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).