HBA Column | Biodiversity gain

HBA Column | Biodiversity gain

Rico Wojtulewicz, Head of Housing and Planning at the House Builders Association (HBA) believes biodiversity net gain is an environmental and planning opportunity.

The Government’s consultation on ‘biodiversity net gain’, which happens when a development leaves biodiversity in a better state than before, sets out a standardised approach, which would mandate developers to provide both on-site mitigation and conservation contributions.

It is also an opportunity to replace a system that is not working for the environment and, instead, embrace a more adaptable and clear approach.

Though the Government should be praised for its efforts, it must recognise that it is creating a mechanism which will set the agenda for decades to come. It therefore needs a lengthy implementation period and a regular appraisal of how it operates, whilst also pointing out how it can be improved.

Great Crested Newt
In order to achieve this, the Government should look to Natural England’s district licensing for the Great Crested Newt (GCN) for inspiration.

The license, which began as a pilot in Woking, offers simple-to-follow mitigation procedures, accepts off-site conservation, tests newt DNA to comprehend migration patterns, and masterplans the newt locally. Where used, it has also simplified and sped up the planning process.

The GCN district licensing scheme is supporting innovative mitigation, while simultaneously creating prosperous master planned environments. Biodiversity net gain should aspire to the same.

However, history tells us that planning reform typically delivers more planning delays and a poorly master planned environment, especially in the short term.

A decade of the Government trying to simplify planning has made it more complex and burdensome than ever. And open fields, often seen as sacrosanct, can offer much less biodiversity than a well planned development.

Biodiversity net gain is an environmental and planning opportunity, not to be missed. The industry and the Government must make sure that, in a decade’s time, it is being strengthened, not reformed.

The Government has released its housing delivery report, which shows that 108 local authorities are delivering less than 95% of the homes their local community needs.

Up to 21 of those councils will be required to publish action plans, explaining why they failed to deliver enough homes. Another 87, who delivered between 35% and 85% of their housing need, will receive a penalty requiring them to add 20% more homes to their five year land supply.

None will face the ultimate penalty of ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, reserved for councils who delivered less than 25% of their housing need. However, that penalty threshold will increase to 45% in November 2019 and 65% in November 2020.

Many people have questioned whether the stick is the right approach to take. However, the five year land supply, which was introduced in 2014 and forms the basis of meeting local housing demand, has too often concentrated on satisfying paper targets, instead of deliverable housing.

The Government has clearly had enough and has given local planning authorities (LPA) three years to get on the right track.

A ‘bitter sweet’ moment
For local developers, who would rather LPAs plan their own communities, it is a bitter sweet moment. They know where the homes could go, what is deliverable and how to deliver it, but they cannot continue to operate in an environment where large sites meet paper targets and communities pay the highest price.

This means properly assessing need, identifying deliverable sites and making sure the planning process supports good development rather than frustrating it.

It’s not an ‘us vs. them’ environment and it is time all councils accept that we can only build the homes we need if we work together to plan and build them.

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