Why many councils feel incapable of deploying a net gain
DEFRA has pledged additional funding to enable local planning authorities (LPAs) to meet the challenge, and the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) of the Local Government Association is deploying an ongoing series of workshops and other training.
Rebecca Moberly, a senior SAP consultant, who is leading this work, said it was unlikely that all planning authorities would be ready when the time came. “I very much doubt that everyone, no matter how hard we try, will be completely up to date and will do so perfectly. [by autumn 2023], “she added.” The fact that more than 50% of the authorities surveyed have taken a net gain or net loss approach, I consider it to be quite positive. “
Others are less positive. Sophus zu Ermgassen, of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent and who studies biodiversity offset programs around the world, said he had yet to see a biodiversity offset policy in which sufficient resources would have been invested to make it function perfectly.
In addition to the need to accurately estimate the biodiversity losses associated with development and the promised biodiversity gains (for which DEFRA has developed the net gain metric), it is also necessary to put in place monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. rigorous application to ensure that goals are met. “All this in the context of an economic sector which was previously able to impose its costs on society free of charge,” zu Ermgassen added.
According to Robertson, it’s not just a question of resources – the problem is bigger than that.
British planners, he points out, are used to taking multiple issues into account when considering developments. “The path that councils take from ecologist to urban planner is perilous,” he said. “In many local planning authorities, ecological advice is sought but not followed, not because planners are anti-ecological, but because they are deeply embedded in the culture of planning to balance many different concerns. “
Robertson also believes DEFRA is ignoring the blatant inequality, revealed in its report, between councils that are ready for net gain and those that are not. In some parts of the country, he said, there is hardly any awareness of what it is, while there are metropolitan areas where ecological concerns are way low on their list. priorities.
Moberly, on the other hand, said there had been a huge cultural shift in the past two years, and that shift was accelerated by growing awareness of biodiversity and the climate emergency. She also said Robertson’s research was conducted some time ago (between May 2019 and December 2020, actually), and things have changed since.
The PAS, she said, held five workshops for local planning authorities between May and July of this year, and polls taken at those events suggest the majority of planners (76%) are confident about creating a net gain policy, just under four in 10s are happy with the idea of applying a net gain when considering planning applications, and less than 10 percent are optimistic about the providing off-site compensation.
The issue of off-site delivery is particularly thorny. Zu Ermgassen’s work has already shown that among councils that have voluntarily adopted the policy, almost all of the net gain – 95% – is currently being achieved locally, although DEFRA has said it wants to see that reach 25%. in the long run.
“As it stands, it’s very cheap for developers to meet all of their obligations on the spot,” he said. “Why would they buy in a market where contract law is not well established and where there are risks.”
Is it important? Zu Ermgassen says there are doubts about the real ecological benefit of on-site supply. “I’ve read hundreds of net gain apps, and I would say some of them actually seem to bring wildlife gains on the spot, most of them are ambiguous, while the rest won’t. unambiguously, even if they reach 10% in metric, ”he said.
The tension between on-site and off-site provision is slowly becoming one of the major controversies when it comes to the net gain in biodiversity. Many people say that if too much is provided in the red lines of a development, as it is now, then it will be fragmented and difficult to enforce and monitor and there will be limited gains for nature as a result.
Others believe that the net gain should be provided on-site whenever possible. “I see a high degree of feeling on the part not only of residents, but also planners and environmentalists, that you should make an effort to keep the compensation in place as this offers convenience to the people of the area,” he said. said Robertson.