England has become the first country in the world to make biodiversity net gain (BNG) a legal requirement.
Introduced through the Environment Act, it is designed to ensure that development projects are planned and built in a way that will have a measurable, positive impact on biodiversity and natural habitats.
Many housing developers are already operating BNG but it is now mandatory.
It does not mean that every new housing estate will have a duck pond. Developers can comply with the legislation by purchasing “off-site biodiversity units” by handing over money to third-party agencies or landowners that will do some nature work somewhere else for them – i.e. offsetting.
To help local planning authorities integrate biodiversity net gain at a local level, £10.6m of funding is being committed to help recruit more ecologist, increasing capacity to create new wildlife habitats alongside developments.
The new laws apply initially to residential developments with 10 or more dwellings, or other residential development where the site area is half a hectare or more. It will apply to smaller housing sites from 2 April 2024. Roll-out of BNG for nationally significant infrastructure projects is expected in late 2025. It will apply to new planning applications, not existing applications.
BNG is measured in biodiversity units calculated through a statutory metric tool. This calculates how many units a habitat contains before development, to then calculate how many biodiversity units are needed to provide at least 10% BNG. The statutory biodiversity metric considers the size, quality, location and type of habitat.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “Biodiversity net gain will help us deliver the beautiful homes the country needs, support wildlife and create great places for people to live.
“This government is going further and faster for nature, since 2010 we have restored an area for nature larger than the size of Dorset, banned micro plastics and set ambitious targets to halt biodiversity decline.
“This vital tool builds on our work to reverse the decline in nature and for everyone to live within a 15-minute walk of a green space or water and will transform how development and nature can work together to benefit communities.”
Natural England chair Tony Juniper said: “If we are to halt and reverse the decline of wildlife in line with our ambitious national targets then it will be vital to ensure that new habitats are created to compensate those being lost to developments.
“Biodiversity net gain is a key moment on our path to halting the decline of nature, enabling developers to make a positive contribution through creating new habitats, increasing access to green spaces, and building healthy and resilient places for people to live and work.”
Berkeley Group is among housing developers that have been putting up developments with BNG for several years. Chief executive Rob Perrins said: “Biodiversity net gain is a positive step for the homebuilding industry and will bring nature back to our towns and cities. Putting this into practice on over 50 sites has been a hugely positive experience for Berkeley Group and these greener, wilder landscapes have huge benefits for the communities around them.
“The challenge now is to make sure that developers and planning authorities take a positive and collaborative approach to delivering biodiversity net gain across the country. This is a big change for everyone involved and we need to work together to unlock the full benefits for people, planet, and prosperity.”
Institution of Civil Engineers president Anusha Shah said: “We are in a climate and nature emergency, and we can’t address it by doing what we have done in the past – we need new ways of working and thinking. While the biodiversity net gain legislation will not be a magic fix, it is a step in the right direction.
Prioritising protecting natural habitats and biodiversity doesn’t just have positive implications for nature, people will benefit from projects being developed in this way; whether it is through increased access to green spaces, improving our health and wellbeing and creating attractive places to live and work, or by helping us mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.
“Changing how we approach development, whether of housing or major infrastructure projects, is essential to meet the nature and people positive goals we have set for ourselves, and it is encouraging to see changes like this are happening.”