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The law that could “create areas of habitat the size of Bromley”

Biodiversity net gain regulations came into force in February. Can they reverse the UK's nature loss?

By Megan Kenyon

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. According to last year’s “State of Nature” report, nearly one in six British species are threatened with extinction. Construction and development can cause major disruption to the UK’s biodiversity and wildlife. But, in the middle of a housing crisis, it is imperative that we build more houses. Is there a way of serving both needs?

On 12 February, the government’s biodiversity net gain (BNG) regulations came into effect. First thought up in 2018 by Michael Gove in his former role as environment secretary, these new regulations require all developments in the UK to deliver at least a 10 per cent increase in biodiversity when major building projects are undertaken.

In practice this means that if woodland – or another habitat – is destroyed by development, it must be replaced or recreated by the developer. The same regulations for smaller developments are due to come into force in April.

The government has given local authorities – whose planning departments will be responsible for overseeing the regulations – £25m to support their implementation. A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said they estimate the introduction of a “mandatory 10 per cent gain will create or secure areas of habitat the size of Bromley borough every year”.

These measures have been generally welcomed by both the house-building and wildlife sectors; having a method of improving the outcome for nature and biodiversity is better than not having one. But organisations in both sectors have expressed concerns around the effectiveness of BNG to help regenerate depleted habitats – and the capacity of local authorities and planning departments to deliver it.

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English councils and their planning departments are understaffed and overstretched. Over the past year, the government has outlined a range of measures to improve the capacity of planning departments, including an ostentatiously named “super-squad” of planning experts to help deliver major developments. But this may not be enough to ensure a new regulatory regime like BNG is successful.

Rob Wall, the assistant director of the British Property Federation – the industry body representing those working in property and development – pointed out that these new “mandatory BNG regulations will place an additional burden on already over-stretched planning departments”. Indeed, a survey of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s members carried out before the BNG was introduced shows that 41 per cent of public sector planners “still cannot confirm whether they’ll have access to the necessary ecological expertise to comply” with the new regulations.

[Read more: Poll shows nature could prove vital to winning swing voters]

There has also been concern over whether these regulations will actually make things better for UK wildlife. Speaking to New Statesman Spotlight, Rachel Hackett, planning and development manager at the Wildlife Trusts, said the charity is “pleased to see [BNG] mandated” and is a requirement now for all developers. “We hope the bar will be raised,” she added.

Hackett explained the trust is concerned by a facet of the regulations that stipulates developers may buy credits from other sites to serve their 10 per cent BNG requirement. “If a developer does go beyond that 10 per cent, they have the right to then sell off those excess units,” Hackett told Spotlight. “That is effectively capping the minimum requirement at 10 per cent.”

She explained the Wildlife Trusts is concerned that if developers who go over and above their 10 per cent are able to sell off their remaining credits, we might see a reduction in current progress. A larger development which causes more habitat destruction may be able to purchase credits from another development with a lesser impact for wildlife. Hackett added that “there will be developers out there that want to do the right thing”, but the use of credits could risk that.

Credits aside, it is pretty likely that even 10 per cent will not be enough to stem the tide of widespread nature degradation in the UK, or reverse that which has already happened.

As Sue Young, head of land use planning at the Wildlife Trusts, explained: “The current crisis for nature is so severe… 10 per cent just isn’t enough to make a dent in nature’s recovery.” She added the 10 per cent almost “acts as a contingency to make sure that there’s no net loss, instead of guaranteeing a contribution to nature’s recovery”. Young said the trust “wants biodiversity net gain to work” but also hopes to see it working as effectively as possible to ensure nature’s recovery.

Some developers have taken matters into their own hands. Landsec, the UK’s largest commercial property developer, has been targeting a minimum of 15 per cent biodiversity net gain on all new developments. Others agree that simply placing a minimum requirement on development may not solve the problem. But Marcus Bate, the partnerships, communities and sustainability director at the London-based property developer Mount Anvil, told Spotlight the new regulations are “likely to be welcomed by all responsible developers”.

However, he warned that the way the 10 per cent requirement “risks focusing minds on minimum standards, when really what we need to be doing is raising the bar”. He added: “Net gain is not enough by itself.”

[Read more: Why Michael Gove’s planning reforms won’t deliver sustainable housing]

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