This is the first of a series of short articles on biodiversity and the new NPPF. Here, we summarise what the guidance has to say about sustainable development and biodiversity net gain. We also look at whether we are now clearer about how net gain is to be measured, and whether we are likely to see more consistency in its application by local planning authorities and decision taking.
Will the new NPPF help deliver biodiversity net gain?
Biodiversity net gain is referenced strongly in terms of planning policy making and development decision taking in NPPF 2018. The environmental test of sustainable development requires planning policy and planning decisions to help to ‘improve biodiversity’ (paragraph 8c). References to biodiversity net gain elsewhere in the new NPPF (such as paragraph 175d) suggest that the delivery of biodiversity net gain should facilitate sustainable development (and, by implication, not hinder it by causing unnecessary delays). Net gain for biodiversity is far more prominent than in previous policy, and closely tied to sustainable development so, in theory at least, the NPPF should help deliver net gain.
Does the new NPPF provide for a more consistent approach?
The NPPF suggests that it will be up to local planning authorities to prepare their own policies on how to identify and pursue opportunities for securing measurable net gains (paragraph 174). This means that there will continue to be variation in what local planning authorities consider to be acceptable or ‘sufficient’ net gain, and the door remains open for the continued use of various metric-based approaches to ‘measure’ net gain. In our experience, the existing lack of consistency in metrics between different administrative areas has led to confusion for developers seeking to deliver sustainable development through their projects, and a further proliferation of approaches to delivering net gain are unlikely to make things any easier . There appears to have been a missed opportunity for the NPPF to take the initiative in addressing how net gain should operate consistently which will, in our view, continue to affect development delivery timescales, complicate development projects and, ultimately, affect the delivery of net gain.
So does the NPPF provide a clear way forward for developers?
Different metric-based systems are already employed by some local authorities. The NPPF guides local planning authorities to prepare their own policies to tackle the issue. We are aware that further national guidance may come forward from Defra and Natural England and this may standardise matters. In the meantime, it seems that individual local planning authorities decide how to provide for biodiversity net gain.
This will continue to mean variation in net gain requirements, and developers working in neighbouring administrative areas will be asked to apply different metric-based systems with different requirements and outcomes. In addition, there is the cost and time that developers will need to invest in dealing with them upfront. Review by developers and their advisors of the Local Plan policy approach (if any) will be important early on in the development process, preferably from the land deal stage, in order to identify the likely costs associated with net gain requirements in any given planning authority area.