Biodiversity net gain: The government’s latest amendments

Last week the government published a series of new amendments to the Environment Bill, some of which affect the governance and maintenance of sites where biodiversity net gains are delivered.

Biodiversity net gain: The government’s latest amendments. Photograph: Haitong Yu/Getty Images Biodiversity net gain: The government’s latest amendments. Photograph: Haitong Yu/Getty Images

One amendment in particular creates the power for the secretary of state to review and increase the duration for which new biodiversity net gain (BNG) sites must be secured, and partially responds to some fierce criticism the scheme had received.

As the Environment Bill stands, BNG sites are only required to be maintained for 30 years at a minimum, a detail which was derided by Green Party peer Baroness Bennett as “grossly inadequate” during the Environment Bill’s debate in the House of Lords in July, and described by Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate for green NGO coalition Greener UK, as “an Achilles heel” in an “otherwise welcome policy”. 

“Thirty years, in terms of nature, is merely a blink of an eye,” said Bennett.  

At the time, environment minister Lord Goldsmith said it was not the case that BNG sites would be “simply torn up after 30 years”, and urged peers to remember “there is already a wide range of protections and management incentives for habitats, which would apply to BNG sites after the 30-year requirement”.  

When pressed on which protections these were, Goldsmith said he could not be specific because it would depend on the type of site created, but added that “it is not easy to get permission to destroy important ecological sites”.

“As I have said in this and in many other debates, we intend to build on those protections,” he said.

According to a DEFRA statement, the amendment published last week “will allow this important aspect of the policy to be reviewed after government has evaluated the early years of mandatory BNG practice, to understand how developers can make a positive impact on nature from their work”.

However, a related amendment specifies that while the secretary of state would now have to “keep under review the supply of land for registration in the biodiversity gain site register, and whether the period for which habitat enhancement must be maintained could be increased”, any changes to this period must be done “without adversely affecting that supply”.

Another amendment published last week would require the secretary of state to “lay the biodiversity metric and any revised biodiversity metric before parliament”. 

The Environment Bill currently requires the secretary of state to consult on the biodiversity metric which is used to quantify the biodiversity value of any given site - just this week DEFRA confirmed that the current metric would be put to consultation for a second time following the bill’s passing into law.  

This new biodiversity metric has also been met with opposition, with ecologists and academics having slammed it as unfit for purpose, with one expert dubbing it as potentially “the single most dangerous thing to be done by a statutory agency” during his career.

Commenting to ENDS yesterday, Sophus Zu Ermgassen, an ecological economist at the University of Kent, described the current proposals for BNG site contracts as having a “horrendous governance problem”, but added that the new amendment sounded “sensible”. Nonetheless, he said that it would require careful watching from environmentalists to ensure that management contracts cannot be abused to make them shorter than is ecologically realistic. 

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