This post is by Emma Marsh, director of RSPB England.
We are in a nature and climate emergency. Nature is in freefall and desperately needs new and stronger mechanisms to halt and reverse its decline. For too long, new housing and infrastructure development has been one of the causes of nature’s decline. The RSPB has welcomed the government’s ambition that all new development should leave nature in a better state, because it’s vital that it does.
A new biodiversity net gain system in England is meant to ensure that wildlife habitats are enhanced and created by developers, rather than harmed or lost.
Getting the measure of net gain
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England recently published a new calculation tool, called Biodiversity Metric 3.0, for developers to use to work out what they need to do under the new system. This is the first opportunity to see what the system will really look like in England.
The UK government predicts net gain will provide £200m each year in England to make good damage to nature from new development. The metric will largely determine how the money will be spent.
1. Adhere to the mitigation hierarchy (i.e. avoid harm as a priority, mitigate where this is not possible, and compensate as a last resort).
2. Not weaken existing environmental protections for designated sites and species.
3. Secure biodiversity net gain first, and not to trade biodiversity against other environmental benefits.
4. Not allow offsetting of irreplaceable habitats and wildlife.
5. Be inclusive and equitable to the people affected by development.
6. Contribute to the delivery of strategic local, national and international ecological networks (including through Local Nature Recovery Strategies).
7. Be mandatory for almost all development, in order to account for the cumulative impacts of development on nature.
8. Take transparent decisions that deliver reliable net gains and best practice management.
9. Secure net gains permanently.
10. Provide additional conservation outcomes.
To our mind, three big things stand out about the new metric:
First, the metric is designed for a narrow use – for planning proposals on wildlife poor farmland and to steer developers away from building on good standard habitat. The metric does these jobs well. But it is clearly not designed for wider use and would weaken our existing safeguards if it was used on projects that could harm neighbouring land or damage protected sites and species.
Second, while the metric meets many of the ten principles that RSPB has identified must underpin net gain, if it is to work for nature, it falls short against some critical ones. Fundamentally it will not direct money at the habitats that are best for wildlife recovery and for protecting the climate. It favours habitats that are quick and easy to create even if they have less value to wildlife and for carbon. For example, the metric likes new scrub but doesn’t like new woodland, even though woodland is a government priority. Net gain also currently only requires new habitats to be protected for 30 years, so there is every chance that new meadows could be ploughed-up again after this time. These are big missed chances.
Third, the metric is a complex new system with a lot of loopholes. Key categories are overlapping and unfamiliar, and could be used to ‘game’ the metric. For example, the same grassland could be called high-quality by one expert and low-quality by another. There is a risk that these loopholes could become standard practice.
And the metric is not the only part of net gain that needs to work well. Net gain must not undermine local democracy in any new planning system by overriding other safeguards, such as bypassing environmental regulations and democratic scrutiny.
Fixing the holes in net gain
These are all solvable problems. The UK government should fix them now so that net gain genuinely works for nature. The guidance on the metric must be crystal clear and the people using and checking the metric will need to be experienced and accredited, with the time to do their job properly. Net gain needs more well-trained staff in local government and the nature agencies, with sensible enforcement powers. The government should also take an urgent look at lining-up net gain with its climate, wildlife and neighbourhood objectives, so that investment goes to the right places.
The prize is great if we can get net gain right. Take Warton Mires in Lancashire, for example. Here, new development secured land for nature conservation to protect threatened species such as lapwing (red-listed due to its decline and vulnerability). Acquisition of this land has unlocked the development of a scheme that will also give the village of Warton flood defence and improved public rights of way. Whilst this project was initiated prior to the net gain system it is an example of the win-win scenarios for nature, wildlife and people that net gain could deliver across England.