With the destruction of natural environments ever present and the rise of extreme weather events, the pressing need to promote better environmental practices across all industries has been brought into sharp focus in recent years.
The planning and construction sector can often be viewed as the enemy of environmental progress, particularly when it comes to building on rural land. But this isn’t always the case. For example, the use of sustainable building materials is gaining in popularity, as well as the creation of housing and developments that are more eco-conscious.
It is however, impossible to ignore the impact that construction has on our native wildlife in the UK, with the noise and light pollution often driving protected species away, as well as destroying plant life and organisms that play an important role in our ecosystem. A recent government publication claimed that 15% of species within the UK are threatened with extinction, and since 1970 the abundance of UK priority species has declined by 60%. Part of our current planning process is in place to ensure this doesn’t happen and that new developments cause the least damage possible.
There is still a long way to go and this year with COP26 taking place, making changes that positively affect the environment are high on the agenda for the UK Government, as it looks to create widespread reform of the planning process.
A new legislation was recently proposed that could see a major change in the design and application process, Biodiversity Net Gain – which is slated to become law in 2023.
What is Biodiversity Net Gain?
Simply put, if you submit a planning application for land which doesn’t have an existing structure on it, you will be required to create a biodiverse environment on that property or within the regional authority, 10% bigger than the development you’re building, and these must be factored into your plans.
There are lots of ways to create a biodiverse environment, such as wildlife meadows that attract important pollinators and water features and ponds which can attract struggling aquatic life such as frogs and newts.
It would be easy to assume that this would only affect big new build housing developments like the ones springing up on the outskirts of towns or the greenbelt, but it also applies to homeowners looking to add a structure to their existing property.
The rules around it are also stringent on ensuring long lasting results. So, for example, if you are building an extension or garage, and to comply you add a pond with a grassy bank - by law that pond has to stay for 20 years, even if you leave. Almost like a land charge on your property.
The benefits will of course be phenomenal. We could rebuild the population of endangered species, it would play a role in cleaning up the air for those living in urban environments, and it would also create a more attractive community for us all to live in.
The challenge for local authorities
Undeniably, it’s a big change. Many looking to build on their properties quickly and cheaply are likely to be angered, and for planning departments it’s going to require a lot of extra administration.
A Government consultation was launched in 2018, with a full summary of response published in 2019. This document highlights some of the challenges that will come with the enforcement of Biodiversity Net Gains, including those who work within local authority planning departments.
Rising costs are of course a concern, especially at a time when local authority budgets are decreasing, but one of the biggest challenges is measurement; how will they work out what counts as diverse enough when local governments don’t typically employ ecologists who can measure diversity in a tangible percentage?
And it really could end up being granular, is a wildflower meadow better than planting an oak tree? And what about location? In London, if you’re just replacing concrete with concrete does it matter, will it have as much impact as someone who has built over woodland in the Cotswolds?
The solution lies in digital
The consultation seemingly goes to great lengths to answer these queries, with the overarching message that yes there is more to consider and yes it will be inconvenient - but action is needed now.
As a result, environmental consultancies are beginning to offer advice to local authorities on calculating the impact of biodiverse environments, there are also online tools; Natural England has a biodiversity calculator, which creates a before and after map with a rough calculation. It also considers the environment, whether it’s urban, coastal, or countryside.
But if we delve down to the day to day of a planning officer, one of the most pertinent questions that remains is, ‘how can local authorities make the planning process legislatively compliant?’
The answer will likely lie in your planning software, we are already engaging with local authority customers to ensure that our software supports the addition of biodiversity net gains.
Something the tech industry needs to learn is how software can be utilised and we will be working with our customers to work on research and development - to fully understand the challenges and benefits of Biodiversity Net Gain. Once we can start capturing information in planning applications we will be able to create software that can measure the biodiversity of an application before the start and at the of the project.
Building a better future
Times are turbulent, so inevitably there may be delays to this legislation. But as the adage says, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ and for local authorities, setting the wheels in motion with research and putting some of the principles in your software now, will likely offer the best protection going forward.
The easy thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do. Albeit there are many challenges and hurdles to bring Biodiversity Net Gain into fruition, taking steps to protect our environment matters; even if it requires more staff and more development we still need to push forward, because it’s the only choice to protect future generations.
Paul Beaney is customer success director at DEF Software