In a report published today (5 February 2020), the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) argues for the introduction of ‘environmental net gain’, building on the concept of biodiversity net gain currently enshrined in the environment bill, to also include wider improvements in natural capital.
The group, which represents the businesses which deliver environmental solutions, is calling on amendments to the bill to allow for this new concept which would broaden the current definition of net gain to include natural assets, the services they deliver, and the benefits to society which are derived from them.
The report, Delivering Environmental Net Gain, argues that current legislation should be more ambitious and that the understanding of natural capital is sophisticated enough to take a broader, and more holistic, view of the environment.
Commenting on the release of the report, Mathew Farrow, EIC executive director, said: “If we are going to renew both our natural capital and our infrastructure, we need to ensure that development genuinely improves the environment we all rely on. We have developed enough knowledge of our natural assets, and how to assess them, to substantially increase the ambitions and impact of the environment bill.”
Robert Spencer, director, sustainable development AECOM and chair of the EIC natural capital taskforce, said: “We have set out pragmatic approaches from environmental consultancies, developers and the infrastructure operators we have worked with closely over the last 18 months. Environmental net gain is an approach for improving the condition of, and ecosystems services that flow from, our natural assets in the context of development. Understanding local context and the relation between communities and the natural environment in a given area, is critical to an effective approach.
“We also need a substantial increase in resource at local planning authority level in order to manage and apply the benefits from environmental net gain. Finally, the report makes several important, but straightforward recommendations for implementation through changes to environmental impact assessment (EIA) and National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) processes.”
In addition, Delivering Environmental Net Gain recommends that:
- Larger developments, subject to an EIA, should be required to meet environmental net gain as a condition of planning permission being granted. An ‘ecosystems services enhancement chapter’ in EIAs could be developed to facilitate this.
- For smaller developments the NPPF should be amended to require local planning authorities to specify the approach taken to environmental net gain. A ‘model’ chapter on environmental net gain for local development plans should be published alongside a revised NPPF to promote consistency.
- Absolute exemptions from environmental net gain should be limited, as is currently the case with biodiversity net gain.
- Offsetting should only be allowed as part of an environmental net gain approach, subject to the mitigation hierarchy. Projects funded by net gain offsets must adhere to the goals of the 25 Year Environmental Plan and must state how they are achieving them. There should be a national strategic oversight of offset projects, to ensure they link with the Local Nature Recovery Strategies proposed in the environment bill.
- Local authorities should use some of the estimated £443m of currently unspent Community Infrastructure Levy to enhance planning ecology expertise.
On 29 January, Defra published a new resource to support natural capital approaches to development, ENCA, which was developed with support from the EIC.