The Extraordinary Rise and Rise of Biodiversity Net Gain

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By Rachel Hoskin, Director at Footprint Ecology; Tom Butterworth, Biodiversity Technical Director at WSP, Julia Baker Biodiversity Technical Specialist at Balfour Beatty

Walk into a biodiversity net gain meeting of any sort, anywhere, right now, and the room is buzzing. More often than not, attendance at such meetings is because their employer is happy for them to be there and not earn a penny. The biodiversity net gain hive is literally overflowing with worker bees from all sectors, getting out there and spreading the biodiversity net gain message.

What is so remarkable about this group is the fact that they are bringing innovative ideas, pushing for better standards, demanding more from Government, asking for rules to be established, wanting to showcase their case studies…. and yet a significant proportion of them are developers and construction companies. Those that are supposed to do the bare minimum for biodiversity, drag their feet when it comes to legal compliance, and shuffle their true impact under the carpet.

Yet here they are, standing together with consultants, Non-governmental organisations, statutory nature conservation advisors, local planning authorities and research institutes, demanding more. Shouting from the rooftops that they are pushing ahead with biodiversity net gain, and Government needs to catch up with this train.

Thankfully, our Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove has now been receptive, and the train has been caught (with the help of some brilliant worker bees within Government who are doing a simply amazing job of raising the profile of biodiversity net gain). When the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan (2018) landed we eagerly skimmed to find the magic words, and low and behold both environmental and biodiversity net gains were there upfront, a platform to further launch our biodiversity net gain work.

The hive is on a mission and its achievements have been incredible. Here we list just a few of those achievements to date:

  • A milestone publication of the Good Practice Principles for Biodiversity Net Gain by CIEEM, CIRIA and IEMA in 2016, firmly establishing industry as leading biodiversity net gain by setting out good practice
  • Natural England’s thorough revision of the original Defra biodiversity metric, taking into account extensive feedback from all sectors and now piloting what promises to be an exciting advancement of the metric
  • Pushing for effective and implementable planning polices at the national level, resulting in stronger biodiversity net gain wording in the revised National Planning Policy Framework (2018)
  • Showcasing of more and more case studies, which are not the glossary ‘coffee book’ communications but rather an openness to share lessons learnt, be honest about difficulties, and show what can be done to boost biodiversity within a broad range of developments
  • Multiple networks of cross-sector partnerships and an enthusiasm for working with stakeholders, even if they are challenging approaches and asking for more gains
  • Investment by leading organisations to develop practical guidance on designing and implementing biodiversity net gain, which has just been published by CIRIA, CIEEM and IEMA
  • Biodiversity net gain related conferences, training, webinars and workshops. The forthcoming CIEEM Spring conference will be a great opportunity to further share and develop ideas from across the UK.

And finally….. Enthusing Defra to the extent that in early 2019 Government issued a public consultation on whether biodiversity net gain should be a mandatory requirement for certain development – and news just in – the MH Treasury has confirmed that the government will use the forthcoming Environment Bill to mandate biodiversity net gain for development in England, ensuring that the delivery of much-needed infrastructure and housing is not at the expense of vital biodiversity.

The train keeps going…. The worker bees are out there finding new places, new sectors, new organisations to work with. The hive is currently looking at how international good practice for the ‘people’ aspects of biodiversity net gain will work in the UK, burrowing into natural capital accounting and capturing the attention of those involved in region-wide regeneration and economic investment.

How has this community created this incredible buzz about biodiversity net gain, especially given the “ecology stops works” attitude within industry? As authors of the good practice guidance we have been overwhelmed by the willingness of people to give their time, share their expertise and push forward this work, but – what is the thing about biodiversity net gain?

Julia – For me it’s numbers.

While the controversy over biodiversity offsetting raged throughout the Defra pilot back in 2012, for industry we finally had a Government-issued metric to set, and measure progress, towards biodiversity targets.  Now I can create dashboards and graphs to clearly show a project’s loss of biodiversity under legal compliance, and what’s required to achieve net gain. But while numbers have been such a positive influence, they can also be our downfall. We cannot reduce nature to a single number, and it’s been brilliant to see industry setting out good practice for biodiversity net gain to genuinely be a benefit to both nature and people.

Rachel – I believe it is about a common language.

When people are able to communicate with a simple and common language, a diverse group can come together and talk. Walls are broken down and seemingly opposing viewpoints are listened to. In depth technical terminology switches people off, but the simplicity of the biodiversity net gain approach has piqued everyone’s interest. Once there is a commonality, bridges can be built, and it makes me smile to see that there is now such a determination to prove a net gain for biodiversity. Whilst that is of course quite rightly influenced by securing business benefits, it seems to me that now the language is understood, there is a genuine desire to make a difference for our natural world.

Tom – I think that knowledge is power.

Understanding how much habitat compensation is needed early on in any development project is really important for the developer. The fantastic thing is that this does not encourage trashing nature to replace it elsewhere, far from it. Instead, when we understand what is required if we do loose an area of important habitat much more effort is put in to avoid the impact in the first place.  This means that the mitigation hierarchy, to avoid, minimise and as a last resort, compensate impacts on biodiversity, is reinforced by biodiversity net gain. Now I can help developers avoid risk to their business and, in doing so, deliver real gains for biodiversity.

It’s in our hands to continue the hive…. the UK is in an extraordinary place and we should celebrate the fact that industry has driven biodiversity net gain, whilst continuing to learn from the incredible work of the international community on what works and what doesn’t.  But as the train drives on we must maintain our responsibility to do this right. So let’s continue to raise the bar on what is genuinely good practice, collaborate and share lessons learnt, and engage all industry sectors and parts of the supply chain. If we do then the year ahead will be truly remarkable.

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