Councils should aim to go beyond 10% BNG

Research by Wildlife and Countryside Link has revealed that in most Local Authorities, Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) will fail to go beyond “offsetting”.

Bee on Comfrey
Photo by Thomas Winward on Unsplash

Developers have been providing increasingly less green space as part of new developments over past decades, resulting in fewer green spaces for residents. Mandatory from today, BNG could turn this around as it aims to ensure the natural environment is left in a better state than it was before the development. That could be by creating new habitats such as woodland or by restoring areas such as wetlands. Benefits of this include more homes for declining wildlife, boosting public health through access to nature spaces, and helping protect communities against extreme weather including floods and heatwaves.

However, nature experts have warned that 10% is too low to achieve a net gain in habitat and wildlife populations. The Government’s Impact Assessment acknowledged that 10% BNG may not go beyond “no net loss”. Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England said that “biodiversity net gain is really about keeping things as they are”. 

As one of the most nature depleted countries, the UK must act with ambition and bold policies to combat the ecological crisis. The State of Nature 2023 report revealed extremely troubling trends, finding that 2% of species in Great Britain are already extinct and a further 16% of species are
threatened with extinction, with the biggest cause of land and freshwater wildlife decline to
be land use and climate change.

In urban areas, it is estimated that half of English neighbourhoods have less than 10% tree cover, particularly in lower-income areas. With an already overwhelming lack of nature and green space, 10% BNG should not be considered the top limit for development, especially as Defra concluded that 10% is the absolute minimum necessary to provide reasonable confidence that there will be no let loss of biodiversity.

The Environment Act 2021 allows Local Authorities to set net gain requirements above 10% in their Local Plans. However, nature organisations say that the vast majority of local authorities are set to go no further than the mandatory 10% BNG minimum requirements. 

Biodiversity gain is likely to drive less than £200m in additional investment per annum and most of this investment will be to compensate for harm caused by development, with crucially – only a fraction (if any) will be contributing to actual nature recovery targets.

In other words, unless BNG requirements increase beyond 10%, the policy is largely limited to offsetting.

Rebecca Pullinger, Lead Policy Advocate in the Woodland Trust conservation team, said: “Nature is in crisis, with for example, just 9 per cent of our woods are in good ecological condition. We need an ambitious approach to turn this around. Done well, Biodiversity Net Gain could be part of this, but a 10% gain is not enough. Government must empower local authorities to raise the bar – by providing clear guidance to local authorities on how this can be done. A bold approach is needed to inspire the vital protection, restoration and creation of nature rich habitats for the benefit of communities and wildlife across the country.”

Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) research

A Freedom of Information request was submitted by WCL to all 317 local authorities in England
between 15th & 28th November, asking what percentage of BNG they currently require for
developments in their local plans or will be seeking in their local plan reviews.

The findings revealed that just 26 local authorities (8%) have either committed to, or are considering, BNG requirements above the mandatory requirement of 10%. Out of 317 local authorities in England:

  • 293 local authorities (92%) currently have no policy on Biodiversity Net Gain in place and will only be committing to the mandatory 10% when BNG becomes compulsory.
  • 26 local authorities (8%) have a current target of around 10% BNG that will continue after it becomes mandatory.
  • Just 2 local authorities, Guildford & Worthing, have adopted BNG policies of 20% into their local plans currently (for Worthing this applies to land that has been previously developed only). This is just 0.6% of local authorities.
  • 18 local authorities including East Devon, Canterbury and West Oxfordshire have emerging* BNG policies above 10%. These range up to 30% for Kingston Upon Thames and Tower Hamlets.
  • A further 6 local authorities including Birmingham, Herefordshire and Greater Cambridge are seriously considering BNG policies above 10%.
  • Just 24 authorities were found to have active targets on Biodiversity Net Gain ahead of the 10% rule becoming mandatory on 12th February 2024, with the vast majority at or around 10%

The WCL report highlighted that two particularly ambitious councils; London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames were both striving for a target of 30% net gain, to be adopted by late 2024 and 2025 respectively.

Other councils of note highlighted in the report included; (1) Oxfordshire County Council who in 2022 adopted a policy within its Climate and Natural Environment Policy Statement to ‘Achieve and where possible exceed government and local biodiversity net gain targets with an ambition of achieving 20% net gain’, and (2) The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead will be encouraging a best practice of 20% net gain on new developments.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “We really welcome the introduction of mandatory net gain. Done well, it could help turn around the decline of species and habitats, from dormice and red squirrels to meadows and woodlands, and give communities more natural spaces to enjoy. But the law is too lenient. It will make no dent at all in the £5bn annual gap in funding for nature recovery. Added to concerns about Local Authorities’ capacity to enforce the rules, there’s real concern that net gain will only amount to a glorified offsetting scheme. While 10% may help prevent a decline, Government must support much higher ambitions to restore nature. The local success stories revealed today show that there’s real appetite among Local Authorities to go further for nature, but there’s a real risk that without support many areas lose out on this opportunity. The Government should publish clear guidance to support Local Authorities to go further for nature and raise the bar for biodiversity net gain”.

Effective BNG recommendations from environment experts for the Government

  • Support local planning authorities in raising their ambition above the national 10% minimum and consider increasing the national minimum net gain to more than 10%.
  • Publish a consultation on the definition, expanded list, and compensation principles for irreplaceable habitats.
  • Reverse the decision to enable the selling of excess units.
  • Improve the monitoring and enforcement of onsite delivery, through requiring onsite gains to be registered on the BNG register and providing guidance and support for local planning authorities to carry out enforcement if BNG is not delivered.