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From November 2023, developers must consider the environmental impact of a development, ensuring they leave a site’s biodiversity in a better state than before. In doing so, they must demonstrate the steps taken to protect, preserve, mitigate, or enhance any habitats found on site. That may include increasing natural habitats and ecological features over and above those originally there.
What is biodiversity?
In this context, the biodiversity of a site refers to its existing ecosystem, which may be affected by the proposed development. An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and the physical environment they inhabit.
What is biodiversity net gain?
Biodiversity net gain describes increasing a development site’s overall biodiversity value rather than decreasing it. As a result of the Environment Act 2021, biodiversity becomes a requirement for developers rather than an option from November 2023. At the planning application stage, they must demonstrate a net gain in biodiversity by at least 10%.
Some developers caught up in lengthy planning applications have found their plans falling foul of this new requirement. That has necessitated altering designs and implementing off-site mitigation strategies to comply.
Ecologists measure changes in biodiversity using a tool known as a biodiversity metric. Such tools are unavoidably complex, assigning every habitat on a particular site a ‘unit value’ according to its relative value for biodiversity. In doing so, a before and after comparison is possible.
What is biodiversity banking?
The government recognises that achieving a 10% biodiversity net gain on-site is not always possible. In such cases, developers can meet the new requirements by creating or enhancing habitats off-site through biodiversity banking.
A key feature of the Environment Act is establishing a ‘compliance market’ ensuring a supply of off-site biodiversity units to developers requiring them. In short, landowners create or enhance a particular habitat to the required standard on their land. This then enables them to sell the resulting biodiversity units into the market. Essentially, the principle is very similar to carbon offsetting.
To count towards a development’s biodiversity net gain, a developer must secure the off-site biodiversity gain through a conservation covenant or a planning condition. And before the plan’s final approval, registration is required on the Biodiversity Gain Site Register. But importantly, there is no requirement to complete off-site habitat creation before registering or selling biodiversity units. Instead, to minimise the impact on development timescales, any off-site work must commence as soon as feasible. But there is a longstop of twelve months following the discharge of the biodiversity net gain condition.