You may have heard the term ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ before, but is it clear what it actually means?
Biodiversity Net Gain, also known as ‘BNG’ is an approach used to account for the biodiversity impacts of development that were made a legal requirement in England by the Environment Act. However, before we begin to uncover what BNG is, we first need to understand what biodiversity is, and why it is so important.
What is ‘biodiversity’ and why is it in crisis?
As it goes, there is no single definition of biodiversity, in fact, defining the term has been a scientific endeavour of its own. National Geographic defines biodiversity as; ‘The variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria and fungi’. Biodiversity plays a key role in maintaining the health of the world’s ecosystems, with each species playing a role. Our continued presence on earth as a species directly depends upon the biodiversity around us.
Despite legislation and policy in place to protect UK biodiversity, the abundance of UK species’ has declined by 13% in the last 50 years with rapid declines in the last decade. We are in a biodiversity crisis! Biodiversity is core to the world as we know it and its rapid decline threatens our food, businesses, communities, and health, to name just a few. In recent years awareness of the biodiversity crisis has drastically increased across multiple scales and sectors. For example, within the private sector businesses are quickly realising that they’re dependant on biodiversity, e.g. through supply chains, or through benefits such as staff wellbeing and ecosystem services. In fact, it is estimated that in the UK the direct gross value added of nature is £51 billion. So, how can BNG help reduce biodiversity loss?
What is biodiversity net gain?
With awareness of the biodiversity crisis growing, there is a push for a nature-positive economy, where “nature (species and ecosystems) is being restored and is regenerating rather than declining” (Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership).
With very few areas of England protected explicitly for nature (3%), development of land (whether it’s to build new housing or create a new car park) often results in impacts on, and losses of, biodiversity. In recognition of the need to directly address and reverse the biodiversity crisis, the Environment Act was passed into UK law in November 2021. This Act includes a mandatory requirement for 10% Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) for development projects in England, that will come into effect in November 2023.
Natural England defines BNG as “an approach to development, land and marine management that leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state than before the development took place”. Mandatory BNG is a legal requirement for the development sector to deliver more for nature; setting a requirement for all new developments to increase biodiversity by a minimum of 10% compared to the baseline, and ensuring it is secured for at least 30 years. BNG builds on existing habitats and species protections and will ensure the development sector delivers nature-based solutions and plays its part in halting biodiversity loss and ensuring a nature-positive future.
How to report biodiversity net gain?
Achieving a +10% increase in biodiversity on new developments relies on our ability to measure biodiversity and give it a standardised score. The Biodiversity Metric is an open-access accounting tool designed by Natural England and DEFRA for calculating biodiversity net gain and should be used ‘by a competent person’ to inform planning, design, land management, and decision-making. The Biodiversity Metric considers the extent and condition of habitats as a proxy for biodiversity, converting them into ‘biodiversity units’, that are used as the metrics ‘currency’. Four components underpin the Biodiversity Metric: habitat size; condition; distinctiveness; and strategic significance. This allows the levels of biodiversity to be quantified and scored before and after development to ensure a 10% net gain of biodiversity is achieved and allows standardised reporting to the local planning authorities.
To ensure biodiversity and wider ecological benefits are at the forefront of developers’ decision-making, BNG should be considered from the get-go, during site selection and in turn site design. This ensures resources are not wasted on non-viable sites and ensures BNG requirements can be met. This reinforces the mitigation hierarchy by helping developers avoid sites of high value for biodiversity. Developers should aim to avoid loss of habitat on land they develop, but if unavoidable, they will be required to:
The system is designed to make statutory biodiversity credits the least desirable option. This means engaging with BNG from the very earliest stages of a development project’s conception will make the BNG experience much smoother.
Who needs to think about BNG?
BNG will apply to developers, land managers, and local planning authorities. Developers will be required to submit a biodiversity gain plan (BGP), showing how they will achieve +10% BNG, for a project to be considered for planning permissions. For land managers, BNG can create long-term income opportunities through investment in habitat management. They will be able to get paid for selling ‘off-site’ biodiversity units to developers if they meet criteria such as the possession of land in England, consent to register the land if they’re not the landowner and a legal agreement for the land being registered. Local planning authorities (LPA) will have the legal obligation to appraise biodiversity net gain plans for future developments after November 2023 when BNG reporting becomes mandatory. It is likely BNG will be embedded in local planning policy and will align with their corporate priorities via Local Nature Recovery Strategies. LPAs could also offer biodiversity units to developers from LPA owned land.
How can the BNG screening tool help?
Ensuring BNG is met will require careful planning and engagement. Site selection and design are now more critical than ever, so choosing and designing sites to avoid sensitive locations, or locations with habitats of particularly high value to nature will make achieving BNG much more straightforward. At the moment most developers check the BNG implications of sites and their viability by conducting a desk-based review, however navigating the complex data landscape takes time, and is costly. Data investigated in a desk-based review, even those provided by government bodies, have uncertainties and discrepancies and therefore should be interpreted by a skilled spatial ecologist or data analyst. These data barriers are a huge limitation when trying to make rapid business decisions. Putting nature first should be so much easier! This is where the BNG Screening Tool comes in.
The BNG screening tool allows for a rapid and efficient review of development sites anywhere across England. The tool uses highly trusted data sources, automates the process of conducting a desk-based review, and calculates the likely BNG implications of potential development sites instantaneously. The tool has been designed with ease of use in mind and will help people quickly understand the nature requirements of their site by removing the data barriers. The BNG screening tool considers 55 habitats and estimates a site’s biodiversity units using the Biodiversity Metric calculation, as well as flagging additional constraints such as designated sites and the presence of ancient woodland. With the consistent and comprehensive output from the tool, users will be able to understand potential implications early on in the planning process, follow the mitigation hierarchy more effectively, and place biodiversity at the start of their decision-making process.
Using tools like the BNG screening tool, will support developers in their BNG journey, and help them towards a nature-positive future.