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Biodiversity net gain – Somerset

The introduction of biodiversity net gain legislation means that all new development projects must consider the natural world. When a planning project is completed, the environment must be left in a measurably better state than it was pre-development, and the improvements must be maintained for the long term, at least 30 years. Somerset County Council needs to see a biodiversity net gain plan before determining planning applications.

High biodiversity value: the Quantock Hills in Somerset.

What is biodiversity net gain?

To counter the UK’s ecological emergency, biodiversity net gain bng has been introduced as a planning condition to encourage environmental recovery. On gaining royal assent, the Environment Bill became the Environment Act 2021 which introduced the bng process into the planning system. Biodiversity net gain regulations are now part of the National Planning Policy Framework, requiring planning applicants to prove that a new development site would provide a measurable uplift in a site’s biodiversity value of at least 10% after making the necessary changes to leave it in a better state.

Local planning authorities are now implementing biodiversity net gain legislation and a planning application must provide evidence of how a development site will achieve the necessary bng requirement before planning permission will be granted.

Biodiversity net gains to benefit the natural environment may be delivered on-site, off-site, or a third option is to buy statutory credits. Biodiversity net gain was introduced over a two-year transition period; mandatory bng was established in November 2023 in England for larger sites; small sites biodiversity net gain legislation applied from April 2024.

Several important ecological features are found in The Cheddar Gorge area.

Somerset and biodiversity net gain law

Somerset County Council’s biodiversity net gain policy follows the Lawton principles of `more, bigger, better and joined-up’ habitats through bng delivery in the right places to benefit the natural environment.

As well as a biodiversity net gain statement, Somerset County Council requires applicants to provide evidence alongside planning applications including a wildlife and ecology survey, a biodiversity checklist and an arboriculture report. Biodiversity net gain information is a material consideration in Somerset County Council’s decision-making process, which also takes into account the Somerset Local Plan.

The Somerset Council biodiversity net gain guidance note of February 2024 highlights the first Somerset State of Nature Report 2023, revealing a picture of declining wildlife. Key findings were that from 15,775 species recorded over 150 years in the county, 313 species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species; climate change and land development are harming ecosystems; insects and some mammal species such as foxes and dormice are in decline and habitat quality is reducing.

Biodiversity net gain planning

The Somerset Council Plan 2023-2027 has a vision for a more resilient and greener county where land managers protect habitats and improve biodiversity value. Implementing biodiversity net gain in the Environment Act will create healthy ecosystems and add to a wider strategy to create recreation opportunities, access to nature, habitat improvements, phosphate mitigation, flood management, carbon sequestration, and take-up of increased renewable energy.

The Somerset Local Nature Recovery Strategy is due to be published this year (2024) in consultation with Somerset Local Nature Partnership. It will lay out biodiversity priorities to enhance habitats and species, and a local habitat map for the strategy area, incorporating sites such as SSSIs, NNRs, Ramsar sites, Marine Conservation Zones, and European Sites where environmental improvements would be beneficial through changes in land management.

Delivering bng plays a crucial role in achieving successful planning projects that benefit the natural environment in the face of an ecological emergency.

Creating biodiversity net gains

Other initiatives to increase biodiversity value include the Somerset Tree Strategy which aims to boost tree cover, alleviate flooding, and sequester carbon, while Somerset Landscape Recovery Projects offer opportunities for bng policy to provide benefits across a wider landscape. The Somerset Wetlands Nature Recovery Project works with partners over 60,000 hectares to enhance nature via habitat creation, playing an important role in making wetlands resilient to climate change and maintaining peatlands as a carbon store. There are five National Landscapes of relevance in Somerset: the Blackdown Hills, Cranborne Chase, the Mendip Hills, the Quantock Hills, and a small area that crosses into Dorset.

The Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar site is currently in an `unfavourable’ condition due to the presence of phosphates; the local authority is not determining planning applications that may worsen the phosphates situation in the catchment unless they are supported by an Appropriate Assessment under the Habitat Regulations and where adverse impact is identified, mitigation is undertaken to show nutrient neutrality.

Green spaces on Cranborne Chase.

Bng condition assessment

An ecological consultant will visit the site to make a thorough assessment of all habitats and wildlife species within the red line site boundary to find the current biodiversity value. Each ecological feature will be given a score that will be fed into the Defra biodiversity net gain metric to reveal a reading of the site’s ecological value.

Based on the development proposals, a post-development measurement will be made, and this information will be entered into the metric. The deficit between the two results can then be analysed to calculate the amount of net gain required to enable a minimum 10% increase in biodiversity on the development site. This often means retaining existing habitats followed by implementing the necessary changes according to a bng mitigation hierarchy, and details will be provided in the bng plan.

While there are three options for delivering biodiversity net gain, creating net gain on-site is the preferred route according to national bng policy, and methods typically include habitat creation or mitigation measures for wildlife such as installing bird boxes or bat boxes.

Bng offsetting

If on-site improvements are impossible due to a site’s limitations, the required number of biodiversity net gain units may be delivered off-site, on specified biodiversity gain sites. A last resort option is to purchase statutory credits which will be used to help national environmental recovery projects: Natural England administers this habitat bank option which can be used to satisfy the local authority’s bng requirements.

The biodiversity net gain report may then be submitted to the local planning authority for consideration alongside a planning application. If the bng requirement is ignored, the result may be delays in obtaining planning permission or financial penalties.

Do you need a bng report?

When considering ecological consultancies, select one that employs fully qualified bng consultants with experience in creating bng surveys for the relevant local planning authority.

A specialist bng practice will be able to recommend the best ways of delivering bng on your site. Should further guidance be needed if you have a restricted site, an ecological surveyor can advise you about off-site options or provide more detail about purchasing bng credits.

Following the advice of a biodiversity net gain expert offers the best chance of fulfilling the appropriate net gain requirements, enabling planning applications to progress smoothly through the local authority’s planning system.

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