Land-use planning plays a crucial role in the delicate balance between human development and the natural environment. It dictates the allocation and use of land, influencing the distribution of natural habitats and built environments. However, planning activities often results in habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, accelerating the decline of species and biomass. The planet teeters on the edge of critical biodiversity tipping points, where irreversible losses threaten whole ecosystems, paralleling (if not eclipsing) the severity of threat raised by climate change.
Recognising this, the UK Government, through the 2021 Environment Act, mandated a 10% Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) for most types of planning application. Following months (nay, years) of a relative vacuum of guidance and secondary legislation, and postponement of commencement from November 2023 to January 2024, the requirement for BNG is set to come into effect next month.
Although this represents a commendable effort to address biodiversity decline, the efficacy of biodiversity offset schemes is a subject of heated debate. Complexities in biodiversity accounting, offsetting processes, and long-term monitoring pose significant challenges to already strained planning and environmental protection regimes that threaten their capacity to deliver the ecological gains required to avert crises. Essentially, the system, if poorly operated, allows for certain short-term biodiversity losses in exchange for uncertain long-term gains.
Amid these challenges, good governance emerges as a critical factor for the success of any BNG-type policy. The current planning governance landscape however is characterised by inconsistency, changeability, and delay.
None of these qualities are frequently cited as principles of good governance.
Developer guidance on BNG was consolidated and published as recently as 29th November 2023 while uncertainties persist around legal agreements and conservation covenants used to secure biodiversity. The additional burden on already strained LPA staff is also yet to be adequately addressed.
One’s mind is regrettably drawn to the government’s similarly ambitious but fumbled execution of Nutrient Neutrality as a worrying precursor for the implementation of BNG across the coming months/years.
Despite these hurdles, a discernible picture is taking shape. The preference for on-site biodiversity delivery is evident and robust. Projects incorporating nature considerations in early design phases are far more likely to meet BNG targets. Pioneering projects leverage integrated nature solutions, achieving not only net gain but also enhancing climate resilience and delivering substantial value to all stakeholders.
The Kidbrooke Village project in Greenwich, has seen the successful regeneration of the degraded Ferrier Estate, with enormous BNG success. With early and substantial engagement with the London Wildlife Trust, Berkeley Homes have been able to deliver over 100% BNG while delivering hundreds of high quality private and affordable homes. The Wetlands, meadows, forests and beyond have brought enormous ecological benefit to the Site and wider area while also providing a beautiful, nature-rich and wellbeing-supportive environment for all residents.
While each site demands a tailored approach, all should seek early engagement of expertise and must have a solid understanding of existing habitat value and local opportunities and constraints. An ambitious strategy that seeks to deliver high value for stakeholders will ensure projects prosper, rather than falter, under the new system. As the governance landscape remains erratic, early-adopters will be best placed to navigate uncertainty.