In the previous article, Ben outlined how the first incarnation of ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ was derailed after its weaknesses were exploited, and how proponents then set about trying to patch the leaks. This final instalment recounts how the approach has since been refined and re-released, branded now as ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’. Ben explains how the new process differs and offers his thoughts on the prospects of it making a difference.

The Second Incarnation of a New Approach – ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’

Hot on the heels of the December 2018 changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that I mentioned at the end of Part 3, which acted to close some of the more serious loopholes in the Biodiversity Offsetting process, Defra launched a public consultation on the Government’s new proposals to make what was termed ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ (BNG) legally mandatory for new development. This was to be introduced through the anticipated Environment Bill, planned to be laid before Parliament shortly after the UK’s exit from the European Union. Defra then published the outcomes of their consultation exercise, and their response to the feedback received, in July 2019.

It quickly became apparent reading the consultation documents that much was familiar about the new proposals. As before, the basic idea being posited was that a standardised ‘biodiversity metric’ would be used to determine whether a net gain in biodiversity was likely to be achieved by development proposals. Whilst locally developed metrics were anticipated, a default national version of the metric would be produced by Defra, to ensure consistency of decision making (an experimental version had already been released and has since been updated on multiple occasions).

The initial sense of déjà vu arising from all this led to some proclaiming that ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ was simply a cynical re-branding of the earlier unpopular proposals for ‘biodiversity offsetting’. There were, however, some notable differences proposed for incorporation into the Environment Bill, that warrant closer attention:

  • Importantly, the consultation papers made clear that the net gain calculation would be required to be applied after the normal process of addressing impacts through the mitigation hierarchy (see Part 3 of this series) – BNG was to be taken as an addition to the normal process of mitigating the negative effects of development – not as an alternative.
  • The consultation papers also explicitly preclude irreplaceable habitats from being able to be ‘offset’ through the net gain process (again – see Part 3).
  • Defra propose to mandate that developments achieve a minimum 10% uplift in biodiversity units, once the metric is applied.
  • The documents outline proposed advice to Local Authorities, that if habitats have been observed to be artificially degraded prior to a planning application being made, that the biodiversity calculation starts from the assumption that degradation had not taken place (this is to prevent pre-emptive ecological destruction of pre-existing habitats as a means to ‘cook the books’ and make it easier to show a net gain in biodiversity once the calculator is applied).

Finally, Defra’s consultation outlines proposals for Local Authorities to be required to produce ‘Local Nature Recovery Strategies’, and for a public register of biodiversity offsetting sites to be established.

Image 13 - Habitat creation on formerly intensive arable land funded by development (002)Above: The proposals, if passed into law, will require Local Authorities to produce Local Nature Recovery Strategies, and will establish a public register of biodiversity offsetting sites. Photos © Ben Kite

The various strands of the BNG initiative, when taken together, mean that if a developer is simply unable to achieve the required biodiversity net gain on the limited land within their control, they can ‘purchase’ the required number of biodiversity units through an off-site provider (who could in theory be a public body such as a Council, an environmental NGO or even a private organisation). This ‘biodiversity provider’ would then need to sign a legal agreement or covenant, committing to delivering the necessary habitat creation and managing it appropriately for an agreed period (with the minimum length of time suggested as 30 years).

The establishment of a public register of biodiversity offsetting sites goes some way to answering one of my complaints about it, which is that the outcomes of some of the pilot projects have not always been very transparent. Colleagues of mine have in the past attempted to find out what new habitats have been created with the money collected from developers, but also, crucially, how successful these have been found to be when then subject to ecological monitoring. Such enquiries have generally been met with placations comprised of regurgitated generalities, such as overall figures about how much money has been collected and invested in habitat creation, rather than anything useful, such as the ecological monitoring data from particular offset sites.

In my view, it is of the utmost importance for future confidence in the BNG process that biodiversity offsetting sites are monitored by skilled ecologists, and that the results are made public. Even poor monitoring results should be disclosed, so that lessons can be learnt. If this is not done, then the whole process risks coming to be perceived by both developers and conservationists as simply a tax on development that doesn’t achieve its fundamental purpose of increasing biodiversity. If this happens, then the reputational damage will surely lead to the failure of BNG as an initiative. Conversely, transparent monitoring and the iterative improvement that would follow will help build support.

As alluded above, the intention is that BNG operates not as an alternative to the current mitigation hierarchy, but as an addition to it. In short, what the ecological profession terms ‘significant’ impacts would still need to be fully addressed through the normal process of designing impact avoidance and mitigation measures, but BNG would then be brought in to ‘mop up’ the remaining ‘insignificant’ impacts (i.e. losses of habitats not valuable enough to be considered of conservation importance), as well as provide a quantified basis for determining the adequacy of any compensation for unavoidable impacts, and above this the newly required 10% uplift in biodiversity units. In theory, this approach directly answers the problem of losses to biodiversity that are of low significance being overlooked when decisions are made to consent needed development.

Perhaps more tantalisingly, the idea of creating a sort of ‘market’ for biodiversity ‘providers’ teases the hitherto elusive prospect of creating potentially significant new income streams for those who work to try to help the natural environment.  Council Countryside Departments, Wildlife Trusts, Conservation Charities, farmers, landowning estates and even private businesses might be able to set themselves up to create and then manage new nature reserves, funded by money generated through development activity – a welcome prospect when budgets for conservation work everywhere are being slashed.

The potential benefits are not limited solely to nature conservation – developers would in theory have the comfort of knowing that, should they find it difficult to ‘shoe-horn’ enough biodiversity into the already over-worked land within their red line boundaries (attempts at which are often less than satisfactory), they could instead simply make a proportionate payment to help fund the creation of a new nature reserve next door, ideally planned as part of the predetermined and joined-up ‘Nature Recovery Strategy’ for the local area.

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Above: ‘In-building’ biodiversity measures, designed to integrate biodiversity into developed areas, have real value but are limited in what they can achieve. 1 – a ‘living wall’ newly-planted with climbers plus sparrow terraces and swift boxes installed;  2 – an established ‘living wall’ at Reading Oracle; 3 – a wildflower green roof at Reading Oracle; 4 – a rooftop wildflower meadow on London tall building, the Sainsbury Wellcome centre; 5 – a bat access tile. Photos © Ben Kite

Therefore it seems to me, perhaps naively, that if we’re careful, there could be some reason to hope that the dynamic between development and nature conservation might even change at a fundamental level. Dare we dream of a future world where development proposals are welcomed rather than feared, as being the bringers of much-needed positive nature conservation activity?  This might seem far-fetched right now, but in my view we have nothing to lose by shooting for the moon. As the environmental journalist George Monbiot has observed in the past “an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair”.

Despite these positive observations, there are some significant disappointments in Defra’s consultation response. For example, they propose to exempt nationally significant infrastructure projects (mainly Government-led schemes) from the requirement to provide net gains in biodiversity, citing the complexity and difficulty of achieving this on such scale. To me, this is deeply troubling – the Government should be setting an example for other developers to follow, particularly given the budgets available to such large projects. Additionally, my own experience of trialling Defra’s trial biodiversity metric have left me far from convinced that it always accurately represents the true value of habitats (although in fairness Defra recognise that their metric is a ‘work in progress’ – at time of writing, the calculator is the beta test version 2.0 and there were recent updates to it over Christmas).

Concluding Thoughts

Some years ago as a student, I recall one academic author, evidently unnerved by the early precursors to this approach that were circulating in scientific journals at the time, remarking that if this particular train of thought was boarded, the human experiment would end “in a counting house atop a cinder heap”. The deeply held concern is that once a price tag is put on nature, however ‘expensive’ it may be, it might ultimately come to be perceived as something that can be sold.

I have to confess that I share the sense of deep unease at the notion of commoditising nature, in the way that is hardwired into the DNA of BNG or ‘biodiversity offsetting’. Whilst I can bring myself to accept that sometimes human needs are sufficiently acute to justify ecological losses (e.g. clearing wildlife habitat to build a new hospital), it just feels wrong to me for such decisions to be wholly delegated to what is ultimately a cold-blooded accounting procedure, based on financial principles.

I have always felt that, as a society, we should have the courage to face the environmental consequences of our actions on an emotional and spiritual as well as logical level, and consciously decide what course of action to take, having confronted that reality. How else can one claim that the loss of intangible value such as ‘beauty’ has been given the consideration that it deserves?

I suppose I worry that if we slip into an unthinking and lazy reliance on convenient calculators, processes, computations and absolutes, we will only grow more detached from the plight of the natural world and ultimately end up in dereliction of our responsibility as its stewards.

There is, however, I admit, a fundamental flaw in my own argument, which takes us back to where this series of articles began. Specifically, those who think like me have been trying to persuade people to care about the natural world for its own sake for decades, and we have not been sufficiently successful. Perhaps the reason for this is that appealing to someone’s values, or their ‘biophilia’, can only work if they share those values in the first place, and those who do, will already be trying to do what they can for wildlife. We need somehow to reach those who are not already conservationists be default – the ‘swing voters’ in the debate.

I do not mean to diminish what conservationists, ecologists or even conscientious developers have achieved – the opportunity and funding created by development can already be harnessed, with a little care, to deliver impressive results for nature conservation. Take, for example, two different projects, in Cornwall and Berkshire respectively, that have collectively delivered over 60 hectares of either newly created or restored wildflower-rich grasslands of various types (and much more besides), on what was previously intensively farmed land.

image 15Above: mesotrophic grassland creation project that the author worked on in Cornwall recently. Photos © Ben Kite

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Above: Grassland restoration project in Berkshire that the author worked on recently. Photos © Ben Kite

The positive results shown in the images above were however brought about in part because their proponents were already concerned to improve the outcomes of their projects for the natural world. What BNG may offer, is a way to reach people who do not (at least initially) prioritise such values. In our finance-driven culture, where the language of ‘assets’, and ‘investment’ reign supreme, approaches that seek to appeal to pockets and cold-blooded logic, as well as to our hearts, and which link natural capital (ecosystem goods and services) to financial capital, just maybe ought to be given a chance to work. After all, it is true at the macro scale that human needs are dependent upon a functioning natural world, and decisions made at the micro scale need to reflect this truth.

As you may have guessed by now, I have somewhat reluctantly been brought around to the view that the proponents of the BNG agenda should be afforded the opportunity to see if it can help arrest the decline of the natural world.

Despite coming to terms with my newfound status as a ‘sceptical supporter’ however, given the dependency of biodiversity metrics and calculators on accurate and honest inputs, the reliance of the planning system itself on the interventions of informed individuals to highlight errors, problems and misrepresentations (see Part 3 of this series of articles), and the acute shortage of ecological expertise in Local Planning Authorities, I do not believe that we should be passive observers.

We must, on the contrary, remain vigilant, question everything and vigorously challenge any assertions that appear to be wrong. We cannot afford to assume that the BNG process, or by extension all those who employ it, will always work to the benefit of nature – we must compel the right outcomes through vigorous engagement with decision-making.

As a colleague of mine recently remarked in relation to biodiversity calculators – “if you put rubbish into them, you get rubbish out”. I think we can all agree that humanity has generated quite enough rubbish already.