Winning strategies for biodiversity

Managing open spaces is much more than cutting grass and collecting litter and with the introduction of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) legislation in January, it has become even more complex. In this article, David King of Meadfleet, explores the challenges BNG brings and the solutions available

Where local authorities and housing associations are involved in the establishment of private or mixed tenure residential development, they must ensure appropriate solutions are secured for the ongoing management of open spaces on these schemes.

The complexities

In January 2024 it became mandatory under The Environment Act 2021, that all planning applications of nine units or more must produce at least a 10% uplift in biodiversity. With the aim of creating a strategic nature recovery plan to leave the natural environment in a better condition. As there will always be a loss of biodiversity from construction, housebuilders have three options: providing onsite net gain within the development; offsite solutions; or the purchase of statutory credits from Natural England. It is likely that a combination of these solutions will be required to achieve the necessary gains.

Developers cannot pick whichever option suits them for each new scheme. The legislation stipulates a hierarchy with onsite solutions the primary option, then offsite, and finally the purchase of statutory credits is a last resort. It will need to be demonstrated that a solution is unachievable before moving to the next option.

With onsite net gain the primary solution, most developments will incorporate more extensive and complex habitats within their green infrastructure, requiring suitable long-term management. This has its own challenges depending on the scale of open space available and the impact this has on the developable land.

The marketplace for the purchase of offsite units generated by third party landowners is currently unclear with no formal central database, and the Natural England Biodiversity Net Gain Register being used purely for registering a development’s allocated offsite units.

It is unlikely there will be local offsite units available for all requirements from the outset. Buying and selling units across local planning authority (LPA) boundaries will be inevitable which will increase costs as penalties are incurred when units are outside the LPA. Alternatively, there is an option for housebuilders to buy offsite land to generate the required credits and appoint a suitable management organisation to deliver the biodiversity improvements over the 30-year period.

The statutory biodiversity credit scheme aims to ensure that the pace of development in England is not impacted by the new legislation, offering a costly last resort solution. With prices starting at £42,000 plus VAT per credit, is this a viable solution even in the short term?

The additional requirements are certainly a challenge and will impact the viability and speed of housing developments.

Lifetime management model

There will no doubt be concerns in the marketplace regarding the long-term responsibility of a 30-year covenant and selecting the right management model to entrust with the new requirements.

There is a need for a lifetime management solution that can take on the liability and complexity of the requirements involved. There are already many aspects of open space management that require specialist expertise including play areas, woodlands, and SuDS.  With members of the public accessing open spaces, risks must be carefully managed. With the addition of BNG and the crucial role the legislation will play in providing spaces for nature, it is vital that these areas are managed by experienced open space experts.

A lifetime management model with in-house expertise to manage all aspects of open space features objectively and responsibly over the long-term will ensure a developer’s legacy is protected and risks minimised. Housing providers should look for long-standing organisations with a proven reputation for excellence and expertise and the in-house specialist knowledge required. This approach also helps reduce customer costs and provides clear lines of accountability.

Open space management companies must be experts in managing open spaces for biodiversity and engaging customers in the benefits of managing areas for wildlife. In-house ecologists that will take on the adaptive management, monitoring, and surveying requirements of BNG and can provide support to housing providers throughout the process.

Final thoughts

The benefit that biodiversity net gain will have to the current climate and biodiversity crisis is exponential and aligning the industry with the Government’s biodiversity net gain targets will more firmly place sustainability at the centre of future development. Through a collaborative solution-based approach and the positive promotion of BNG, biodiverse neighbourhoods will be celebrated by residents and will offer a solution for nature recovery.

David King is managing director of Meadfleet