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Why Making Biodiversity Economically Visible is Critical

As we inch ever closer to The Environment Bill becoming law, the debate around Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) – the concept I introduced to the UK over a decade ago – is heating up.

This week Channel 4 News covered an item on BNG that I watched with much interest. The piece, by Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson, addressed a number of concerns that BNG actually favours developers rather than the environment and that the metrics for measuring BNG are flawed.

To recap – under current proposals within The Environment Bill passing through Parliament as I write, a mandate for offsetting biodiversity loss on all new developments is set out. This not only covers the rebalancing of natural habitats for all those lost via development but includes a provision to actively increase habitats and wildlife by a minimum of 10%.

As a passionate conservationist, I have spent much of my career campaigning to make this happen.

Why do I believe so passionately that this new plan for our planet can restore our natural habitats at meaningful scale? And how will the proposals set out in the Bill have a transformative effect on our natural environment – and our economy? Let me explain.

The process for developers that is currently in place is catastrophic for the environment with biodiversity, especially, receiving a very poor deal. Presently, the majority of biodiversity schemes laid down by developers are onsite, substandard and poorly maintained. Some would say they represent greenwash.

Work by Professor Ian Bateman of Exeter University and Professor Stewart Thompson of Oxford Brookes University has shown not only the very poor quality of onsite biodiversity provision (and the poor treatment of biodiversity in environmental statements) and lack of liability excepted by the developer but that for ecology and people, delivering biodiversity within a development is usually the very worst place to put it.

In short, onsite biodiversity schemes are a tick-box exercise that are rarely enforced by strapped planning authorities and even more rarely managed with sufficient funding by the developer for 30 years. Usually, the plans are handed over to a management company when the developer leaves a site and that management company, usually run by residents, removes most of any biodiversity interest because it is untidy, preferring amenity grassland where the dogs can be walked and the children can play.

In my view – based on decades of studying, consulting and working in the public and private ecology sectors with a clear focus on biodiversity restoration – The Environment Act must ensure that offsite habitats are created, at scale, that maximise ecological restoration. Done correctly, they will be designed in consultation with expert ecologists and managed by farmers and landowners who would be paid attractive rates to manage their land – making the products of biodiversity net gain economically visible.

The Environment Act is the catalyst for such change. For the first time, it will create a legal and economic impetus to get this right. BNG will help us enhance our natural environment and in doing so will make a significant contribution to carbon sequestration and nutrient management.

Biodiversity net gain, where developers pay for conservation credits that fund offsite habitat creation and management at a large scale (for example one large site so established can serve multiple developments), will be the key to helping us re-grow our wild landscapes. Well planned and managed habitat banks, properly addressing biodiversity loss and helping landscapes to become more climate change resilient are the key.

Obviously, developers will, through their masterplans, wish to provide attractive green space for recreation and health and wellbeing benefits. However, constraining those masterplans on a notion that, for example, a housing development has to provide biodiversity net gain within the site boundary, is missing the point about restoring nature. We will simply fail to deliver any nature recovery by fiddling with fragments within a housing development. We have to think big.

We already know that some developers are struggling to implement BNG onsite and there is evidence that habitat classifications are being fudged to make the calculations show that the developer needs to do less than is actually the case. When BNG becomes mandatory, the process by which the calculations are reached will become transparent. Offsite biodiversity net gain delivery makes it simpler, easier and more cost-effective for them to meet these new regulations. The Government’s plans must embrace offsite solutions which will contribute significantly to funding effective delivery of the Government’s ambitions for 500,000ha of nature recovery. This will not come from the public purse or from grants from challenged environmental foundations.

The environmental NGO sector spends just under £1bn a year on biodiversity-related initiatives though how much of this delivers projects on the ground is opaque and biodiversity continues to decline rapidly. We, therefore, need to look at biodiversity restoration through a new lens by making nature economically visible. I truly believe that Biodiversity Net Gain will have a transformative effect on the environment and countryside in this country.

There has also been confusion expressed over the robustness of the metric – for example, that it may not apply to rewilded sites because the habitat type is not functionally recognised as yet. However, I very much doubt that any development would come forward on a rewilded site so the matter is unlikely to arise in terms of working out how much compensation would be needed for damage to such a site. Where a modification to the metric may be applied would be in a situation where, for example, the Environment Bank wished to sell conservation credits for rewilding either to developers or corporates. We are currently working on an adaptation that could be applied under such circumstances.

The private sector is well placed to invest in safeguarding our natural environment – and in turn create new jobs through the green economy. But many ecologists are missing the point about BNG – it is designed to save and enhance biodiversity.As The Environment Bill proceeds, I will be watching closely as the debate unfolds. I truly believe we are on the brink of creating a new future for our environment and the Act and BNG are a catalyst for change that can’t come soon enough.

About the author

David Hill