Exempting major infrastructure from biodiversity net gain 'risks undermining government’s green agenda’

Three major planned infrastructure projects will result in net loss of more than 500 hectares of natural habitat, demonstrating that such schemes should not be exempt from biodiversity net gain rules, according to an analysis from the charity the Wildlife and Countryside Link.

The report, published this month, assesses the environmental impacts of three major infrastructure projects consented in the past decade under the current regime and as such without biodiversity net gain (BNG), using the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) supplied with each application.

The projects are the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme, the Port of Tilbury expansion and the construction of the Progress Power Station in Suffolk

The 25-Year Plan for the Environment included a new commitment to embed ‘an environmental net gain principle for development, including housing and infrastructure’ within planning. This has since been taken forward by proposals in the Environment Bill for BNG.

However, BNG currently has only a partial coverage – applying in the main to residential development.

As well as the net loss of 504.59 hectares of natural habitat, the Wildlife and Countryside Link says the projects will also lead to the destruction of an entire Local Wildlife Site and the reduction in size of three others.

To put this number in context, in December 2020 the government announced a £12.1m ‘community forest’ funding commitment to plant 500 hectares of new woodland in England. 

“The equivalence of the two figures illustrates the cost of not adopting BNG for major infrastructure projects in England,” according to the Wildlife and Countryside Link. 

The biodiversity, climate and community benefits of a £12.1m government investment in nature will be offset by the habitat loss from just three major infrastructure projects, it said.

Writing in a blog, Matt Browne, the advocacy lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the three projects were just “the tip of the iceberg”. He explained that the projects included in the study represent 25% of major infrastructure projects consented in one region over the past decade. England has eight other regions. The scale of infrastructure delivery is also due to ratchet up, with the government committed to significant increases in infrastructure as part of its levelling up agenda.

“The continued exemption of major infrastructure from BNG risks habitat loss at such a scale as to undermine the government’s wider environmental agenda. This harmful impact will not only be measured in environmental terms – there will also be long-term consequences for our economy,” he said.

Browne noted that the Dasgupta review made clear that nature and the services it provides are economic assets, just as infrastructure projects are assets. 

“Denuding a long-term economic asset just to deliver another type faster represents - at best - robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he added.

Wildlife and Countryside Link is calling for a long-promised consultation on applying BNG to major infrastructure projects to be launched “without delay”, and for the Environment Bill to be amended to extend BNG to major infrastructure projects. 

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