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Who actually gains from biodiversity proposals?

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Environmentalists remain concerned about the government's biodiversity net gain proposals, writes Dr Des Purdy.

As part of its 25-year Environment Plan, the government has committed to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it found it”. To this end, environment secretary Michael Gove ran a public consultation to assess how best to integrate the government’s commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year with biodiversity enhancement.

The government has yet to produce definitive guidelines on the mechanisms to be followed. But in his Spring Statement, chancellor Philip Hammond set out the government’s intention to make biodiversity net gain compulsory within planning policy.

Local planning authorities have taken varied approaches to securing biodiversity gains. This contributes to an impression that the interpretation and implementation of policy differs between local authorities, and is frequently subject to requests for additional surveys, all of which contribute to delays, frustration and expense for developers.

Current policy and practice suggest that in most cases, net gains are achieved by local judgements following a negotiation process, often through section 106 agreements. What the government is proposing is a single, consistent, national approach. This new system would use an existing ‘Defra metric’ to determine the ecological value of habitats at any given site. A site score is ascribed based on habitat distinctiveness, condition and extent, expressed as biodiversity units. An improvement of at least 10 per cent is proposed.

“Environmentalists have concerns about whether these new proposals might actually permit developments that would otherwise have been rejected”

Reaction to confirmation that biodiversity net gain will be made compulsory has been mixed; industry bodies have raised concerns about the potential for more costs and delays. These are likely to arise from the need for developers to familiarise themselves with new rules. The policy also raises questions regarding a lack of clarity in the consultation proposals. Environmentalists have concerns about whether these proposals might permit developments that would otherwise have been rejected, as proposals now offer the chance to buy off-site investments as compensation for habitat loss. Without careful governance, this may lead to local species losses.

Another worrying aspect of the Defra metric is the failure to account for individual wildlife species and an admission that no metric will be able to take every detail of biodiversity into account.

It is laudable that government strives to deliver net biodiversity gains through development, but it is uncertain whether these plans will improve the system as far as ecological receptors are concerned. 

Dr Des Purdy is senior ecologist at ProVision


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