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The Environment Bill currently making its way through parliament looks set to introduce a number of new environmental policy measures. Fisher German’s Tom Beeley discusses three key elements of the new policy which landowners should be aware of.

The Environment Bill was reintroduced to Parliament in January this year and brings forward legislation to implement a broad range of measures included in the Government’s 25-Year Environment Strategy. It is expected to be passed into legislation in early 2021 with enabling secondary legislation to follow.

Environmental Targets

The Bill will introduce legally binding, national level targets for four environmental priority areas of water, biodiversity, waste and air quality with potential targets for other indicators of environment quality such as soil to be added.

The targets will be overseen by a new Office for Environmental Protection which will be an independent body tasked with reporting on Government progress and the policies required. A consultation on the scope of targets setting was recently launched by the Government.

While target setting at a national level does not itself impact on landowners, they will bind future governments to delivery of improving environmental standards, creating pressure on government to bring forward policy to deliver on these goals and this policy will undoubtedly be felt by landowners.

This approach mirrors that taken under the Climate Change Act which set targets around Greenhouse Gas emission reduction and established the Committee on Climate Change to advise government on progress. This has resulted in the in the UK reducing its emission by 43 per cent through a raft of policies introduced following the act with the Government now committed to the ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050. It might be expected that environmental target setting supported by the Office for Environmental Protection will operate in a similar way, keeping government on course to achieve the targets.

Biodiversity Net Gain

One of the most significant and widely discussed aspects of the Environment Bill is the proposed introduction of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). Defined as “an approach which aims to leave the natural environment in a measurably better state than beforehand”, BNG will be implemented through the planning system.

It is expected to require most types of development to demonstrate a 10 per cent net gain in biodiversity as a condition of planning consent. Whilst current policy makes biodiversity a consideration for planning, BNG will make it mandatory for developers to deliver an increase in biodiversity as part of the development process representing a major step change.

Biodiversity will be measured via the already established DEFRA (the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs) biodiversity metric, which uses habitat as a proxy for biodiversity and can be used to measure biodiversity value of land in terms of habitat points.The metric determines the habitat value on the basis of habitat type, area, quality and its proximity or connectedness to other areas of high value habitat.

The practical implications of BNG from a development perspective are that the habitat value of a site will need to be measured. Consideration must be given to how this might be increased either through enhancement of existing habitat or creation of new habitat within the development boundary. Where a 10 per cent increase in habitat value cannot be achieved onsite, the developer is likely to have to engage in ‘biodiversity offsetting’ - putting in place measures to increase habitat elsewhere. Biodiversity offsetting might be delivered as another developer contribution to the local authority who in turn use the funds to secure the creation or enhancement of habitat. Alternatively, a developer may seek to engage third party landowners to secure long term land management agreements – likely to be for a minimum of 30 years – for provision of specific types of habitat.

The demand for offsetting sites could provide new opportunities for long term income from environmental land management, although careful consideration of any agreement will be required to understand the longer-term implications. On the other side of the coin, those landowners with potential development land will need to consider the impact that BNG policy could have on the land as the cost of mitigating biodiversity loss and creation of new habitat will need to be met.

Local Nature Recovery Strategies

The third area of significance within the Environment Bill is the introduction of Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS). These will be new, locally-produced spatial strategies which will map the most valuable areas of habitat within an area as well as proposals for creation or enhancement of new habitat.

The strategies will be used to identify priority areas for establishment of new habitat to create links with areas of existing priority habitat and deliver nature recovery networks. As such, LNRS are likely to highlight the areas most valued for retention of habitat and delivery of biodiversity offsetting.

The Government has announced five pilot areas which will receive funding to produce Local Nature Recovery Strategies. These will be watched with interest to see how they are developed, the strategies they establish and perhaps most importantly the weight they will be given within the planning system. For landowners, the impact of having land included within an LNRS as area for priority habitat creation or enhancement will be key.

Will this act as a new form of restrictive land designation or might it bring opportunities for new income streams from environmental land management?Delivery of the targets and other policies set out in the Environment Bill will require a joined-up approach to policy making across all departments of Government.

It should be expected that the impact of the Environment Bill will be felt across the policy spectrum with land management policy an area of particular focus. Landowners and managers will need to pay close attention to the bill and legislation that follows.

If you’d like more information about the likely outcomes of the Environment Bill and the impact this might have on you and your business, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.