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In The Press - 'Biodiversity. Can developers enjoy some net gains?'

Brian West considers both the challenges and the opportunities arising from the government’s latest house building legislation.


Of all the obstacles that developers are currently facing, probably the one that vexes them the most is the one where they have least control, namely the planning regime. Erratic, under-resourced and burdened by red tape, some planning departments are taking eight weeks to simply validate applications, let alone determine them! Hardly the best backdrop for the introduction of new biodiversity net gain (BNG) legislation that will significantly increase the workload of local authority planning teams...


Government guidance to councils suggests that they will need to train their existing teams and recruit additional staff with ecological expertise to apply the new regulations. Add in extra planning conditions and the fact that the legislation is so loosely written it allows councils to adopt a variable approach to implementation and it’s not hard to see why many developers, and their trade bodies, fear significantly worse planning delays.


What exactly is this new legislation?





From February 2024 all ‘major’ proposed developments in England have had to provide a biodiversity net gain of 10% and the same rule will apply for ‘minor’ developments from April 2024. A major development is classified as one with 10 or more new homes and a minor development one with 9 or less. For now, the Scots and Welsh have escaped legislation with their devolved governments lagging somewhat behind Westminster.


The new requirements are enforced by the 2021 Environment Act, and mean that before any development begins, applicants need to measure the existing and proposed biodiversity of their sites. They will then need to draft a clear plan to demonstrate how they will deliver a 10% improvement to the biodiversity of the site and have that BNG plan approved by their local planning authority before any works can lawfully begin. To save time the plan can be included in the original planning application.


There are three key ways that developers can achieve the required improvement. They can create enhanced biodiversity on site, they can deliver biodiversity gains off-site on other land they own or, as a last resort, buy off-site biodiversity units on the market or acquire expensive statutory biodiversity credits from the government. If necessary, they can employ a combination of all three options but must follow the steps in order and the BNG’s delivered must be maintained for 30 years after the completion of the development. 


Tough times for developers


Whilst we should be proud that the UK is an international leader in addressing the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity, this will be scant consolation to developers if planning delays are further exacerbated by new BNG rules and the resultant cost of specialist consultants and reports, let alone the expense of implementing these plans which will add to an already onerous burden of regulation on new construction such as energy performance, sustainability, and nutrient neutrality. 


Compounding the many challenges since 2020, these are tough times for developers; but in truth not as tough as it is for British wildlife with nearly one in six of our ten thousand plus species now at risk of disappearing from Britain altogether. 


It’s easy to see this as a challenge where the development industry is at odds with the climate and biodiversity crisis. The truth, however, is that it’s only by developers, lenders, and planning departments all working together, that we can first halt and then reverse the biodiversity decline with a new and exciting partnership between nature conservation and infrastructure.  


Building stylish, insulated, airtight eco homes filled with a diverse range of carbon reducing technology on sites close to public transport links, which pro-actively preserve biodiversity and nature makes perfect sense. Providing healthy amounts of green, communal space and creating habitats in which wildlife can flourish will build communities that enjoy living in harmony with nature.


Potential buyers and renters, particularly amongst younger demographics, are citing sustainability as a key factor in the new homes they are looking to move into. Adherence by developers to eco principles and developments that incorporate a 10%, or even 20% biodiversity net gain (as mandated by a small number of councils) will clearly align with the values of these potential buyers and renters.  


Whilst government pressure from above has driven BNG, it’s clear that demand from below will sustain it. Yes, developers will face frustrations and increased costs in the short term, but these new homes will sell at a premium because, firstly, they will drive long-term savings in running costs and secondly, as individuals and societies, we all want to enjoy where we live.

  


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