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Biodiversity net gain – Cambridgeshire

Biodiversity net gain legislation introduced a new approach to development, requiring developers to put the environment at the forefront of considerations about a planning project. Developments must leave the environment in a measurably better state than its pre-development condition, and the improvements must be maintained for the long term, at least 30 years.

To satisfy biodiversity net gain requirements, Cambridgeshire County Council will need to see a biodiversity net gain plan completed by a licensed ecologist before determining applications for planning permission.

The River Nene at Wansford near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

Planning regulations surrounding biodiversity net gain

The Environment Act 2021 made biodiversity net gain (BNG) a key part of planning policy as the government acted to preserve the natural environment in the face of declining biodiversity. The relevant national legislation requires a plan to prove that a scheme would provide a measurable uplift in the biodiversity value of a development site of at least 10% as a condition of planning.

Following a two-year transition period, biodiversity net gain became mandatory in November 2023 in England for larger sites and was extended to minor developments – residential sites of nine units or less or smaller than 0.5 hectares and commercial developments of under 1,000 square metres in April 2024.

Cambridgeshire’s biodiversity strategy

South Cambridgeshire District Council outlined its plans for preserving and improving the natural environment in its biodiversity supplementary planning document, Doubling Nature Strategy, published in 2021. It explains incentives to improve biodiversity in south Cambridgeshire and the greater Cambridgeshire areas and provides information about how the biodiversity net gain policy will be implemented via environmental targets aimed at nature recovery.

While the government has set out a 10% net gain figure, South Cambridgeshire Council stipulates that developers should `aspire’ to achieve a 20% uplift following development: Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council have also adopted this approach. This follows targets in the Natural Cambridgeshire document, which aim to double the area of valuable wildlife habitat across the county, and documents such as the 2018 South Cambridgeshire Local Plan and the 2018 Cambridge City Local Plan.  

A major biodiversity and habitat restoration scheme was launched in December 2023 in Fulbourn following an agreement between Cambridgeshire County Council and Network Rail, which has purchased biodiversity units there. Arable land at Lower Valley Farm is transitioning from arable use to include broadleaved tree planting, hedgerows, wildflower meadows, and chalk grassland, to become a 345-acre biodiversity net gain site.

East Cambridgeshire District Council in its Natural Environment Supplementary Planning Document sets out its policies for nature and a 10% uplift on sites, which include a preference for on-site delivery, or off-site in a suitable location in the district with a focus on creating larger, joined-up habitats. Greater Cambridge Shared Planning, a partnership between South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Councils, seeks a minimum 10% uplift on all new developments to increase biodiversity.

Biodiversity net gain plans and development

The universal biodiversity metric developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is used by ecologists to index all ecological features on a site, such as European protected plant and animal species and areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The metric measures the ecological value of the site, enabling an assessment of the changes needed to successfully achieve bng on the site to the required level via a mitigation hierarchy. The pre-development and post-development measurements will be compared to assess the level of improvement needed to meet the minimum 10% uplift in biodiversity. If there is a shortfall, the ecologist will provide information on the steps to take to achieve the correct level of net gains to meet bng requirements.

According to national policy, creating net gain on-site is the preferred option: methods include habitat creation or mitigation measures for wildlife to ensure they are not disturbed. If this is not possible, the required net gain units may be delivered off-site, or by purchasing biodiversity units in the marketplace.

The planning authority will rely on the measures contained in the bng plan when it decides whether to grant planning applications. Disregarding the legal requirements of biodiversity net gain planning policy can lead to delays, penalties, and even bring a project to a standstill.

Do you need a BNG plan?

It’s important to identify an ecological consultancy that employs fully qualified ecological consultants with experience in creating BNG plans for the relevant local planning authorities. This means that you can rely on receiving expert advice to help you decide the best way to achieve net gain on your site and proceed with your proposed development.

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