it’s not perfect and it does simplify things, but the new Biodiversity Metric 3.0 is a huge improvement on the previous 2.0 version (despite recent media reports, which almost exclusively related to issues with the old v.2.0).
We need a system that is workable and given the complexities of nature and ecosystems, that will always have to simplify and cannot possibly take everything into account. Also, the metric is not the be-all-and-end-all, the system around it really matters. We need strategic planning for nature and the right resources and expertise to make good policy and decisions (on biodiversity net gain, but also existing nature-related planning provisions). This Natural England blog and Tony Juniper’s introduction to the metric on YouTube (about 4 mins in) explain this eloquently.
Thinking back to 2003 when even trying to protect an internationally designated site for nature was a battle, I no longer feel like I’m waving from the sidelines. Biodiversity net gain, along with a number of other tools and initiatives, offer us a huge opportunity to address the crises we face and create better places for people and nature.
Yes, we need to be aware of the issues with new approaches and try to resolve them, but we also need to start giving this a go and try it out – in the end biodiversity net gain is going to be mandatory in a couple of years’ time and we’ll have no choice but to get on and do it. That way, we’ll also be able to test and improve as we go (as has happened with the metric).
I don’t think we’ll ever have a perfect solution – nature doesn’t follow rules – but BNG is a lot better than what we have now, where the majority of development leads to outright biodiversity loss, not even no net loss. So that’s what I plan to do with this project – help LPAs get started and give biodiversity net gain a go, sharing existing good practice and showing how it can work and move us another (quite big) step forward.