Planning for ‘No Net Loss’ of Biodiversity

A briefing note published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology this week (POSTnote 429) is critical of the quality of information, local authority decision-making, monitoring and research concerning the incorporation of biodiversity into planning decisions in England. Despite the existence of the Biodiversity Duty in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act, public authorities seem to be failing in their obligation to ‘have regard to biodiversity conservation’. But, the POSTnote makes clear, local authorities are not soley to blame; the quality of many assessments undertaken by ecologists also leaves much to be desired.

The ‘mitigation hierarchy’ is included within current planning policy, aiming to halt the loss of biodiversity. The National Planning Policy Framework, consolidating planning guidance in the hope of making this easier to follow, explicitly states that ‘if significant harm cannot be avoided, adequately mitigated, or as a last resort, compensated for, planning permission should be refused’. Anticipated impacts on biodiversity must be avoided or reduced through the use of alternative development sites or designs; unavoidable impacts must be mitigated and any residual damage must be compensated for (for example by creating the same habitat off-site). It is desirable for developments to aim for a ‘net gain’ in biodiversity overall, for example by providing more habitat than needed for mitigation and compensation. Despite this however, there is little use of effective compensation measures by developers, whilst poor mitigation measures recommended by some Ecological Impact Assessments (EcIAs), undertaken by ecological consultancies and evaluating the impacts on biodiversity of a proposed project, mean that developers are hindered in implementing these.

Ecological impact Assessments are carried out as part of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which are required only for large developments. The Government will consult this year on raising the threshold governing when an EIA is needed, meaning that fewer of these may be undertaken. Losses to biodiversity occur also on those sites where EIAs are not needed, although the absence of systematic recording means that there is a lack of evidence at the national scale regarding the relative contribution of development to biodiversity loss. There have been recent reported losses to local wildlife sites however, as local authorities do not require ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity from less protected sites. There is no doubt that biodiversity is declining across the UK, as pressures from human populations increase.

Poor resourcing at both local authorities, by central and local government, and on the part of developers is contributing to a disregard for biodiversity in planning. In 2011, only 40 percent of local authorities had an in-house ecologist. In a sample of cases from 2007, in nearly half the planning officer received neither internal nor external ecological advice; these cases had poorer outcomes for biodiversity. Restrictions to developers’ budgets and time lead to a narrow focus of many EcIAs on a few species with high legal protection and cultural value, whilst ignoring those species of local importance. Local Environmental Records Centres are also poorly resourced by central and local government, leading to a lack of infrormation about possible impacts of developments on biodiversity.

Limited record keeping and monitoring must be addressed to improve outcomes for biodiversity. There is no standard method of ecologists reporting biodiversity impacts through EcIAs to local authorities or to the public at present. In addition, poor monitoring of compensation measures put in place by developers means that it’s very hard to tell whether these measures are actually working. Often the success of these measures, such as bat or bird boxes, is judged by whether species are present, rather than by how these interventions contribute to the long-term viability of the species’ population.

Yet there are initiatives underway to address these deficiencies in the way by which biodiversity is currently considered within planning. The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) is leading a project to improve the skills of ecological consultants, hopefully leading to more comprehensive EcIAs. A British Standard for biodiversity and planning for EcIA guidelines will be published this year. Natural England is also currently reviewing existing research and consulting ecologists on the effectiveness of measures put in place to mitigate the impacts of road and rail developments on biodiversity.

Biodiversity offsetting is currently being explored by Defra as a potential means of ensuring the development, economic growth and biodiversity conservation are compatible. Six pilot projects are running and will be evaluated in 2014. It is intended that biodiversity offsetting will address the impacts of developments on land which does not have legal protection. Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives will still be subject to existing, separate, processes of ‘Appropriate Assessment’, for example. The residual impact of the development on biodiversity, once the mitigation hierarchy has been followed, is calculated using a metric, which is then used to assess the amount of habitat that must be restored to provide adequate compensation. The restoration would then be undertaken by land owners, for example working with environmental NGOs. The Environment Bank is currently in operation in England as a broker, matching developers and land-owners together to facilitate this process.

Some argue that this will lead to benefits for biodiversity, as the scale of biodiversity loss is made clear to planners and developers no longer have to provide and maintain compensation measures, for which they may lack expertise. Offsetting may also provide the opportunity to ‘pool’ compensation measures from developments, leading to restoration across larger areas of land and contributing to the development of ecological networks. Others argue that the metric is as yet untested and that limited evidence regarding the efficacy of habitat restoration or translocation schemes mean that the efficacy of offsetting is in question. Some also regard biodiversity offsetting as a ‘license to trash’, sanctioning environmentally damaging development.

There is no doubt that amendments can be made to the planning framework now to achieve benefits for biodiversity. Adequate resourcing of in-house ecological expertise within local authorities would be extremely valuable. Planning applications could also be required to state how a ‘net gain’ in biodiversity could be achieved, whilst EcIAs could be required as best practice, if not under law, for some developments. The measures currently recommended by EcIAs should also be included by local authorities in planning obligations, monitored and enforced. If the Government is committed to being ‘the greenest ever’ and to ensuring that targets to halt biodiversity loss by 2020 are met, then addressing planning policy is fundamental.