Some reflections on the recent Biodiversity Net Gain Conference.

The room was packed – 500 or more delegates from a range of disciplines in the world of ecosystem services – and the atmosphere was of an audience engaged, curious and enquiring. Biodiversity net gain (BNG) is a hot topic as we move closer to the implementation of mandatory schemes in November 2023.

Here are some themes that came through the various sessions of presentations and the Q&As that followed each. The assembled company had plenty of questions to ask of the officials from central government, DLUHC and DEFRA, local government, Natural England, professionals from the housebuilding sector, and a range of consultants.

First off, biodiversity net gain should be seen as an essential element of place-making, especially where it is delivered on-site. There was a lot of discussion about the place for nature in the spaces in between buildings. The benefits of access to green spaces to residents and people working in urban environments is often rehearsed and the evidence base is well-publicised. Undoubtedly, health and well-being outcomes are high up on the list in favour of delivering BNG close to where people live and work, and doing it well.

There are, however, two sides to every coin. The debate moved on swiftly to the place-keeping of green infrastructure: the nature of long-term responsibilities associated with planting and landscape management, and the question as to who it is best does this. Biodiversity net gain, wherever delivered, but especially so as part of amenity spaces, needs skilful maintenance after careful design and intelligent planting if it is to continue to deliver the intended nature recovery and biodiverse richness.  This requires management plans, skilled contractors and an income stream committed to the necessary maintenance programme.

Then there is the question of access, and aesthetics. Sometimes public access is at odds with a special area of nature conservation which might come with an open space designation and provision associated with larger site projects. The case is easily made that, in residential schemes particularly, people want to be able to use the green spaces, not merely look at them.

Sustainable drainage schemes and elements of managed rewilding often don’t look neat and tidy - it takes work to win the hearts and minds, of residents used to seeing manicured planting and close cut grassed areas within their estates. The fact that a swale fills with water and marginal land becomes water-logged should not be a cause for concern or complaint, but a celebration that the neighbourhood is not experiencing flooding. Perhaps we shall need a new approach to amenity land?

Will a residents’ management company, funded by service charges, have the appropriate skills and be prepared to commit to the level of expense? Will that organisation be ready to be held to account for ensuring compliance with an environmental management plan associated with the green spaces, and the monitoring and reporting responsibilities that ought to follow with it? If not, then alternatives must be considered.

The obvious alternative is, of course, off-site provision of BNG. The arguments in favour of this are strong, particularly if the off-site provision is located within the wider neighbourhood or local authority where the requirement arises.

At the conference, there was repeated mention of the so-called Lawton principles of “bigger, better, more joined up” ecological networks. In the same sentence, we heard about how important it will be for mandatory and voluntary nature recovery schemes to be working within the frameworks of local nature recovery strategies (LNRSs). Off-site BNG provision will allow for aggregation of the requirements from a number of sites in any locality to provide larger areas to deliver more meaningful nature recovery. There are economies of scale and skills and experience that come with it, leading to more efficient and effective management in the long-term.

By way of an aside, the potential for doubling nature is at the heart of Natural Cambridgeshire the local nature partnership for Cambridgeshire, (where this author lives and works) and the partner organisation with Cambridge County Council, the body appointed by the local combined authority to have the responsibility under the Environment Act 2021 for developing the area’s LNRS. The process is due to start next month, April 2023 with preliminary work already underway through a steering group.

Reflecting on the day’s presentations and discussions, one of the strongest themes that emerged is that biodiversity net gain is not a “nice to have”, but an essential element of nature recovery. When combined with the need to address the climate emergency and the public health emergency we face, it is essential that everyone involved in policy, planning, delivery and long-term stewardship must show commitment and dedication to ensuring success.

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