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In the second of an occasional series of guest comments from peer professionals in the property sector, John Coleman, Dip TP, MRTPI shares his own, personal views on a new opportunity for rural landowners and developers to work together.

Views expressed here are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
 Royal Town Planning Institute of which he is a member.

The planning system has always recognised farmers as custodians of the countryside, although their effectiveness as such has, arguably, waned over more recent years for various reasons.

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), I believe, presents a tremendous opportunity for developers and farmers to be the new joint custodians of the countryside in forming new partnerships for enhancing biodiversity via the new system of BNG credits.

Having recently submitted personal comments on the Defra Consultation on BNG (deadline for responses was 05 April), with my environmental hat on I applaud the principles and many details of the new proposals because development impact on biodiversity must be addressed.

However, as someone who is ‘pro-development’ and recognises the requirement for a vastly increased rate of building to address our housing and affordability needs, I’ve urged caution in the implementation of BNG.

The new system, in my view, has the potential to complicate decision making and further delay development.

The need to establish a whole new ‘market’ and process for registration of biodiversity land will, in particular, bring new significant challenges.

Defra’s consultation identifies some key issues. First, the scope of controls -development thresholds and exceptions - and, secondly, the application of the Regulations to detailed schemes and phasing and any subsequent changes - both nature and content of Biodiversity Plans to be approved and also the system of credits and approach to both on and off-site gains.

On ‘scope’ issues, I’ve concluded that implementation of the Regulations needs to be kept simple. In order to make the planning system manageable, when resources are stretched, I’ve argued that BNG should not be applied to all development regardless of scale and type.

I’ve suggested it should be restricted to ‘large’ sites - using the standard definition for ‘major development’ ie 10 dwellings or 0.5ha.

Excluding small sites from the Regulations would provide a boost for the Government’s drive to encourage further development on small sites. This could be important if the new system causes some element of delay to delivery on larger sites.

Regarding detailed implementation, the Government’s central belief is that a new market for biodiversity credits will be established in rural areas with landowners and developers playing a major partnership role.

This approach is preferable to a tariff payment to the Local Planning Authority (LPA) which they themselves administer on schemes.

I believe this must be the right approach, particularly given the lack of resources in the public sector at present, and will present new opportunities for landowners and the development sector. 

But this will take time to establish.

Current guidance in the consultation remains vague on how it will be achieved. Hence I advocate a cautious approach to implementation. The two year phased implementation will assist but doesn’t remove these risks.

I’ve argued that this provides further justification for setting a site development threshold for triggering BNG and exclude small sites.

As well as presenting challenges to the development process, I believe the new system will create a significant opportunity for developers and housebuilders to demonstrate positive benefits from development. 

Government has emphasised that public acceptance of development can be enhanced through emphasis on ‘beautiful design’. If we also have a direct and recognised gain for biodiversity at the heart of the decision-making process, this could further increase potential for public acceptance of development at the local level.

John Coleman is a chartered town planner who has recently retired from a career spanning four decades in both commercial & local authority practice.

He has been elected as a Corporate Member on the General Assembly of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2022-2023 and is currently on the RTPI’s English Policy Panel.

 A version of this article first appeared on John’s LinkedIN page on 31 March.