NAO says Government lacks relevant information needed to evaluate scheme’s success

The government has yet to establish systems to ensure its new biodiversity net gain (BNG) policies are being implemented, according to the National Audit Office. 

Under the BNG policy, which came into force earlier this year, all development projects will have to ensure that they generate an increase of at least a 10% in biodiversity, either on site or by off-setting. 

Berkeley BNG Woodberry Down

Berkeley Group’s Woodberry Down scheme in Hackney, a project on which it is delivering net gain

In its latest report, the independent public spending watchdog assessed whether the Department for Environmental (Defra), Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England had made good progress on implementing the policy. 

It found Defra was still developing its governance arrangements and intended to make Natural England responsible for important elements of the policy, but that the department did not intend to provide central monitoring of the effectiveness of local authority enforcement. 

Furthermore, the NAO said both Natural England and Defra lacked a comprehensive source of information of habitat enhancement taking place on site, making effective evaluation difficult. 

Defra is exploring what information might be available from local authority reporting against the statutory biodiversity duty, although this will only be available at five-yearly intervals.  

The watchdog also noted that Defra does not currently have a legally compliant mechanism to spend income from statutory credit sales to enhance biodiversity, despite having committed to be a provider of last resort if the private market for off-site credit is unable to provide sufficiently. 

Gareth Davies, head of NAO said: “The statutory biodiversity net gain scheme is the first national scheme of its kind to build requirements for enhancing biodiversity into planning approval. However, it was launched with risks to the long-term effectiveness of the policy.   

“These include uncertainty about whether the fledgling market for biodiversity units scales up to satisfy developers’ demand, risks to enforcement and gaps in its information.   

>>See also: Will the government’s biodiversity plans prove a net gain for the housebuilding sector?

“Defra must address these issues, including by plugging gaps in its information so that it can effectively evaluate the scheme’s success.” 

The organisation recommended that government establish a mechanism for spending income from the sales of statutory biodiversity credits and said that local authorities should be given sufficient and timely funding certain to allow for longer-term planning of their role in the scheme. 

Amanda Williams, head of environmental sustainability at Chartered Institute of Building, said the report “sadly comes as no great surprise”.  

“The concerns in it were raised by stakeholders, including us at CIOB, prior to the implementation of the policy,” she said.  

“We continue to be supportive of Biodiversity Net Gain in principle, but the introduction of a complex requirement like this requires clear timelines, with adequate funding and support, but these have been lacking throughout. 

“The low level of confidence held by local authorities, planners, and the construction industry about their respective roles in delivering biodiversity net gain is understandable given the limited Government investment in ensuring the success of the scheme.   

“Key to success is the right investment for preparation and monitoring and enforcing on-site gains.  The skills shortage in the industry is a long-standing issue and increasing the supply of competent experts to factor biodiversity net gain into project plans, deliver it and monitor success must be a priority.”