The idea that new projects should not only avoid harming biodiversity, but in fact positively contribute to it, represents a significant cultural shift. The Environment Act 2021 first introduced the concept of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), with the requirement for developers to submit and have approved (prior to commencing development) a plan showing how a 10% gain in biodiversity value will be achieved. The 10% figure is a minimum, not a cap – in practice, local standards may require a higher percentage. Embedding BNG in the planning process represents a significant step and one which will require early engagement with the LPA from pre-app stage and right through to the grant of planning permission.
What's the timing?
The Government had originally intended to implement BNG in November 2023, but this was delayed until January 2024 for major schemes, and April 2024 for small sites. Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPS) are expected to be subject to a BNG requirement from 2025.
The Government has promised a raft of guidance for developers and LPAs on how BNG will operate in practice. Some guidance is already available, with the rest expected to follow at the end of November ahead of BNG becoming mandatory at the start of next year.
How can developers meet BNG requirements?
The delivery of BNG can range from the creation of new habitats, such as chalk grasslands or meadows through to smaller enhancements such as the installation of bee bricks and green roofs. The specific BNG requirement will be calculated by reference to Biodiversity Metric 4.0, with the delivery of BNG being secured via planning conditions and legal agreements.
There is a hierarchy of approaches through which this requirement can be met. The first preference is to do it on-site. However, recognising that some development sites may be constrained in this regard, developers will also be able to meet their BNG requirement in the following ways:
- achieving the required gain on an alternative site for a duration of at least 30 years; or
- as a "last resort", purchasing what will be known as 'biodiversity credits', when the system has been set up.
What is nutrient neutrality and why is it controversial?
High nitrate levels in freshwater and coastal habitats can damage protected sites by encouraging the excessive growth of certain plants and algae via a process called 'eutrophication'. This harms water quality, thereby causing die-offs of other plants and impacting on the animals and wider ecosystems linked to that water. Under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 , local planning authorities are tasked with assessing the environmental impact of planning applications and local plans which may affect these protected sites. They can only approve new residential development if it can achieve 'nutrient neutrality'. This requires mitigation of the nutrient loads within the additional wastewater and surface water which will be created by the development, for instance by creating new wetlands to strip nutrients from water or establishing buffer zones along rivers and other watercourses. Critics argue that this requirement has a significant negative impact on new developments, particularly the number of homes granted planning permission.
Is the UK nutrient neutrality requirement being modified?
In August, the Government announced that it planned to introduce an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that would remove this requirement in order to allow for the delivery of more than 100,000 new homes. It would then expand the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme run by Natural England, doubling investment to £280 million. However, this amendment was rejected by the House of Lords, leaving developers frustrated with the resulting uncertainty. No legislation to expand any mitigation scheme was included in the King's Speech. That left the Autumn Statement as the next opportunity for the issue to be addressed and it was there that Jeremy Hunt announced the Local Nutrient Mitigation Fund, investing £110m over the next couple of years to "deliver high quality nutrient mitigation schemes, unlocking 40,000 homes". The intention is that the funding will unlock stalled schemes by supporting LPAs to deliver schemes which offset nutrient pollution.
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