WATCH NOW: Natural England net gain tsar on going beyond 10% biodiversity, brownfield value, and developers' costs

If councils want developers to deliver more than 10% biodiversity net gain, then they should look to their local plans to ensure viability, Natural England's net gain lead Nick White has told ENDS' Eco Chamber podcast in a wide-ranging interview. Watch an extract here.

In this week's Eco Chamber podcast, ENDS' features editor Tess Colley sits down with Natural England's principal advisor on biodiversity net gain (BNG), Dr. Nick White. 

Watch a short section of the interview above and read the transcript below. 

Listen to the full Eco Chamber episode now

ENDS readers can listen to the full interview on all available streaming services now as the pair discuss the impact of the policy, whether anyone will notice if developers are not delivering on their incoming biodiversity duty as well as a closer look at the BNG metric.


 ENDS Report's Tess Colley: Earlier today, there was a Lords committee meeting where questions were raised over if biodiversity net gain is going to be a deterrent to building, particularly on brownfield land, which is land which has been previously developed.

What do you think... is that correct? Is biodiversity net gain going to be a deterrent in some areas for building?

Natural England's biodiversity net gain lead Dr. Nick White: It shouldn't be.

And the first thing I would say is that actually there's an awful lot of good practice that the development sector has been doing in many cases for a number of years that we've built this policy from. So it very much has been developed hand in hand, if you like, with members of that sector and I can pay credit to some of the early work that's been done.

In terms of the specifics on brownfield, we know that many brownfield sites can have very low biodiversity value. Where I live in South London, there's quite a lot of it... there is some nature there but it's typically of quite poor quality. The percentage requirement for net gain is dependent on what the value of your site is as well.

So in many instances, a brownfield site would get a very low baseline because of the fact there's not much there - so a 10% gain off that is comparatively straightforward to deliver. There are instances where that's not the case, where you've got brownfields that actually have high value and that's something the metric tries to recognise the fact there are certain sites that are important.

In those instances, it's most likely the development will probably need to deliver the bulk of what they're looking to do offsite through this kind of third party contract.

What's different, I think, with net gain is that there's always a fall-back option. So if you find you can't deliver your gains on site and you're struggling to find somewhere offsite, as a developer the option is always open to you to purchase what are called statutory biodiversity credits from government.

They are a last resort, but it's there to make sure your scheme isn't held up basically, so that you've got a way through this if for some reason you are struggling. And I think that's one of the key differences, as well from some of the other kind of approaches.

Tess Colley: And how expensive is it really for a developer because there's lots of duties placed on developers outside of the environmental ones... how does biodiversity net gain compare to those?

Nick White: So we've - and DEFRA indeed - undertook a series of viability studies in support of the policy when they were first consulting on it.

And they couldn't find evidence that this would have a negative impact on viability. And they ran it through a variety of different kinds of planning and development scenarios as well. And that was true based for house building and also for kind of big infrastructure projects. I mean [for] big infrastructure projects - it was typically coming in, at about - between, what - half and three quarters of a percent of the total capital cost of that scheme.

So the cost are small.

We know that viability can often be a concern for developers... developers won't be able to challenge though that 10% on viability grounds.

Tess Colley: But I suppose if a local council was saying, well, we want you to do 20% or 30%, the developer could turn around and say, you can't make me.

Nick White: I think it's a good challenge here and I think this is where, if anyone listening in from local government as well, absolutely the [Environment Act] does allow you to go beyond 10%.

Our advice to local authorities thinking about doing that is firstly set out very clearly in your local plan what your requirement is. So there's no surprise to the developer midway through scheme. And secondly, ensure you've got evidence, as well, to back up what you're asking for.

And I know some authorities are already developing this because you're right, people could turn around and challenge and say they'll need to be able to defend their policy. But they're absolutely right to be able to do it - if they think they can do it, and they think it's valid and it's not going to impact viability, then yes.