Developers may be required to leave habitats better off for wildlife than they were before construction under new proposals set out by the government.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said a so-called “biodiversity net gain” could be put in place when building new housing or commercial development, requiring developers to place the environment “at the heart of new development”.
If green improvements, such as planting trees or creating local nature spaces, are not possible in certain circumstances, developers could be charged a levy for the creation of habitat or improvement elsewhere.
The government is consulting on the proposals, which are expected to result in better outcomes for nature and people, with the millions of pounds invested in environmental impact mitigation by developers every year.
It is also considering whether any sites – such as small and brownfield sites – should be exempt from the rules.
Mr Gove said: “Our commitment to protecting and enhancing our natural world can go hand in hand with our ambition to build more high quality homes.
“Mandating biodiversity net gain puts the environment at the heart of planning and development. This will not only create better places for people to live and work but ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.”
The consultation is open until 10th February 2019.
The government’s proposal is that biodiversity net gain will be delivered within the existing planning and development process.
When assessing potential development sites, habitat surveys will identify habitats and their condition as is already done for much development. Surveys help identify opportunities for enhancement as part of green infrastructure as well as possible constraints.
Development design will proceed as normal but better informed by figures for biodiversity losses and gains. A standard biodiversity metric will be populated with habitat information from the site assessment and landscape plans. This will help demonstrate at an early stage that harm has been avoided as far as possible and that new green infrastructure will be of good environmental quality.
The metric could also help to anticipate the costs of achieving net gain to factor these into land purchase where possible. No existing planning protection for the environment will be weakened and the principle of avoiding harm first (known as the “mitigation hierarchy”) will continue to ensure that preventing damage to nature will always be prioritised, wherever possible.
If net gain cannot be achieved on site, the metric would provide the right information to discuss habitat enhancement or creation with local providers or with the local authority during pre-application negotiations. The tariff rate would offer a guide for the upper limit of habitat compensation costs, alongside information from growing habitat creation markets.
When preparing local plans, local authorities are able to identify opportunities for habitat improvement that would benefit local people and support nature recovery. They would be able to choose to bring improvement sites forward themselves or work with other providers.
When developers and local planning authorities are consulting with the local community prior to submitting a planning application, it will be possible to use biodiversity net gain figures and habitat enhancement measures to explain the benefits and costs of a development proposal more transparently.
With clearer expectations, developers will be able to submit planning applications with greater confidence that proposals can be supported on biodiversity grounds.
For local authorities, transparent figures for biodiversity losses and gains can be quickly checked and provide confidence that impacts will be positive. Figures will also indicate the environmental quality of green infrastructure as part of development design.
As part of the planning permission, developers would sign up to predictable conditions, obligations or a tariff payment to secure biodiversity net gain. The availability of a tariff would prevent planning permission from being delayed by net gain requirements, and local authorities will be able to demonstrate that positive impacts to help improve the environment for local communities have been secured.