When any development of land is proposed, commercial or residential, as part of the planning review process, the local council considers its potential impacts on the local area and amenities, such as highways, demand on schooling, and also ecology, states John Gregory, head of planning at Wright Hassall, pictured, who represented AC Lloyd on the transaction. In order to obtain planning consent, developers are often asked to mitigate all of the effects of the development in a legal document, known as a Section 106 agreement.
Starting in 2012, Warwickshire was one of six counties that trialled biodiversity offsetting in a two-year programme (the others were Doncaster, Devon, Essex, greater Norwich and Nottinghamshire). There, in terms of gauging the environmental mitigation required, a council-employed or -contracted ecologist would apply a DEFRA biodiversity metric (see also www.is.gd/inehud) that calculates its likely impact on biodiversity. That spits out a figure which reflects the loss of ecology caused by the built environment.
At present, planning requirements dictate that new development compensate for the harm done so that the overall effect of the work will be environmentally-neutral. There are two traditional routes that developers use in mitigating the environmental effects of development: they could provide an additional parcel of undeveloped land, for example adjacent to the site, to be managed for biodiversity, or if they cannot, they might just make an additional payment to the local council, which would use the funds to buy new land or manage its own land.
A SHIFTING POSITION
That neutrality position is now shifting, according to Gregory. He continues: “With the coming Environment Bill [expected this autumn], this will be more and more important. It will put a statutory requirement on developments to not only ensure against biodiversity loss, but create a net biodiversity gain of 10%, a requirement which was not there before. Now there is a positive obligation on the developer to improve biodiversity.” This policy position has already been adopted by all of the district councils of Warwickshire.
Doncaster Council’s guidelines on environmental offsetting (www.is.gd/afayed) state that it comes lower down in a planning hierarchy than both avoiding environmental damage and mitigating damage by altering the designs. However, it also states that Yorkshire Wildlife Trust was appointed as an offsetting provider, and offers an example of how the required compensation might be calculated, based on the specific landscape affected.
In the case of the 50-home Mallory Gardens development at Bishop’s Tachbrook, the developer neither provided extra land nor money to the council. Instead, AC Lloyd has purchased 5.15 biodiversity offsetting units from The Alscot Estate in Stratford-upon-Avon (pictured). The agreement is part of a landmark deal – called The Alscot Biodiversity Project – which is one of the first ventures of its kind in the UK, and was represented by offset credit broker Jonathan Thompson.
Gregory points out that buying credits offers a number of advantages for the developer. First, it generally works out as cheaper than financial contributions that developers gave previously. Second, it stops them from having to set aside extra land, which can be difficult to find nearby or in the development. In addition to setting aside the land, they would also have to devise and implement a management plan approved by the local council.
Alistair Clark, managing director of AC Lloyd Homes, says: “It is important that much-needed housing developments cater for the loss of biodiversity; some of the deficiency has been mitigated on site, however, the shortfall will take place by way of improvements to natural grass land at The Alscot Estate.”
To hold up its side of the bargain, the participating landowner has to undertake similar levels of ecological management on their property, for at least 30 years from implementation (see also pilot guidance, www.is.gd/alurad).
In the Midlands, the scheme saw the Alscot Estate enter into an agreement with Warwickshire County Council to offer offsetting units to developers. The Estate commissioned ecological surveys and drew up a detailed biodiversity offset management plan that was agreed with Warwickshire County Council. It imposes requirements on how the agreed parcel of land is to be managed to improve and enhance biodiversity.
Biodiversity is the web of life, and refers to the variety of plant and animal life on earth, including the diversity of ecosystems (a community or habitat of living organisms), genes and species, and ecological practices that support them.
A biodiversity offsetting unit measures the proportion of land in any given location that will see improvements made to its green space, and is part of efforts to make sure the wider environment’s biodiversity levels are unaffected by construction developments elsewhere.
WHAT ALSCOT SAYS
A spokesperson for the Alscot Estate commented: “It is our objective to increase the biodiversity value of the land, working through a process to restore existing meadows to neutral grasslands, assisted by the types and quantity of flora that is planted.”
Although Gregory argues that this sort of scheme may well become more popular in future, he points out that there may be geographical limits to environmental offsetting. He says: “How wide the net spreads is an interesting question, but this will be specifically addressed in the upcoming DEFRA metric 3.0. It is highly likely that developers will be able to purchase credits which are not located within the same administrative boundaries as the development project.” However, Gregory adds that it’s going to be necessary to make good the impact of a development in its immediate vicinity in order to mitigate certain site-specific impacts.