Outside spaces that work


Jack Potter from Ground Control explores how the housing sector can unlock the value of green space, and help the next generation to reap the benefits of their natural world

While biodiversity recovery is often seen as second in priority to solving climate change, in reality, they are intrinsically linked. As the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said at COP27 in Egypt “there is no solution to climate change without protecting and restoring nature.”

With just 53% of our natural wildlife and fauna left from before the industrial revolution, familiar sights like the hedgehog, dormouse or red squirrel are now rare. The turtle dove, once a commonly found bird in England, is the fastest declining bird species in the UK and on the brink of extinction following a 98% reduction in the last 40 years.

The good news is the housing sector is in a unique position to accelerate action. Across social, local authority, supported living, care, retirement and new build residential development, we can maximise the value of outside spaces for people and nature.

Biodiversity as an enabler Until now, nature and biodiversity has been a fringe issue for housing associations and so understandably its impact has been limited.

However, at a time when difficult decisions are being made, nature positive green asset management is proving an effective enabler – providing greater social value, revenue generation and cost reduction.

Social value

The Green Spaces Advisory Board (GSAB) – a cross-industry collaboration of ground control and seven leading housing associations – reports that residents are increasingly mindful of the environmental impact of their homes and communities, and are often keen to explore more sustainable ways of maintaining them.

GSAB’s recent consultation programme found that, with early engagement, community groups who access outside space are effectively encouraged to reconnect with nature.

However, traditionally neat borders are what people like to see. So, it’s important to carry out consultation with residents when implementing biodiversity enhancement at scale.

Our advice is to make the biodiversity, wellness, and tree planting gains you are hoping to achieve part of a neighbourhood management standard that all stakeholders have bought into. You will avoid time on heavy red tape later in the process.

We should not underestimate the importance of engaging and co-producing with a diverse range of stakeholders, defining how holistic ‘value’ will be judged. Nor should we miss the opportunity to ‘piggyback’ outside space as a conversation starter for broader conversations about sustainability.

Revenue generation

From November 2023, developers will have a legal requirement to leave nature in a better state than when they found it and deliver a minimum of 10% biodiversity net gain over a 30-year period (measured in biodiversity units) – although many planning authorities are aspiring towards a 20% requirement.

Those who are not able to achieve a positive impact towards nature can purchase offsite biodiversity credits to make up the difference.

While offsets are the bottom of the mitigation hierarchy and should be seen as the last resort, it is anticipated that the creation of offsite high value wildlife sites will be required for many developers to achieve 10% BNG.

This presents housing association landlords with the opportunity to make areas of habitat available as an offset site and to monetise available land as BNG credits (currently £25k per unit).

We’re working with many housing association clients to help unlock the value in their estate, undertaking preliminary biodiversity value assessments on sites across the UK.

Adaptive management regimes

In ground maintenance, the emphasis is on a less intensive mowing and hedgerow cutting regime. This provides double gains for housing sector clients because it’s good for biodiversity, and when managed smartly, can deliver positive results for nature that are self-funded through a reduction in maintenance visits.

The nature-positive transition is something that is actively encouraged to champion sustainability and deliver better environments.

Even if you have an urban site – by introducing wildflower borders, community gardens, and edible herb borders – while at the same time considering how to dial down intensive mowing and cutting – you’ll be maximising the opportunity to boost biodiversity, wildlife, health, wellbeing sand so much more.

The future of outside space

As a housing sector, we must prove ourselves equal to the nature challenge by ensuring that both existing communal green spaces and new build communities maximise the benefits of parkland, woodland, verges, scrubland, gardens, lakes and canals – moving the sustainability agenda beyond housing stock to the vast areas of open space we can bring to bear for carbon capture, nature’s recovery and resident wellbeing.

Our future is about embracing new styles of active stewardship: woodland creation, biodiversity enhancement, wildlife habitat improvements, and empowering resident engagement events all have a role to play in making outside spaces that work for people and nature for generations to come.

Jack Potter is biodiversity manager at Ground Control