Biodiversity Net Gain: What is it and why is it potentially so important?

Photo by Paul Hobson

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is coming, and it’s coming fast. With it comes huge opportunity and significant risk. Either way, it’ll be one of the biggest changes to UK conservation funding for decades. So what is it? Read on to find out more.

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is coming, and it’s coming fast. With it comes huge opportunity and significant risk. Either way, it’ll be one of the biggest changes to UK conservation funding for decades. So what is it?

BNG is due to be made mandatory under the new Environment Bill this year, and it means that developers who want to build houses, will – for the first time – have to “leave biodiversity in a better state than [they] found it”.

This means that they will have to quantify their anticipated impact on our plants, animals and habitats as part of their planning application, and come up with, and subsequently fund, a long-term plan that can deliver at least 10% more of the species and habitats that they are going to negatively affect either on-site (via the “mitigation hierarchy”) where they are building, or (if they cannot do this) then they must do so somewhere else with comparable habitat or potential to create comparable habitat. This is known as off-site delivery or offsetting.

BNG is loaded with technical terminology that I am doing my best to avoid here – although you can fill your boots with it by visiting the CIEEM website as it explains the UK BNG scheme in greater detail.

Application of the mitigation hierarchy is going to be key if BNG is going to work for wildlife rather than for developers. This is, quite frankly, something we are still wrestling with.

If a given developer doesn’t systematically look at how they can avoid impacts (including, critically, off-site ones like pollution, and their contribution to cumulative ones e.g. human disturbance to nearby wildlife sites); minimise those that they cannot avoid; and then restore as much of said damage as possible within the footprint of the development, prior to looking at what they need to do elsewhere through offsetting, then it probably won’t result in a net gain at all. Therefore, success depends on how BNG is interpreted and applied by a whole suite of people from developers to ecological consultants, local government and statutory bodies.

The theory behind BNG is reasonably solid [unless you subscribe to the view that putting a value on nature is inherently a losing game as some well-informed people do] and the intent behind it is pretty clear: to try and reverse loss of nature due to development.

Biodiversity Net Gain target areas

Biodiversity Net Gain target areas

But, a larger question for us in the South East of England (with the number of houses potentially coming our way, and the competing alternative uses for the land that might be required to achieve the scale of offsetting that might be required) is ”do we have enough space” to do it?

The answer here is, again, nuanced. There may well be, if we properly set it aside for nature long-term via proper land use planning that prioritises wildlife to achieve the degree of offsetting that’s going to be required. In Kent, this will mean making sure that BNG becomes a funding stream to make the Nature Recovery Network into something real. Indeed it could help us achieve Kent Wildlife Trust’s vision of 30% of the county with thriving wildlife. Our analysis (see map above) suggests that it is achievable if there is sufficient political will.

On the latter, BNG has been used in other countries for quite some time; and the Biodiversity & Business Offsets Programme (BBOP) has provided a detailed analysis of what’s required to make it work (see image below. Click on image to see original document on page 10).

This shows what’s required in terms of the wider support frameworks if we’re going to succeed. The good news is that Kent Wildlife Trust, and the Wildlife Trusts nationally, are well placed to influence all the necessary bits of the jigsaw to make it succeed.

The bad news is that government, at the moment, seems willing to mandate BNG for house builders but has exempt “Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects” (NSIP) from it – witness the wholly inadequate mitigation plans for HS2 – which seems to skip ‘avoidance’ entirely - given the proposed route goes through some 108 ancient woodlands, 33 SSSI’s and 693 Local Wildlife Sites! This is something that needs to be changed. We can only hope that potential projects like the Lower Thames Crossing decide to deliver proper BNG voluntarily. Our experience in Kent has been somewhat mixed to date, even with NSIP developers who should understand this agenda fully, for example, connections to wind farms across Sandwich & Pegwell bay, and solar farms at Cleve Hill.

Meanwhile, however, Kent Wildlife Trust has to work with what we’ve got and will, therefore, need to work at multiple levels to try and ensure that Biodiversity Net Gain delivery sews into broader long-term conservation objectives – taking the international learning and applying it locally. Biodiversity Net Gain is not a stand-alone solution to the biodiversity crisis but it is a potential contributor to minimising further damage and, potentially, a key component of building a more comprehensive solution on-the-ground whilst society and politicians catch up with the magnitude of habitat restoration that is required to tackle the interlinked Climate and Nature Crises.

Through our recent restructuring at Kent Wildlife Trust we’re now very well placed to make Biodiversity Net Gain work for wildlife in our county.

  1. The Kent Wildlife Trust Planning team will continue to work within the charity itself, objecting – where required – to straight-up bad planning applications, whilst working with local planning authorities, developers and partners in the Kent Nature Partnership to make sure that BNG is delivered within an effective and a joined up local policy framework that puts nature first.
     
  2. At the same time our, now legally separated, Consultancy team will work with those developers we think are going to get permission to build houses to come up with BNG plans that have the best chance of real gains for wildlife – working in a mission consistent way with Kent Wildlife Trust, its sole shareholder.
     
  3. Our Land Management team will then be able to take on long-term management of additional land that we can bring into conservation management as offsets are created.
     
  4. Meanwhile, our Advocacy team – working in conjunction with other Wildlife Trusts elsewhere – can start to challenge whether the overall level of housing being proposed in the South East is ecologically feasible.
     
  5. Working as a cross-cutting team we can try and focus all Biodiversity Net Gain investments into a long-term landscape framework – under the new Nature Recovery Network, off the expected passing of the Environment Bill – so that Biodiversity Net Gain contributes to delivering on the principles of making our wildlife habitats bigger, better & more joined up.

Kent Wildlife Trust and our Consultancy will deliver more for wildlife than commercial consultancies. The latter are about generating profit. Any money we make goes back into conservation. This is our USP, and one of the reasons we’re an attractive delivery partner for developers and local authorities alike.
 
To restore nature at scale society needs to Protect; Restore; and Fund.
Biodiversity Net Gain can play a part at all 3 levels. It should work for wildlife. We have a duty to make sure it does now that it’s here. The potential for real benefits cannot be ignored.  Kent Wildlife Trust will work to make sure it has the maximum possible positive impact.