Engage science for the Biodiversity bonus

Paul Brown from Fera Science explains how developers can rise to the challenge of the Biodiversity Net Gain requirements for developments by embracing science, data and ecological expertise

As a result of human activity, the UK has lost over half of its biodiversity since monitoring began in 1970. This unprecedented decline is clearly a huge concern and public awareness of the issue has escalated in recent years.

Land management changes are cited as a key driver of biodiversity loss, however, there is a huge opportunity for developers to play a pivotal role in changing the trajectory.

By embracing Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) within development plans, using science and data to inform successful offsetting projects, housebuilders can help minimise habitat loss and leave a positive footprint on nature.

Investing in nature

Technological advancements have allowed environmental data to be captured in a greater quantity and detail than ever before, enabling scientists to tap into more in-depth assessments of our ecosystem and work closely with developers to embody a ‘nature first’ approach.

By using scientific validation to position themselves as leaders in sustainable and biodiversity-friendly development, companies stand to reap financial, reputational, and operational rewards – as well as compliance with the latest regulations.

This could reflect positively on a developer’s brand image in the marketplace, amid growing public demand for corporate commitments to sustainability initiatives.

There’s now a much greater understanding of why a thriving natural environment and access to nature, close to home, is so important for society and personal wellbeing; nevertheless, consumers demand evidence of action, over and above marketing claims.

The need for a robust BNG plan

Under the Town & Country Planning Act (TCPA), in February 2024 it became a mandatory requirement for developers in England to set out detailed plans of how they will ensure biodiversity levels are at least 10% better than pre-development.

This gain must be sustained for 30 years, and can be achieved through various means.

Options include creating or enhancing habitats for flora and fauna, investing in landscaping or adding green infrastructure on the new build site.

Alternatively, habitats could be invested in off-site, on land holdings, or through habitat banks.

If developers are unable to deliver at least 10% net gain in biodiversity onsite or via the offsite market, Natural England’s statutory biodiversity credits scheme is accessible as a last resort. 

This allows developers to purchase statutory biodiversity credits to reach the legal requirement – but at a higher price than the going rate for biodiversity units in the private market.

At a local level, the 10% BNG requirement is being increased by local authorities too.

So, developers are being confronted with the urgent need to craft a biodiversity net gain strategy for each site, that will ensure compliance with new legislation.

Scientific evidence is crucial

According to Defra guidance, an extensive list of BNG evidence must be submitted to the local planning authority and approved in writing before any development can commence.

This evidence includes a habitat map of the site pre-development, complete with a Biodiversity Metric 4.0 calculation of initial biodiversity levels to provide a baseline.

Crucially, developers must also submit a comprehensive biodiversity net gain strategy that sets out the steps being taken to avoid or minimise habitat impact, along with a predicted post-development habitat map, showing the required biodiversity uplifts. This needs to include a bespoke habitat management and monitoring plan for the long term too.

If the forecasted onsite biodiversity uplift doesn’t reach 10% net gain, then an offsite plan will also have to be submitted to replace or contribute to onsite net gain.

Although the government’s BNG planning guidance is designed to be easily accessible, Defra advises getting ecologist support to complete these strategic documents and all the necessary groundwork.

That’s because BNG success hinges upon harnessing environmental science at every step of this process.

Without highly accurate biodiversity data, and the necessary experience and expertise to translate data insights into effective net gain strategies, housebuilders run the risk of development work delays – bringing extended project timelines and significant cost implications. Therefore, it is vital that a scientific approach is taken from the outset. 

Taking such an approach provides confidence to housebuilders that BNG plans are backed by data and validated
by a team of ecologists.

Although investing in a scientific support service may bring initial costs, embracing credible guidance will not only help developers meet industry-wide regulations smoothly, but also help demonstrate a true ‘nature first’ approach to sustainable development, backed up with genuine expertise.

Paul Brown is head of remote sensing, GIS & spatial data science at Fera Science