What is Biodiversity Net Gain?
Biodiversity Net Gain (or BNG) is a principle which aims to leave the natural environment in a measurably better state after development than beforehand. The requirements set down by law will apply to all sites (save for exempt sites) from November 2023.
Background to BNG
Following a consultation in December 2018 which first considered BNG proposals, the government con-firmed its intention to bring in new law which would require new developments to deliver a net increase in biodiversity of at least 10%. In November 2021, the Environment Act 2021 received Royal Assent and so it was that the requirement entered the statute books and became mandatory.
A series of further consultations and responses ensued, discussing the practicalities of implementing the scheme and its scope, with the result that as of November this year, Defra’s new biodiversity metric version 4.0 will form the basis of calculating BNG.
Legal requirement to provide BNG
Biodiversity gain objective
The new statutory provisions introduce the concept of a ‘biodiversity gain objective’. This is met if the “bio-diversity value attributable to the development” exceeds the pre-development biodiversity value of the on-site habitat by at least 10%.
The “biodiversity value attributable to the development” is the total of:
(1) the post-development biodiversity value of the onsite habitat, and
(2) the biodiversity value of the development of any registered offsite biodiversity gain allocated to the development (see ‘Offsite biodiversity gain’ below), and
(3) the biodiversity value of any biodiversity credits purchased for the development (see ‘Offsite biodiversity gain’ below).
Planning condition to submit a Biodiversity Gain Plan
The outcome of the legislative changes is that every planning permission granted for the development of land in England (including deemed planning permission) that results in a loss or degradation of habitats, will have a mandatory condition imposed (or deemed to be imposed) to secure the 10% BNG.
Are there any exemptions to BNG?
BNG will not apply to:
- Development impacting habitat of an area below a ‘de minimis’ threshold of 25 metres squared, or five metres for linear habitats such as hedgerows
- Householder applications
- Biodiversity gain sites (where habitats are being enhanced for wildlife), and
- Small scale self-build and custom housebuilding.
BNG will, however, apply to:
– previously developed land;
– temporary permissions;
– change of use applications;
– development that would be permitted development but for its location (e.g. conservation areas, national parks, etc).
Where irreplaceable habitats are impacted by development, new Regulations will require measures to be taken to minimise the adverse impacts of the development on those habitats.
How will small sites be impacted by BNG?
The Government has confirmed that there will be a transition period until April 2024 for small sites to provide BNG. Until then, small sites will be exempt from having to provide on- or off-site BNG.
Small sites are defined for the purpose of the BNG exemption as:
- For residential: where the number of dwellings to be provided is between one and nine inclusive on a site having an area of less than one hectare, or where the number of dwellings to be provided is not known, a site area of less than 0.5 hectares, and
- For non-residential: where the floor space to be created is less than 1,000 square metres, or where the site area is less than one hectare.
We may also see regulations to modify the application of BNG in relation to:
- Outline permissions where reserved matters indicate that need for phasing
- Permission for development which can be carried out in phases
- s73 permissions (only if the original permission was granted after November 2023).
Calculating 10% net gain
The biodiversity value of any habitat is to be calculated in accordance with the biodiversity metric, which is to be produced and published by the Secretary of State (Defra). The provisions allow for the metric to be updated to allow for technical improvements.
The Government has confirmed that the next version of the biodiversity metric, metric 4.0, will be published by November 2023 and will form the basis of the statutory metric for the purposes of statutory BNG.
Importantly, where activity is carried out on land on or after 30 January 2020, without planning permission, which causes the onsite biodiversity value to be lowered, that activity is not taken into account when calculating the site’s pre-development biodiversity value.
The post-development biodiversity value is the projected value of the onsite habitat as at the time the development is completed. Proposals for BNG works can only be considered as part of the post-development biodiversity value if the gain will be maintained for at least 30 years after completion of the development, and secured by either a condition, a s106 or a Conservation Covenant.
Offsite biodiversity gain
Offsite biodiversity gains can be registered and biodiversity credits are to become available, which can be taken into account in deciding whether a development meets the biodiversity gain objective.
Registered offsite biodiversity gain is essentially biodiversity gain achieved on land other than the development site, which is subject to an arrangement so that it can be counted towards the development meeting the biodiversity gain objective.
Natural England will be setting up a Biodiversity Site Gain Register (hopefully very soon!), which will be a register of parcels land:
- In respect of which a person is required to carry out works to enhance the biodiversity of the habitat under a conservation covenant or planning obligation
- That person (or another person) is required to maintain the enhancement for at least 30 years after the completion of those works
- The enhancement is made available to be allocated in accordance with the terms of the covenant or obligation to one or more developments for which planning permission is granted
Landowners will be able to register their parcels of land with the Register, details of which will be publicly available and open to bids to obtain credits on.
Probably the most controversial element of the proposals: biodiversity credits can be bought and sold in connection with development, so that development can meet the biodiversity gain objective.
The price will be set by the Secretary of State but there is much scepticism over the Register being used to simply ‘buy’ planning permissions. It is speculated that the cost of the credits will be prohibitively high in an attempt to prevent this from happening and to enable a real impact to result from the credits purchased.
Payments received for the credits can be used to fund biodiversity enhancements, including to purchase land to do so, and the Secretary of State must report annually on their use.
How planning decisions can achieve BNG
In terms of how BNG can be achieved, the PPG advises that:
- Planning conditions or s106 obligations (including unilateral undertakings) can, in appropriate circumstances, be used to require that a planning permission provides for works that will measurably increase biodiversity. Such work could, for example, involve creating new habitats, enhancing existing habitats, providing green roofs, green walls, street trees or sustainable drainage systems. It notes that relatively small features can often achieve important benefits for wildlife, such as incorporating ‘swift bricks’ and bat boxes in developments and providing safe routes for hedgehogs between different areas of habitat
- Benefits can be achieved entirely onsite or by using offsite gains where necessary. Offsite measures can sometimes be secured from ‘habitat banks’, which comprise areas of enhanced or created habitats which generate biodiversity unit ‘credits’, and
- Care needs to be taken to ensure that any benefits promised will lead to genuine and demonstrable gains for biodiversity. Discussions with local wildlife organisations can help to identify appropriate solutions, and tools such as the Defra biodiversity metric can be used to assess whether a biodiversity net gain outcome is expected to be achieved. It cautions that LPAs need to make sure that any evidence and rationale supplied by applicants are supported by the appropriate scientific expertise and local wildlife knowledge
Proposed NPPF reform
The Government’s most recently closed consultation package looked further into measures to ensure that BNG can deliver, and wider opportunities to support BNG and biodiversity generally.
Whilst much has been progressed over the last couple of years, it is clear that there is a lot of detail still remaining and further consultations have been proposed on a variety of issues, including further secondary legislation and revisions to the NPPF.
If the Government (and everyone else involved) is to secure BNG in the way in which it envisages, starting in November this year, there are many strings to pull together in order to make it happen, including landowners, local authorities, ecologists, developers, lawyers, committee members and inspectors. Everyone will need to act quickly in reaction to revised guidance issued by Defra and be prepared to fully update those who rely on their advice.
For further information, please contact our Planning Team.