Let’s Create More Nature Reserves

My ambition for how and where funding from Biodiversity Net Gain should be deployed is to see a major habitat creation programme with landowners, farmers and conservation bodies. There are four key points to make on this :

  • If Covid-19 is telling us anything it is that people hugely value their natural environment – witness the flight to our National parks and nature reserves in the period just before lockdown.
  • Our economy has been shattered. Rebuilding it will need to take account of the importance of rural communities who might otherwise not be top of the Government’s list in terms of support and reconstruction. Yet they provide vital services to wider society.
  • Both the climate and biodiversity crises need to be addressed now. The existential threat they pose to us hasn’t gone away because of the virus. It is even more important that we restore our environments. But if public funds for the natural environment were tight before the impacts of the virus, they will be infinitely tighter once we come out the other side.
  • We still have very little land in the UK under some type of formal nature reserve. Existing sites are often inundated with visitors, their capacity is breached many times over. And yet vast swathes of the countryside are inhospitable to people, rendered green deserts by industrial farming over the past 50 years.

Whilst clearly a proportion of the total biodiversity net gain (BNG) requirement when mandated next year, will rightly be placed within the development site boundary, modelling is showing that anything more than around 10% of the total requirement located on-site places substantial financial constraints on a development. At a time when growing the economy will be the ultimate driver of everything we do in the coming years, it will not be possible to ask for anything other than good landscaping and planting to be placed within the development site boundary – the loss to net revenue and development land prices will make development non-viable.

Furthermore, work by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Natural Capital Committee has shown that placing BNG within the development usually leads directly to disadvantages to those local people who are required to accept the new developments. Often those people lose fields where they would once have been able to walk and exercise before the development came. Replacing that with a few areas of mown amenity grassland and planting within a housing scheme is no compensation. It provides more attractive places for the residents to live but it is highly unlikely that the locals enjoy anything like the same experience as they did previously simply by walking through the new housing estate. Nor do those places constitute real biodiversity.

Small areas of habitat creation and landscaping in a housing scheme are not true net gains.

I’ve even heard that gardens can be incorporated into the biodiversity gain plan! How on earth does one hold the developer contractually to account for how people use their gardens for biodiversity for even a year let alone 30 years? Without a legally binding agreement, the development is directly challengeable on grounds of inability to deliver BNG and hence permission cannot be granted.

So, I believe we must be much more ambitious. Environment Bank is therefore promoting that 80-90% of the BNG should be delivered off-site in strategic places that provide benefits for people, local rural economies and climate resilience as well as restoring nature.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if landowners could be encouraged and paid to put forward large, 40ha-100ha, areas of land where new habitats are created, with management funding provided for 30 years, by which time these places will be providing a generation of new nature reserves across the country. Some might even be next to existing reserves.

On many, permissive access would be welcomed with the potential for spin-off businesses satisfying the demand for nature-based tourism, glamping and educational events.  Those many landowners and farmers we have talked to think this would be a fantastic opportunity and provide a diversification of income into the local rural economy.

We will only ever be able to deliver the ambitions of the Environment Bill and the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan if we involve private landowners and leverage substantial private investment. And that will only happen where people are paid a return on that investment. So I would hope that Government backs the idea of creating lots of new nature reserves using BNG finance. Investors will then be given the clarity and certainty to provide the substantial finance that nature recovery needs. And it will unlock the planning system rather than lock it down, stimulating economic growth at a range of levels.

A large number of new nature reserves on private land where the public can gain managed access is the way to get more people close to nature. It is also very affordable if we ensure biodiversity net gain finance is directed to that objective.

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