Guest blog – Burdens Not Gain – have we all missed a trick? by an anonymous planning ecologist

For the last 10 years I’ve been the planning ecologist for a local authority. The role of planning ecologist is little-understood by the wider public but that’s not the subject of this article. Instead, my point is about Biodiversity Net Gain and whether we have confidence the private market will deliver this public good. I also have concerns we are introducing new legislation without the appropriate resources to implement it properly within the planning function of local councils. 

In my local planning authority I’m the “Nature Team”. When commenting on a planning application that’s what the public see and maybe think there are several officers like me. I work 4 days-per-week (not full-time) and sit alongside 3 Tree Officers, 3 Building Conservation Officers, 3 Landscape Architects, and a bigger team of Urban Design officers and Contaminated Land officers. In this context, alongside those other disciplines, it’s clear our “Nature Team” needs to grow a bit.

For the last 2 years I’ve been pre-occupied with Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), which has been driven by myself rather than any direct outside pressure. Bringing planning and legal officers up-to-speed with this new way of measuring biodiversity and what the changing expectations are of developers. I’ve written guidance for our website and made sure ecological consultants active in my area are aware of it, given presentations and training to plans panel members, and written board papers and reports for heads of service, directors and the chief executive – many of whom I had never really spoken to previously. I’ve suddenly become popular at plans panel meetings where I explain what BNG is and encourage support for off-site delivery of biodiversity. I’ve been a very good advocate for BNG so far (and it has not become mandatory yet).

I wonder why I have been putting this pressure on myself to get BNG moving forward so quickly. For many years, people in my role have been trying hard to push developers to go the extra mile but knowing we don’t have legislation or the measuring tools to force this. Knowing the Environment Act is looming over the horizon and the Biodiversity Metric is now available has maybe given me the courage to push this higher up the agenda. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get biodiversity and planning joined-up in a meaningful way, so planning ecologists across England should be happy and optimistic – shouldn’t they?

I’ve spent time learning about BNG, reading the primary and emerging secondary legislation and guidance. It’s all about the words and nuances of those words. As a planning agent once said to me “it’s all very well asking us to do something, but if it’s not in legislation or your local plan policy we don’t have to.” Words are my main tool to stand up for wildlife. So far I have kept on top of those words and the intentions behind them.

Some things have changed for the better, we now have the measuring tool in the planning system for biodiversity habitats. Previously, it was all about subjective values and negotiation. You won some, and lost often. Or you won but then years later (after the developer has moved-on) wander around the new housing development or off-site piece of land and realise: the appropriate management is not happening; gardens have extended onto greenspace; the local residents’ committee has changed how the land should be managed;  or land to be used for biodiversity has been sold off to a local private developer or farmer – lets not even mention the monitoring reports that should have been submitted annually. Implementation, monitoring and enforcement are all words that are meaningful to me, and all three don’t seem to happen enough for biodiversity.

I hope BNG does change the way biodiversity is delivered, but it does feel like we may all have missed a trick.

My role has always involved the first two “R”s (Reading – reports, and Writing – consultation responses) but now planning ecologists need to become biodiversity accountants and know the third “R” of the Metric’s maths really well.

Through the Environment Act, local authorities are expected to become the “BNG Police”. This new regulatory role for biodiversity means Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) need to be fully conversant in the four “R”s namely “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Regulation”. I’m hoping my role does not evolve into purely looking at numbers and top-down Regulation and Reporting (a fifth “R”?), as this would be a bit sad.

I’m not giving up on still trying hard for on-site biodiversity, and I can definitely see the potential for taking money from developers (a Biodiversity Tax) to deliver something meaningful off-site (provided it is long-lasting and nearby to benefit both nature and wider society).

Imagine for a moment if BNG worked like this:

  • Natural England (being the Government body responsible for nature conservation we all look to for leadership) are the sole point of contact for developers to purchase Biodiversity Units from. The cost of those Biodiversity Units across England is based on average land prices for each of the 333 LPAs (and could be higher for inner city areas within each LPA accordingly).
  • Using the Metric to measure on-site impacts, the residual number of Biodiversity Units is calculated to achieve the 10% gain target (as per now). The developer must buy the corresponding number of Biodiversity Units from NE (not a private habitat bank). NE uses some of the money to cover it’s own running costs and then works with a nationally-recognised habitat delivery partner (with a proven ecological track record such as the RSPB or Wildlife Trust etc.) to identify and purchase land in the same LPA area where the development impacts arose.
  • This off-site land would then be managed as a nature reserve for perpetuity, with carefully designed areas where the public can and can’t go. Success could simply be measured in physical area of new nature reserves – this could take a lot of the costs and concerns away about condition assessments and monitoring through the Metric for those off-site areas.

I’m struggling to understand if BNG actually has a “Vision” for biodiversity. My Vision for off-site BNG would be to focus on delivering biodiversity in areas that fall into both categories of being privately-owned (with no public access) and other areas that have public access – but make sure we specify such land of either category carefully. If biodiversity is to be delivered on private land then surely it must only be on such land that has been recognised as being of substantive value (but not already legally protected such as SSSIs perhaps), and that land has little or no investment for biodiversity at the moment.  

It would seem logical to me to focus a national BNG Vision on investment for both Local Wildlife Sites and Local Nature Reserves (LNRs). Firstly improving the management of and increasing the size of Local Wildlife Sites (many of which are privately owned with no public access – which should not be changed), and secondly improving the number and size of LNRs (which all have public access to some degree). Targeting LWSs and LNRs would allow a dual focus on those areas of highest importance for biodiversity (outside of SSSIs), and also providing areas where local communities can learn and appreciate their local biodiversity. If a GCSE for Natural History is being launched in 2025 then we need to make sure all schools have a nature reserve nearby (walking distance?) for that outdoor classroom.  

Both LWSs and LNRs also receive a level of protection through the planning system in local policies (being non-statutory and statutory designated sites respectively) so the focus on such land would also help to leave a long-lasting legacy for future generations of biodiversity and people.

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan has a target of “Enhancing beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment by making sure that there are high quality, accessible, natural spaces close to where people live and work, particularly in urban areas, and encouraging more people to spend time in them to benefit their health and wellbeing”.

Maybe we could declare a national “Local Nature Reserve Revolution” going beyond those targets first set by John Box and Carolyn Harrison in their excellent Accessible Natural Greenspace Standards work (Box & Harrison 1993). What about 10 ha. of LNR per 1 000 population, or even 100 ha. per 1 000 population? We are in danger of people only knowing the LNRs acronym to mean Local Nature Recovery Strategies.

I would support BNG more readily if it had a Vision of a new network of nature reserves across every LPA, and also new National Nature Reserves (or extensions to existing ones). This Vision of getting developers to pay for new nature reserves near to where people live seems to hit so many Government targets in the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Lawton Review (Lawton 2010). Instead. Instead, will the current BNG proposals of relying on the private market really deliver a Vision of long-lasting Nature Nearby (NE 2010)?

Before BNG kicked-in, the council where I work has teamed-up with the RSPB to create a new 400 ha. wetland nature reserve on a former minerals site. There are areas where the public can go, and where they can’t go. After just a few years there are enough pairs of breeding Black-necked Grebes to justify SSSI status and Bitterns can be heard booming. If I was asked what my Vision is for biodiversity I would say “more nature reserves please, but can be small or big, located across the whole district and owned by local community groups or existing nature conservation organisations.” 

Interestingly, I get asked every year by Defra to report on the area of Local Wildlife Sites under positive management (which is a national indicator Defra ask local authorities to report on, called SDL160). But we do not have resources to measure this, even though we agree it is potentially a good indicator of biodiversity. BNG could be a good potential source of funding for investment in Local Wildlife Sites and for the employment of officers to give positive land management advice to those landowners.

I’m not sure what the national “Vision” really is for BNG that we can all get behind. It has a definition which we all know off-by-heart, and it clearly looks to the private market to finance and deliver the whole process.

It almost seems like the current Vision is “To take money from the private development sector and invest it in another part of the private sector to deliver biodiversity – with the public sector regulating the whole thing with no properly considered level of income to cover their additional costs.”

I’ve done the maths for the council where I work (approx. 1 200 major and minor planning applications annually) and we would need an additional £320 000 annually to employ a 8-person BNG Team spread across planning, enforcement, legal, GIS and validation to implement BNG successfully as outlined in primary and secondary legislation. We currently have no way of covering these Regulation and Reporting costs through contributions from developers – they will already be purchasing off-site Biodiversity Units from private habitat banks/brokers so additional financial demands from the council will affect their economic viability.

It seems we are creating a complex, new landscape of private habitat banks and brokers, as well as companies selling digital recording and reporting software to LPAs for monitoring who sells what, when, where and how often. Do we really have confidence we can keep tabs on and control all this data, and do it in a way biodiversity is winning? I’m not sure I’d want to be in charge of that particular job, or even be a small cog within it. 

I hope the private market can deliver public goods that include biodiversity but I fear the vast majority of landowners involved in BNG are doing it for the promise of financial returns. It will also be interesting to see how local councils interact with BNG if they are simply being expected to be a regulator of something benefitting and being delivered by the private sector – there may be contrasting ideological beliefs in this working relationship unless there is an openly shared Vision being worked towards.

Those old-enough to remember the privatisation of British Rail and various utility companies in the 1980s will understand we’ve moved from knowing who runs your train, or provides your gas and phone line to today’s many different private companies clamouring for your custom. Have market forces really led to better service and kept the prices down? Maybe in the future legislation will be required to re-nationalise our BNG.

I can see my own role moving to one of regulation, regulation and more regulation (with some frustration thrown in when enforcement resources are stretched beyond breaking point). Personally I have started to feel the burden of BNG weighing on my own health as I acknowledge my BNG expectations and reality are mismatched. It is difficult when you’re the only person trying to deliver biodiversity through the planning system, and more difficult perhaps when you have a Vision beyond that which legislation seems to be delivering.

I’ve realised I’m prone to a new form of health anxiety that I’ve named “BNG-related Stress”. I’ve never previously had counselling, but together with my therapist have now recognised this condition (am I the first to suffer from this?). I may consider changing jobs at some point to set up a counselling service offering help to other local authority planning ecologists also suffering from BNG-related Stress (maybe it can be paid for using BNG funds). 

I wasn’t sure of the target audience for this article/blog. I wrote it during unexpected time off-work as I was being diagnosed with BNG-related Stress. At one point it was nearly a resignation note to my employer – can I really still find aspects of my job to enjoy in a world of number crunching and regulation? Maybe it’s a helpful nod to my ALGE (Association of Local Government Ecologists) colleagues in other LPAs across England – you are not alone and BNG-related Stress is a real condition. Or perhaps a challenge to the private habitat banks/brokers to encourage them to deliver off-site BNG through a network of new Local Nature Reserves and improving Local Wildlife Sites. Or maybe the audience is the civil servants in Defra and NE to take back control of BNG and seize this opportunity to Build Biodiversity Back Better and Bigger in places that will also be there forever (or at least longer than 30 years anyway).   

Box J. and Harrison C. (1993) Natural Spaces in Urban Places  

Lawton J. (2010) Making Space for Nature

Natural England (2010) Nature Nearby Accessible Natural Greenspace Guidance

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18 Replies to “Guest blog – Burdens Not Gain – have we all missed a trick? by an anonymous planning ecologist”

  1. Surely it is the job of every person or company submitting a planning application to include a comprehensive BNG plan and impact assessment for both the site and the nearby environs. There could be a reasonable cut off for those seeking modest (restricted area) development such as house extensions. Then all the local planning authority needs to do is validate it or not. If not it gets sent back for improvement.
    And yes, I agree with Mr Parry. In fact if we bred less, ate less (which includes more locally produced rather than imported food) and exercised more Britain would be a much better place. I am old enough to remember rationing, compulsory games and the total lack of fat children at my school!

    1. Well said.

      I am in my eighties and clearly remember the England of your second paragraph.
      I now live in Scandinavia but grew up on a 160 acre, mixed live-stock and arable farm.

  2. Thank you, this was a really interesting and insightful piece. I remember when SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems), those fenced off, water filled soakaways you got with new housing developments that were supposed to reduce flooding started coming in. It was hoped they would provide an excellent opportunity to create wildlife habitat especially for very hard pressed pond life. There’s an older one near me that’s not bad, and another one several miles away that looks as if it really was developed to help wildlife. However, of the literally dozens of other ones I’ve seen NOT ONE has ANY features to help wildlife – just bog standard close mowed grass right down to the water’s edge where if you’re lucky a clump of rushes or a reed escape the mower blade.

    For all the cosy talk and programmes about how lovely it is to bring more wildlife into urban areas if it’s happening at all it’s at snail’s pace. Years ago I spoke to a keen local government officer who told me what was needed was a group outside of the council that would actively champion urban conservation – meaning promote and generally wave the flag for it as any group is supposed to do for their concern. Instead what we have is conservation organisations going out of their way to do public consultation to the extent it compromises public education, and capitulate to those who foam at the mouth at the sight of dead wood or uncut grass. Wildlife, wildlife lovers and especially children who would benefit most from environments that consist of more than short grass and litter lose out.

    In all the years I have watched them I have never seen Springwatch or any other programme that ever talks about urban conservation admit a big problem with actually delivering it is that a section of Joe Public are antipathetic, sometimes rabidly so. They won’t go away just by pretending they don’t exist, they need to be acknowledged and challenged if they don’t accept public spaces belong to everyone including those who want more nature. Developers wouldn’t get away with apathy and propaganda so much if urban conservation was really being promoted by those who should be doing it.

  3. Huge credit to the blogger for addressing an important subject in such depth.

    I should be interested to know what his/her relationship is with planning department colleagues. Do they appreciate his input or do they regard him/her as a nuisance?

    Does she/he ever lock horns with ecologists engaged by developers – and how do disputes tend to be resolved?

    Then there is the question of all those local authorities that do not employ an ecology officer. What chance does have biodiversity have in these areas?

    1. Thank you James – I have a good relationship with the vast majority of planning officer colleagues where I work. They appreciate the internal training I give them in biodiversity, and they respect my advice to help them make balanced decisions that have to include matters other than biodiversity. I respect the work they have to do and vice versa. Not all LPAs having a planning ecologist like myself.

      A lot of my role involves meeting and speaking with the ecologists employed by developers, reading their reports and challenging them where they need to be. There are over 30 ecological consultancies active where I work, so you can imagine there is a wide range of knowledge, experience and impartiality when it comes to whether who they are employed by influences what they write in their reports. Some consultants are more willing to listen to my point of view than others, so at times it can be an adversarial role – and likewise I need to be willing to listen to their perspective. I then need to take a final opinion in my consultation response back to planning officers, and be willing to back this up verbally in front of local councillors who sit on a planning panel and make the final decision. My comments are published on-line available for all to see on a public planning portal, and planning panel meetings are often recorded and available for anyone to watch – so it does feel like a process open to scrutiny.

      1. Thank you for your response, article author.

        It sounds relatively healthy and democratic at the authority where you work.

        I suppose that, especially with finely-balanced eco-sensitive applications, a lot depends on the prejudices of the individual councillors. At my local authority, there are several on the planning committee who plainly think wildlife considerations should be disregarded totally.

        Then there is the question of training. In a sense, I suppose at your authority you are effectively training planning officers on the job, but is there eco-training for councillors? Or would it be a waste of time?

  4. The concept of ‘local nature reserves’ is sound, but the downside is that, to the public, they create the impression that nature is ringfenced as ‘over there’ and within its own designated reservation when the reality is that should be all round.

    What is more, ‘nature reserves’ are all too often take over by dog-walkers and others whose activities are often to the detriment of nature.

    If we had an effective planning system, there would be no need for any nature reserves at all because there would be sufficient checks and balances to safeguard wildlife.

    Interestingly, in the US they use the term ‘preserve’ rather than ‘reserve’ which I think is far preferable.

  5. BNG: nice idea, shame about the practice

    I have an interest in the topic of LPAs (Local Planning Authorities) and biodiversity, having worked at Planning Inquiries and been aghast at the ‘quality’ of the material provided to LPAs in routine planning submissions. I’ve written on this elsewhere. The key point is that for biodiversity net gain (BNG) to work, you have to have at least two things:
    1. Data that are collected according to standard methods and where errors/ limitations in the data sets are recognised and their effects stated and admitted to.
    2. Survey data that are suitable to identify the potential impacts that might occur were the development to go ahead.
    If survey data are regularly unsuitable, don’t recognise issues that affect data quality, and might well not stand up to peer review, then you can’t begin to assess BNG. Three simple papers:
    Cherrill, A. (2013). Repeatability of vegetation mapping using Phase 1 and NVC approaches. In Practice 81: 41-45.
    Cherrill, A. (2016). Inter-observer variation in habitat survey data: investigating the consequences of professional practice. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 59: 1813-1832.
    Zu Ermgassen, S., Marsh, S., Ryland, K., Church, E., Marsh, R. & Bull, J. (2021). Exploring the ecological outcomes of mandatory biodiversity net gain using evidence from early-adopter jurisdictions in England. Conservation Letters. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12820
    indicate that the reliability of survey data is poor. Zu Ermgassen et al is especially damning in showing the unreliability of BNG survey data in the first counties that trialled BNG. The point being, that if you can’t properly identify even basic habitats, then on what grounds can you claim to estimate what has to be delivered by developers under the banner of BNG?
    So, if many of the data presented are poor, is there much basis for doing exacting BNG calculations? Not really, unless they come with a health warning. But if they don’t, who is to tell? It is probably not going to be the LPAs that do.
    LPA Ecologists- a small, select bunch- need to be in place and asked by the planners to go through in detail for their comments. Not all LPAs have ecologists, and most LPA planners have neither the capacity nor competence – according to the LPA ecologists’ trade body ALGE- to properly evaluate biodiversity material submitted to them. Poor stuff can sneak through all too easily.
    If, as according to ALGE, there isn’t the capacity (too few folk in post) or competence (the ability to fully differentiate between good and bad ecological submissions), then the basis for assessing the verity of claimed non-impacts is at issue. No impacts, after all, means that net gain is dead easy. Hence the query is: what is it that developers are going to exceed to deliver on BNG? Add in here that the January 2022 Protected Species Planning guidance issued by DEFRA/ N England is close to useless as the statutory source of guidance to be used by LPAs in England, then you have a recipe for a near perfect storm.
    BNG is a nice idea looking for a home, but it needs to be based on good science, exemplary DEFRA guidance, and well-resourced LPAs. That two out of three of these don’t exist, and the first is not guaranteed, then BNG should remain homeless until they are all fixed.

  6. Thanks for those interesting comments, Tim.

    I particularly like the bit about identifying potential impacts.

    I should like to see a section in the standard planning application form, inviting the developer to state what it considers to be potential impact on the environment or wildlife.

    It should be mandatory for this section to be completed .

    In most cases, the response would probably be “None” or a question mark.

    But at least it would oblige the developer/ agent (and the council planning case officer) to reflect on the subject – and perhaps challenge the response.

    1. Impact identification is part and parcel of the standard approach in England and elsewhere. For Protected Species in particular, the January 2022 update of DEFRA Protected Species advice recognises this clearly- but then makes a hash of providing proper advice to beleaguered LPA planners.

      The main problem is still that of very poor/variable submissions to planners, along with the very limited biodiversity capabilities/ resources available to planners. Put together poor submissions, poor understanding of potential impacts and you get what you expect.

      If you don’t have a credible set of data to assess impacts with, then you can’t do a meaningful estimate of BNG. Of course, you also need to monitor that set of BNG actions later on, and that presumes that this was part of a sensitively derived baseline and robust data. I could go on, but you get the idea.

      BNG: bluster, no good

  7. Thanks for the thorough blog and sorry to hear about the stress.

    Some really interesting points made well, particularly on the vision which I agree is sometimes lost in our publications but which I think will become clearer as Local Nature Recovery Strategies and biodiversity net gain are rolled out.

    I think we’re working on solutions to some of the cited concerns already, but I’d be very happy to have an informal chat with the author if they’d like discuss any of the points above with the intended(ish) Defra civil servant audience

    1. surely, the issue isn’t about rolling out BNG and the like, but the quality of the data that underpins or undermines them? Processes are fine, but if the material going in is untrustworthy, then the outcome is too. Isn’t that something to think about? Nice words from DEFRA are just that: nice words.

      1. I agree, if you put rubbish in you get rubbish out. But I think both data quality and policy rollout are important issues. BNG etc. won’t work well without good data, but BNG etc. will also create a stronger demand for good data. We are looking at more direct ways of improving data quality too.

        And yes, I wish we could magically create habitat networks with nice words but I haven’t had much luck so far

    2. Thanks Max – you will find some of these points made as part of a response to the recent BNG consultation, so they have also been made as part of the official communication channels. If you think it worth chatting through the areas I have covered please do contact me directly.

  8. “Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity?”

    –Edward O. Wilson

    (-:

  9. Great to see someone at the coal face speaking out on all these issues. I have written at length (and tedium) about the pros and cons of BNG here on Mark’s blog and elsewhere, so I will merely applaud the author for the courage to start this conversation. It ought to be a much more prominent one in conservation, planning, local government and ministerial circles, and it should be a point of concern to anyone involved with land use, and the challenge of halting biodiversity decline, that it is not.

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