In recent months, we’ve seen a raft of new government guidance published, including a consultation draft of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and the long-awaited 25-year Environment Plan.
From an ecological perspective, there is much of interest in these documents, which imply a level of determination from the government to ensure a sustained – even increased – level of protection for the environment. This is particularly interesting as Brexit looms.
However, the new NPPF also preserves from previous iterations the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ – set out in paragraph 11 of the revised draft. In other words, applications for development are, as a rule, to be favoured, unless it can be proven that the resulting loss of biodiversity would significantly outweigh the benefits provided by the development.
Taken together, these factors imply an increase in the level of strategic planning the government wishes local authorities to undertake, to ensure that development delivers benefits to the environment. This is evident in paragraph 35, as well as 168d which states that: 'Planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by: minimising impacts and providing net gains for biodiversity.'
This, like much of the new legislation, bodes well for the environment when it comes to development and planning concerns; the new documents demonstrate an increased inclination towards supporting local authorities to deliver ‘net gains’ for biodiversity.
However, and while this is to be applauded, previous experience suggests that realizing these benefits in practice will prove a greater task.
The government Section 106 agreements currently in place, which require housing developers to deliver social benefits – such as low-cost housing – to local communities, offer an example. These agreements have proved less successful than anticipated, in large part due inadequate enforcement and a lack of clear delineation.
In addition to this challenge, government pilot schemes have called attention to issues with some of the methodology designed to deliver benefits to the environment.
The eight pilot schemes set up to trial Biodiversity Offsetting from 2012-2014 highlighted some issues with realizing ‘net gains’ in practice. Reviews found that delivery of the offsetting measures was hindered by a lack of both experience and evidence.
So what does a good Biodiversity Strategy look like in practice?
Well, no two strategies will look the same. Working on a case-by-case basis is vital to ensuring that individually developed strategies fulfil the new requirements and deliver tangible, local benefits to the environment.
However, a number of core principles should underpin all Biodiversity Strategies:
• Specificity: Set measurable targets
• Price Estimation: Cost-assess the measures required to (a) meet targets and (b) collect proportionate developer contributions
• Collaboration: Work with local partners to deliver the Plan, capitalizing on the vested interest, and proven knowledge, of experts such as Wildlife Trusts to elevate the prospects for success
• Transparency: Have projects monitored by external organisations such as Local Record Centres, to secure independent validation of the approach
• Clarity: Ensure that the outcomes are published and measures reviewed in response
• Manage: Have projects reviewed and managed by a working party comprising local wildlife bodies, to ensure that money is spent wisely and transparency is maintained.
By following these principles, local authorities will be able to improve strategic plans for biodiversity, using previous knowledge to circumvent issues that have plagued legislation such as the Section 106 agreements.
By working to develop individual Biodiversity Strategies, in line with government policy and following expert ecological advice, local authorities will be able to ensure that their Plans not only meet government requirements, but also succeed in practice, delivering tangible ‘net gains’ to the local environment.
Karen Colebourn is director and principal ecologist at ecological consultancy EPR