Bigging up the little creatures
22 September 2023
Is the Government’s push to force an increase in bio diversity net gain fit for purpose? And how will it affect occupiers? Liza Helps investigates.
UK PRIORITY species have fallen 60%, 15% of UK species face extinction, bees have declined 25%, moth numbers have fallen by a third, 80% of butterfly species have decreased in abundance or distribution, or both, since the 1970s.
The State of Nature report published in 2019 was damning about the UK’s bio diversity, but probably most disheartening is the fact that the Bio Diversity Intactness Index published a mere two years later was harsher still: calling the UK the least bio diverse country in Europe and the western world.
The Biodiversity Intactness Index, produced by scientists at the Natural History Museum, estimates the percentage of natural biodiversity that remains across the world and in individual countries. The UK has a BII of 50% which means it has retained only half of its biodiversity, compared with 65% for France, and 67% for Germany.
The world’s overall biodiversity intactness is estimated at 75%, which is significantly lower than the 90% average considered to be a safe limit for ensuring the planet does not tip into an ecological recession that could result in widespread starvation.
Through this prism the Government brought about the Environment Act 2021 introducing into law a mandatory Biodiversity Gain Objective for development, which is a key part of the government’s remit to halt species decline by 2030 as part of the legally binding international UN Paris Agreement of 2015.
Savills’ director of rural estate management Hannah Turner says: “Any development for which planning permission is granted in England from November this year must leave the site with at least a 10% bio diversity net gain (BNG), and because that is mandated, it goes hand in hand with a change in planning policy.”
“Any development for which planning permission is granted in England from November this year must leave the site with at least a 10% bio diversity net gain (BNG), and because that is mandated, it goes hand in hand with a change in planning policy.”
The BNG condition will see a requirement for each planning permission to measure biodiversity gains through a biodiversity metric - a habitat based approach used to assess an area’s value to wildlife. The metric uses the size, quality and location of habitat features to calculate a biodiversity value, measured as ‘biodiversity units’ allowing the developer to calculate how a scheme, or a change in land management, will change the biodiversity value of a site.
Roughly an assessment will go along the lines of an initial field survey to collect pre-development habitat data, then post-development habitat data is defined using the landscaping plans. Both are then converted into ‘biodiversity units’ using the metric. The number of ‘biodiversity units’ needed equals the difference in pre and post development values plus 10% (of pre-development levels).
Sophie Watkin, planning director, Trammell Crow Company UK
Developers source the units required from onsite or offsite habitat creation/enhancement or through statutory credits (as a last resort). They then include preliminary information on how they will achieve BNG within the planning application and submit a biodiversity gain plan to the local planning authority which confirms the plan and signs it off. Finally, the habitat creation commences and is regularly monitored by the relevant parties.
“The logic of leaving a place better than when it was found, feels like a reasonable and responsible component of development – the question is are we achieving that with what is being pushed forward?” asks Cushman & Wakefield’s head of logistics and industrial EMEA, Tim Crighton.
“The problem for me is that when you create something legislatively like that and you put a mechanism for crediting in place, do credits become the easy route rather than really considering BNG on site? Similarly with carbon net zero - many claim net zero but in actuality they are just buying carbon credits…”
“The logic of leaving a place better than when it was found, feels like a reasonable and responsible component of development – the question is are we achieving that with what is being pushed forward?”
This is a concern for Prologis’ UK lead for strategic infrastructure Mark Shepherd as well: “Knowing that it is now mandatory, has changed our mindset in terms of focusing more on BNG and looking at options that in effect give more bang for our buck. There has to be care taken here that when developers bring forward a site and solutions they do not look to point scoring to do the minimum to get the most points – which is what we are being required to demonstrate by achieving bio diversity net gain through a metric led process.”
Already there are issues with the planting of native tree species which secure higher number of bio diversity points on the metric. Within all of this a developer has an obligation to manage any mitigation for 30 years as part of the overall BNG consideration. For SEGRO’s head of sustainability Gabriella Zepf this is a concern. “Thirty years is a long period of time in a period of changing climate. BNG legislation favours native species but some native species may not be able to cope with the changing climate so there is an inbuilt conflict.”
She adds: “With good intentions there are unintended consequences, with biodiversity that is probably truer than anything else I have ever worked with in the sustainability space. Things that they hope will have an effect for good now, may, with further information and future research, have a different outcome.”
In terms of taking an easy way out and buying credits to secure BNG mitigation, it seems that the law makers have this one covered. Savills director of planning in Birmingham Paul Rouse notes: “There is a hierarchy of cascading mitigation.”
First, avoid or reduce harm to habitats through site selection and development layout, secondly enhance and restore bio diversity on site, when that cannot be done create or enhance off-site habitats, either on the developer’s own land or by purchasing bio diversity units.
“Knowing that it is now mandatory, has changed our mindset in terms of focusing more on BNG and looking at options that in effect give more bang for our buck.”
As a last resort, to prevent undue delays, purchase statutory biodiversity credits from the UK government (if the developer can demonstrate that they are unable to achieve biodiversity net gain through on-site or offsite measures).
Turner says: “This mitigation hierarchy promotes on-site biodiversity uplift before offsite habitat creation, however for some developers this may not be practical or economically viable.”
Crighton agrees: “BNG is a challenge whatever class of development, but it is a bigger one for logistics due to the sheer scale and use of hardstanding for surfacing, car parks and yards.”
It is challenging says real estate law firm Forster associate Sophie Smith: “Site layouts will need to include enough space in the right place at the outset and ongoing management will need to be supported.”
Gabriella Zepf, head of sustainability, SEGRO
Shepherd agrees: “We are bringing on board ecologists a lot sooner in the process. When we first source the sites we are looking at a holistic solution with an emphasis on BNG – it is not something you can retro fit, it has to be included right from the start.
“In the last 18 months since the 10% came to the fore we have been adapting our masterplans to retain as much of the existing BNG on a site as possible and look to ways to maximise the BNG to be included on the site.”
The majority of these big developers are already including enhanced BNG on their sites anyway. Trammell Crow Company head of European logistics construction Graham Reece says: “Habitat, biodiversity and species protection is considered on all our developments from the outset, with a view always to creating extra ecological value overall, not just in the UK but across Europe.”
The same is true for SEGRO, Zepf says: “In a portfolio wide site assessment over 90% of the most recent developments easily met the BNG 10% minimum without any further adjustment. We will always try our best to avoid going down the credit route and try to solve things on site.”
“For an occupier any lease is likely to include a covenant requiring compliance with planning and the landlord would see a neglect of the site’s onsite biodiversity provision as a breach of the lease, assuming this is a tenant responsibility.”
As previously mentioned that is not always possible. Trammell Crow Company UK planning director Sophie Watkin says: “At present we have two schemes at an advanced stage in the UK. At our Sheffield scheme we have achieved a BNG of 166% but our Milton Keynes scheme is a combination of on-site improvements and financial contributions (just under £0.5m). At Heywood in Greater Manchester, where we’re still in planning stages, we are proposing 22%. We have sought to increase BNG across these sites by, for example, adding green wall acoustic fencing, increasing ponds, and planting specific plant species. But fundamentally, as those examples show, every scheme will require a different approach and it requires a hands-on, and committed, approach to make it a success.”
While there is much merit in the scheme, and no one doubts the reasons why it must be done, there is a growing sense of trepidation about just how it will all work.
Tritax planning director Jonathan Dawes says: “There does not seem to be an overall national plan, secondary legislation is still not in place as we bowl along to the November deadline and more importantly the under-resourced planning system may not have the capacity let alone the skill set to carry out all the checks required.”
Indeed, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published new evidence from a survey carried out between May and August this year that shows planners are struggling. Around 61% of public sector planners cannot confirm they’ll have dedicated BNG resource and ecological expertise in-house in place by November.
It also found public and private sector planners report having extremely low levels of confidence in the practical requirements of BNG, including core aspects of the scheme like ‘identifying BNG receptor sites’, ‘interpreting the robustness of ecological reports and BNG proposals’, ‘using the biodiversity metric’ and ‘negotiating with landowners over site provision’.
“We are bringing on board ecologists a lot sooner in the process. When we first source the sites we are looking at a holistic solution with an emphasis on BNG – it is not something you can retro fit, it has to be included right from the start.”
RTPI chief executive, Victoria Hills says: “We fully support the scheme’s intention to improve our natural environment and we’ll continue to engage with Ministers and officials behind the scenes to urgently clarify the details of new BNG regulations, funding, and training. Immediate clarity and support will be crucial to the successful implementation of biodiversity net gain and to avoid adding to England’s planning backlog.”
For developer and occupiers alike the most immediate impact of the new BNG legislation will probably manifest itself in planning delays.
“For owner occupiers,” says Rouse, “especially those looking to develop out sites either for expansion or new builds the onus and obligation for BNG will be on them.
Tim Crighton, head of logistics and industrial EMEA, Cushman & Wakefield
“They will need to understand their sites and if they are going to develop, what habitat do they have and if that is going to be reduced what mitigation needs to take place on the site and how that is going to be managed going forward, perhaps they will need to look mitigation off site, buying credits and all that will need to be passed by the local authority. Each site will be individual requiring bespoke solutions.”
Cushman & Wakefield’s Crighton says: “Owner occupiers may lean on environmental consultants and or ecologists to support that and manage it through creative solutions on site.”
Mark Shepherd, lead for strategic infrastructure, Prologis UK
Looking at tenant obligations in particular going forward, Forster’s Smith says: “Things to look out for could include the fact that 30 year maintenance obligation will run with the land and therefore any new owner or other party with an interest in the land, including a tenant or a lender, will be subject to it. In principle, it can be enforced like any other breach of section 106 obligations or planning conditions.
“For an occupier any lease is likely to include a covenant requiring compliance with planning and the landlord would see a neglect of the site’s onsite biodiversity provision as a breach of the lease, assuming this is a tenant responsibility.
“And if biodiversity net gain is being delivered onsite then a potential occupier will not have the same flexibility to cover a green roof in solar panels or build on what might appear to be an inconvenient area of landscaping.”
Shepherd notes: “I think it is fair to say that when a tenant moves in their main focus is not BNG and some tenants resist having even an area of grassland that they have to maintain – they want a low maintenance facility. While we will not force any tenant to do so we will encourage them to buy into BNG as a whole. Every new development is provided with an outdoor area with planting and benches and while the BNG element is not necessarily high it does create an attractive space which increases wellbeing.