biodiversity

The future of newt counting – Biodiversity Net Gain

Thursday, 17 March 2022

The future of newt counting – Biodiversity Net Gain

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan sets out an aspiration to mainstream biodiversity net gain in the planning system and a move towards approaches that integrate natural capital benefits.

Mandatory biodiversity net gain as set out in the Environment Bill applies in England only and is likely to become law in 2023. 

The timelines for introduction of mandatory biodiversity net gain are dependent on a number of factors, not least progression of the Environment Bill through Parliament. The prediction of movement following Royal Assent of the Bill at the end of 2021, is that following additional periods of consultation by Government, Biodiversity net gain expected to become mandatory for all developments.

As the vast majority of development land projects require at least this long to come to fruition, many of our present projects will include biodiversity net gain, both in terms of new habitat development and banking units.

Biodiversity Offsetting

The concept of ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ seeks to minimize the environmental impacts of a development project by ensuring that any environmental damage caused by the development process in one place is compensated for somewhere else. Biodiversity offsetting is viewed as a ‘last resort’ to be adopted only if and when all other possible measures have been reviewed and investigated to avoid and minimize development impacts and to restore any affected biodiversity on-site. The opportunity to offset does of course fit with the Prime Minister’s call for Britain to ‘build, build, build’ its way out of the economic catastrophe caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the same speech back in July 2021, Boris Johnson claimed that “newt-counting delays are a massive drag on the prosperity of this country,” an opinion shared with many a developer and land promoter!

In biodiversity offsetting, ecological gains and losses are represented through numerical scores, setting the base for the creation and exchange of conservation credits. Interested parties on both sides are keen for these measurements to be evidence based and transparent, suggesting that this is the only way to make the system fair, just, and in the end, effective. These numerical scores, in England, are referred to as biodiversity ‘units,’ however at this point no single method of measurement exists. Opinion is split among ecologists as to what exactly should be measured to comprise a score. Suggestions include species diversity, ecosystem functions or ecosystem services for example, and there are academic disputes over the suitability of different scoring methods (‘metrics’) to take account of locality and species, and how these can be adjusted for equivalence across the country. In England, the metric quantifies the value of habitats on the basis of three criteria: the distinctiveness of the habitat (assessed as low, medium, or high), the quality of the habitat (assessed as poor, moderate or good) and the area of the habitat in hectares.

Metric 3

The new Biodiversity Metric 3 was launched by government in July 2021, providing a British Standard on biodiversity net gain and development projects. This specifies requirements for a process to design and implement biodiversity net gain for development projects, although yet to cover the actual delivery of biodiversity net gain. It does however provide a framework to demonstrate that a project has followed a standard process based on UK-wide good practice.

The creation of biodiversity credits enables a system known as ‘habitat banking’. In banking, credits are provided by a conservation or mitigation bank, consisting of a site, or sites, where resources (e.g., habitats, species, wetlands) are restored, established, enhanced and/or preserved. Providers of credits enter an agreement to sell credits to developers, usually offering subsistence of the habitat for a 30-year period, to offset impacts on biodiversity that result from  building projects. This system has the opportunity, if managed legitimately and in good faith, to make for a positive outcome not only for the developers and ecologists, but for the aforementioned newts too, as an evicted newt will not be very happy with the creation of a wildflower meadow set to feed insects and birds, but with a like-for-like newt habitat. Thus, the general mood seems to favour the establishment of biodiversity offsetting in conjunction with habitat banking. This is already creating opportunities for farmers and landowners to offer up suitable areas for habitat banking. We watch this space with interest and will report back as discussions progress. Our teams have undergone extensive training on what is known so far about biodiversity net gain, and we keep abreast of Government updates.

Andrew Pinny

If you wish to discuss how biodiversity net gain could impact future development plans or are looking to understand how you may be able to make money from offering suitable habitat, please contact Andrew Pinnyandrew.pinny@howkinsandharrison.co.uk

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