Majority of councils already mandating biodiversity net gain, finds report

Two-thirds of council draft plans already include provisions that would mandate developments to achieve at least 10% biodiversity net gain, according to analysis by planning consultants Lichfields.

Biodiversity net gain is one of the flagship measures in the Environment Act, which completed its passage through Parliament earlier this month. It requires all developments to deliver a 10% increase in biodiversity. The provisions are due to come into force in late 2023.

However, analysis by Lichfields found that two-thirds of draft plans already include this stipulation, despite being published ahead of the passage of the Act. Lichfields said this chimed with its recent experience where requirements to boost biodiversity in developments were becoming increasingly typical.

The consultants also assessed inclusion of policies towards councils’ net zero targets in local plans. Almost 60% of authorities with a net zero carbon target of 2030 or earlier have an adopted plan of less than five years’ old.

Of those authorities, only 2.7% have a specific planning policy target to achieve net zero, Lichfields found. However, a far higher proportion (68%) with an adopted policy focused more generally on addressing climate change or achieving low carbon objectives.

Almost 7% of those authorities with a 2030 net zero target have no current adopted or emerging planning policy to achieve this, the analysis revealed. 

However, some councils with an adopted plan under five years’ old are urgently reviewing their plans. These include Eden District Council, Lancaster City Council, City of Lincoln Council, North Kesteven District Council and West Lindsey District Council, who have all issued revised draft plans for consultation during 2021 in order to tackle the climate challenge.

Of the 17 draft plans analysed by Lichfields, six include a reference to targeting net zero carbon or carbon neutrality over the lifetime of the plan, while four reference to target low carbon, which was “arguably less challenging”, the consultants noted.

Over 70% of the draft plans include specific policies to address climate change and encourage low carbon energy infrastructure, with common policies including the enhancement of biodiversity; the provision of electric vehicle charging points; addressing an increased risk of flooding; and a commitment to climate-resilient design.

Language used was deliberately non-specific to ensure it was sufficiently flexible to accommodate new technologies and changes in law and policy, Lichfields noted.

However, it would not provide clarity on how individual schemes could ensure that they have met requirements, and may not go as far as is needed to result in real change, the consultants noted.

All but two of the draft plans examined by Lichfields stipulated defined standards or targets for applicants to meet such as BREEAM ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ for non-residential development, or Home Quality Mark for houses.

Several also referenced the government’s emerging Future Homes Standard, which will bring forward future improvements to energy efficiency in building regulations; draft policies requiring applicants to identify how they will address embodied carbon in new development; and policies establishing carbon off-setting for those developments unable to meet standards.

However, Lichfields noted that none of the draft plans were expected to be formally adopted until late 2022 or early 2023, and that there are still a significant proportion of local authorities yet to integrate net zero policies through local plans.

“Without adopted policy in place in many local authority areas, how can developers seek clarity on how best to address the global climate challenge within each planning application - and indeed what priority will net zero carbon be given when developers are faced with an equally pressing need to address other economic, social or environmental priorities in bringing forward development proposals?” the consultants said.

There was still “a mountain to climb” in aligning careful planning with the need to achieve targets ‘urgently’ in the face of a global catastrophe, they concluded.