In the UK, there’s momentum towards a concept known as Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) – where development leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state, rather than simply the same.

Recent reports confirm that on average there has been a continued decline in the distribution and abundance of the UK’s priority species since the 1970s, says WSP UK’s Principal Consultant in Biodiversity, Jonny Miller.

“Even with various policies, initiatives and legislation in place to try to halt this decline, many metrics suggest it has continued over the last 10 years. Primarily this is from increasing agricultural intensification, climate change and building on land to meet the needs of our growing population – collectively the impact is really significant.”

That’s why many ecologists view BNG as a game-changer. It requires development to leave biodiversity in a measurably better state. It introduces a standardised metric for quantifying changes in biodiversity, and is expected to become mandatory for development in England in a matter of years.
Not only does it give greater certainty for budget and programme planning, but it can help feed into the design process to deliver better outcomes for wildlife, local communities and developers.

Back in 2012 the UK first trialled the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ habitat-based metric during a two-year biodiversity offsetting pilot. This metric allowed the quality and condition of the biodiversity present on a site to be converted into numeric biodiversity units per hectare. Guidance was provided on the implementation of offsetting and use of the metric, supported by changes in the national planning policy framework.

Jonny says this framework only went as far as saying developments should deliver net gain ‘where possible’ making it essentially voluntary and hard to enforce.

“There was also a lot of scepticism that offsetting would be used as a ‘license to trash’. The concern was that developers and decision makers would shortcut straight to paying for biodiversity offsite, rather than following the mitigation hierarchy of first avoiding and minimising impacts, then restoring remaining biodiversity loss onsite, before (as a last resort) compensating offsite through offsets.”

To address this, various industry institutes representing ecologists and environmental managers came together and published good practice principles for delivering BNG, with the mitigation hierarchy at the heart of it. WSP then played a lead role in developing UK-wide guidance for the practical implementation of BNG for the development industry.

Over time, industry has also picked up the mantle, with infrastructure providers and flagship projects such as Highways England and Crossrail 2 setting out their own policies to deliver net gain.

Fast forward to 2019 and national policy is catching up. “We now have national policy being much more bullish about seeking net gains, and following consultation, the Government has committed to making biodiversity net gain mandatory for development in England. This will be through the Environment Bill that was introduced to Parliament in October this year.”

Jonny says that both industry and Government are looking to take the concept further. “We should be moving towards environmental net gain – once we’ve demonstrated net gains for biodiversity (that’s a prerequisite), then we can also assess the wider benefits that these spaces provide, such as flood attenuation or carbon sequestration, and try to optimise them whilst also considering local priorities. It’s a really exciting time and WSP
is right in the thick of it!”

WSP UK Biodiversity Net Gain expertise

  • Dedicated biodiversity team leading the work on BNG. Supporting this are over 140 ecologists who are regularly involved in the application of BNG assessments for a range of development projects, both in the UK and abroad.
  • Authors commissioned by chartered environmental institutes to develop UK-wide guidance for the practical implementation of BNG for the UK development industry.
  • Steering group members providing critical review in the second phase of development of the UK’s official BNG metrics to quantify biodiversity losses and gains.
  • Expert advisors helping draft the British Standard for BNG in the UK, allowing businesses to achieve BNG accreditation at a development project or strategic level.
  • Authors of two industry white papers: Biodiversity Net Gain and Biodiversity in the City.