16 Feb, 2024

The advent of Biodiversity Net Gain and in particular the BIA DEFRA Metric following March 2021 revision of the NPPF and the implementation of the Environment Act (2021) in November 2021 has had an unprecedented impact on the planning sector.  This is a positive step in the direction COP26 commitments, and its, in my opinion a step in a very intriguing and promising direction for the recovery of our natural world. However, it cannot be underestimated just how significant a change this is to development projects and many of the disciplines that contribute to them. BIA Metrics have taken the established sector of Ecology and added in a completely new service provision in a very short period of time. We at RammSanderson have been working with our clients to achieve Net Gain for several years now with the advent of the Warwick Metric and then the DEFRA Beta2.0 metric so were already familiar with the principles prior to March 2021, but now the Environment Act 2021 is in Place and the NPPF 2021 revisions for measurable gains are also in place it has enforced this as a planning requirement across all projects. This change cannot be avoided regardless of your viewpoint but we are here to help; over the last 12 months we have run multiple workshops and training seminars for our clients and held detailed conversations on maximising opportunities on and off site and within wider portfolios.

Now more than ever it is important to consult your ecologist early in the process. Net gain is and will continue to have significant ramifications on schemes and viability assessments that were prepared pre-Net Gain. Particularly over the coming months and years as the Act takes hold and we find ourselves in this short time lag of the Act being passed through the House of Commons to it being practiced and underpinned by necessary mechanisms such as England wide Contribution schemes. Much work remains to be done.

Here are some frequently asked /overheard comments / conversations that I thought I’d share my views on.

Should I denude my site before the ecologist comes?

There is a very quick answer here and that’s No, it won’t help at all. Not only because this could lead to contravention of the varying statutes protecting species or habitats, but the Environment Act has also put in a provision against this and in these cases, where its evident a site has been cleared ahead of survey to ‘benefit’ the BIA, the LPA are at liberty to request that arial photography is used instead. In this case, the methodology in BIA is clear, where a baseline survey has not been possible, the default habitat scores must be set to Moderate.

The Metric has arbitrary wording for habitat conditions of Poor, Moderate and Good. To define these varies on the habitat type but in quick terms it’s based on species composition and functionality / structure of the habitats. If a metric is defaulted to Moderate the site baseline ahead of development is already in the middle ground and thus any losses occurring from development are harder to recoup. If therefore a baseline survey could have demonstrated Low value habitats, offset would have been easier to come by.

Secondly, the Metric is clear, it is harder to establish habitats than it is to enhance. i.e. if you take a bare site and put a wildflower meadow on it, it will have a lower value than a grassland that is retained and enhanced to the wildflower meadow. This is a maturity skew that’s built into the metric to allow for the fact that habits take time to establish and aren’t just perfect functioning ecosystems the day after planting.

What scores me the highest points: Should I just plant woodlands?

Woodlands are understandably viewed by large swathes of society as being the highest value habitat and for many reasons that’s true. They harbour significant biodiverse interests. But, to plant a woodland it isn’t as simple as putting in trees and hoping it flourishes, and the Metric knows this. Woodlands can take decades to mature to be a viable ecosystem and require significant intervention in their early years. As such the Metric has a Maturity factor inbuilt and will not award as many points as on face value it might appear. As a crude example loss of 1ha of woodland would require an offset of 5ha to allow for this maturity factor. It’s up to close liaison between ecologists and landscape architects to plan a broad range of habitats that are fit for purpose on a site and deliverable for the sites end users.

Why does a BIA take so Long, it’s only a Spreadsheet

Critically we need to work closer and closer as a consortium and in preparing planning applications: no longer can we simply substitute the latest landscape plan into our report at the 11th hour and submit a final copy for submission. We all face such requests in schemes and it’s commonplace. But, critically, the BIA isn’t just a spreadsheet. Yes, on face value, that spreadsheet and an accompanying plan is all we submit to the LPA for review.

However, behind that is a detailed digital cartographic input. Up and down the country Ecological Consultancies are now either training their ecologists in more detailed GIS inputs or are expanding to form GIS departments to keep up with this demand. One minor tweak in the landscape design could involve reworking the mapping and revisiting the overall calculation to adjust the score. So when there is a larger-scale change this can then understandably lead to a workflow delay to a project. Now more than ever before the landscape design element must be completed earlier in the process to enable time for the BIA teams to do their work and feedback if improvements could be made.

How much will this loss cost me?

As it stands there are no secured mechanisms in many local authorities and very few developer contribution schemes. We are finding ourselves in this hinterland of the Act being in place and a robust system backing the Act being established. Broadly speaking sums are looking likely to be around £20k/unit. In the fulness of time The Office for Environmental Protection will oversee a Nature Recovery Network whereby all LPA must establish these zones for contribution and where this is not feasibly a cross unitary body sales platform made ready.

My fear is we are some way off that and how cases in this period are being judged we are finding to vary significantly between authorities. Fundamentally however it comes down to a close dialogue and engaging with authorities and working to find an accurate, fair and pragmatic solution while this all gets ironed out over the coming years. Suffice to say it is having an impact, especially on sites where viability reviews were done ahead of March 2021? and a development yield is expected of a site where there is limited wiggle room for landscaping on site and knock-on impacts to schemes if additional funds are now being sought beyond initial budgetary reviews at site purchase.

We really do think it’s critical to ensure when purchasing sites going forward that BIA is built into viability appraisals and underpinned by broad metrics as a minimum to avoid any unexpected costs hitting a site.

If you want to find out more, get in touch with me or anyone from the RammSanderson team.