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Biodiversity Net Gain – Essex

Biodiversity net gain (BNG) legislation puts nature recovery at the forefront of planning decisions. According to Natural England, biodiversity net gain bng is an approach to development, land and marine management that `leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state than before the development took place.’ Local authorities will now require a biodiversity net gain survey to be submitted alongside planning applications. 

Epping Forest in Essex hosts important ecological networks and wildlife habitats.

What is Biodiversity Net Gain?

Biodiversity net gain has been introduced into the National Planning Policy Framework in recognition of the need to stop the decline in the UK’s wildlife experienced since the 1970s. The new statutory regulations mean that subject to some exemptions, new developments must demonstrate a minimum 10% increase in biodiversity. In planning terms, biodiversity net gain is a separate consideration from other legal requirements to protect designated sites, protected species, and priority habitats.

The Environment Act 2021 introduced the biodiversity net gain concept, which requires schemes to protect and enhance the natural environment. BNG aims to create wildlife habitats and encourage habitat management schemes.

Mandatory bng

Following a two year transition period, biodiversity net gain became a statutory requirement on 12th February 2024 in England for major developments and minor sites of nine units or less, and it applied to small developments from April 2024.

British standard biodiversity net gain involves a numerical comparison of the biodiversity value of existing habitats on a site pre-development, with the predicted biodiversity value when the development is complete. Not only must a site retain its biodiversity value, but it must also increase its biodiversity value by 10% according to the latest Defra metric, via improvements that must be maintained for the long term – at least 30 years. Biodiversity improvement measures include new habitat creation or installing bat and bird boxes to leave the environment in a better state.

Valuable existing habitat: salt marsh at West Mersea tidal island near Colchester on Essex’s east coast.

Essex and biodiversity gain

Essex County Council and the county’s 12 borough, district, or city councils acknowledge a need for growth in the right place, alongside conserving and enhancing the natural environment through habitat management and creation. Plans to increase biodiversity in Essex include boosting natural green infrastructure from 14% to 25% by 2030, according to the Essex Climate Action Commission, and for 50% of Essex farmland to adopt sustainable land management practices by 2030. Changes should contribute to climate change mitigation and net-zero targets, and will be monitored by the Essex Local Nature Partnership.

While significant growth is planned for north Essex to 2033 and beyond, protection must be given to any Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area, or Ramsar site. The South Essex 2050 plan aims to make land management strategies adopt environmental planning policy to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change, including flood risk management, enhancing blue and green infrastructure, and policies to enhance biodiversity. South Essex and the Thames estuary are to be a source of delivering green infrastructure, helping deliver biodiversity gain and net zero carbon. A further aim is for a `one park’ system to encompass all of south Essex; it will be framed by five landscapes connected by a green and blue network comprising food zones, habitats, parkland, river frontage, agricultural land, former industrial sites, and historical features. These sites include island wetlands and central Thames marshlands.

Local nature partnership strategies

Essex County Council, and the unitary authorities Southend and Thurrock, are the joint responsible authorities for delivering the Local Nature Recovery Strategy. Local Nature Recovery Strategies help inform where biodiversity net gain should be delivered; they indicate the optimal sites to create habitats that will deliver high numbers of biodiversity units with appropriate land use. Plans must connect with Species Conservation Strategies; for example, Essex District Level Licensing for great crested newts, and offsite habitat creation must be `the right habitat in the right place’ to encourage connectivity. The establishment of habitat banks – parcels of land that can achieve a significant number of biodiversity units – is being encouraged across the county.

In recognition of the Essex coast’s diverse ecology, Natural England’s West Anglian team has prioritised a planning approach and local planning authorities have drawn up an Essex Coast Recreational Disturbance Avoidance and Mitigation Strategy (RAMS) to avoid habitat disruption.

Colchester old town.

The BNG assessment

A development site will be assessed by an ecological consultant who will record all features present in the red line development site boundary – these may range from European-protected plant and animal species to important habitats. Each feature will be allocated a biodiversity net gain value; this bng baseline data will be inputted into the Defra biodiversity metric which will calculate the site’s pre-development ecological value.

The consultant will then study the development plans to assess the likely biodiversity value of the site area post-development. The gap between these two figures must be made to tally before the consultant can assess the optimal approach for achieving a further 10% biodiversity net gain on site; consulting a mitigation hierarchy will indicate the most effective approach.

How to achieve biodiversity net gain

According to national policy, the preferred route is for net gain to be achieved on site by, for example, improving existing habitat, tree planting, or installing bat or bird boxes. If due to a site’s limitations, it proves impossible to increase the amount of biodiversity gains on site, they may be acquired off site. A last resort option is to purchase biodiversity units.

The completed biodiversity net gain plan will include detailed information and the results of any further surveys that may be required by local authorities in support of planning applications. If biodiversity net gain legislation is ignored or not fully taken into account, the result may be delays to a planning application and even unlimited fines.

Do you need a BNG plan in Essex?

Engaging an ecological consultancy with experience in completing BNG plans for the relevant local authority will give you the best chance of fulfilling bng requirements and obtaining planning permission.

The consultancy should employ fully qualified consultants whose expert advice can be relied on to recommend the best ways of mitigating the adverse effects of your development scheme to achieve the necessary amount of biodiversity gain on site. Following their advice should pave the way to a successful planning application.

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