'The Great Thinning'

Does Biodiversity Net Gain have the potential to stem the loss of nature we see all around us? Spencer Powell explores.

“Mandating biodiversity net gain puts the environment at the heart of planning and development. This will not only create better places for people to live and work, but ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.”

Former Environment Secretary, Michael Gove

In simple terms, Biodiversity Net gain (BNG) refers to the idea that development should measurably improve the local habitats and wildlife surrounding it, rather than just seek to limit its damage on them.

This may seem an alien concept after decades of growth in which the development industry has, all too often, given the natural environment a low priority. But in the last eight months, the pace of change has been astonishing. The industry is now being asked to pull off the ultimate balancing act: halting nature’s seemingly terminal decline at the same time as accelerating housing delivery.

Addressing ‘the great thinning’

The UK Government has set an ambitious target of 300,000 homes to be built each year by the mid-2020s. BNG seeks to address the risk that this increase in housebuilding accelerates the loss of natural and semi-natural habitats and the many critically important species that depend on them. By way of example, farmland birds declined by 56% in the UK between 1970 and 20151, and every square kilometre of the UK lost an average of 11 species of bee and hoverfly between 1980 and 20132. The rate of decline of most species is accelerating, not decreasing. 

With the UK already among the most nature-depleted countries in the world, the current rate of loss is unsustainable. Part of the problem up to now has been a policy framework that gives strong protection to sites designated as environmentally sensitive, while adopting a permissive attitude elsewhere. The argument has generally gone that if development can help to meet social and economic needs, a certain amount of harm to the environment can be tolerated.

Well, not any more. The Government has announced that proposals to ensure development leads to a ‘net gain in biodiversity’ will be put on a statutory footing. This significantly strengthens existing policy set out in the National Planning Policy Framework and builds on commitments in the ’25 Year Environment Plan’ to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.

It means demonstrating the key moves that will be made to not just limit the damage to local habitats, but to, enhance, nurture and maintain them. Often this will include incorporating measures such as nature-rich green corridors, more resilient open spaces and a greater number and variety of trees on site. For new towns and villages, it might also mean investing in the natural environment on a broader, landscape scale

Are developers equipped to manage their new role as custodians of the natural world? 

Some commentators have raised concerns about how developers and local authorities will cope with the new responsibilities. It will be a challenge, certainly.

But, there are very good reasons for the development industry to enthusiastically embrace its new role as a custodian of the natural world.

Local resistance to new housing is often predicated, at least in part, on an assumption that the area will be blighted with sterile suburbia and much-loved natural assets lost and degraded. 

But what if BNG became the catalyst for rethinking how we plan and design places? 

Embracing the opportunity

Instead of treating the environment as a problem to be managed, it can be worked with to create places that are capable of being loved – places that offer healthier patterns of living, a strong sense of belonging and that people are proud to call home. With a creative approach and understanding of the bigger picture, development can be rooted in the landscape and connected to nature, with strong green infrastructure and varied ecosystem services. There will be change, of course, but that change need not be negative.

Embracing BNG could also raise development value to enable greater investment in infrastructure, community facilities and social housing – all crucial to delivering a positive social legacy, but too often sacrificed on the altar of viability.

LDA Design has been testing some of these ideas in our masterplanning of Waterbeach New Town near Cambridge, and we are currently working with Defra and Natural England to design a new set of national green infrastructure standards.

While the devil will be in the detail, it is clear that progressive developers already welcome the proposed standardised, mandatory approach because it brings clarity and a level playing field. 

Might we reach a point where we can say that our right to a home and to lead healthy, active lives does not come at the expense of the natural world around us?

Three things to bear in mind

First, BNG must be taken seriously. It cannot just be left on the desk of the project ecologist to sort. It is a catalyst for rethinking places precisely because of its fundamental effect on how every project is planned, from putting together the land package to how the place created at the end of the development process will be managed and cared for over the long term. Solutions to challenges such as addressing biodiversity deficits while delivering other project requirements need the input of masterplanners, planners, urban designers and landscape architects too.

Second, biodiversity is just the start. Government wants to expand the net gain approach to include wider natural capital and Green Infrastructure benefits, such as flood protection, recreation and water and air quality. Local planning and combined authorities will target the enhancements that are needed most in their areas and developers will have flexibility in providing them. One of the first development areas to adopt this wider environmental approach will be the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Arc.

Third, Government needs at the same time to start the rapid restoration, recovery and rewilding of already depleted habitats and ecosystems – all while adapting to the twin threats of a changing climate and diseases such as Ash Dieback that have the potential to radically alter some of our landscapes.

None of us should rely on biodiversity net gain alone to solve the deep crisis besetting wildlife and natural habitats in the UK. After all, it has taken decades, possibly centuries, to get to the low point we find ourselves at today. But the shift in approach we are witnessing is undoubtedly a positive start. Perhaps, we might one day reach a point where our we can honestly say that our right to inhabit homes and lead healthy, happy lives does not come at the expense of the natural world around us having a fair shot at a secure future too.

Spencer Powell is a senior consultant at LDA Design. 

  1. UK Wild Birds 1970-2017
  2. Nature.Com article

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