Ground-breaking Environment Bill back on Parliamentary agenda

29 Jan 2020

A ground-breaking Environment Bill which sets out wide-ranging measures affecting both local authorities and developers was reintroduced to Parliament in the Queen’s Speech (19th December).

The Bill introduces a range of measures that will impose additional requirements on both local authorities and developers intended to conserve and enhance the environment in England; the most fundamental change for developers is a legal requirement to achieve a net gain in biodiversity for all developments (with extremely limited exceptions). However, the additional requirements placed on local authorities are also far reaching, and will likely add even more pressure to public services that are already struggling.

These measures are broadly summarised below.

Environmental target setting

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to set at least one target that can be measured quantitatively in relation to five priority areas; air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency.

In addition to these targets, a separate target must be set in relation to the annual mean level of particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air.

Office for Environmental Protection

A new Government office, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), will have the principle objective of protecting and improving the natural environment, and its powers will cover all climate change legislation. It will have various enforcement functions against authorities that fail to comply with environmental law.

Biodiversity gain

Biodiversity gain will automatically become a condition of granting any planning permission, with very limited exceptions; developments will only be allowed to begin when a Biodiversity Gain Plan, which demonstrates compliance with the Biodiversity Gain Test, has been submitted to and approved by the planning authority.

The Biodiversity Gain Test can be taken to have been met when the biodiversity value attributable to the development exceeds the pre-development biodiversity value of the onsite habitat by at least 10%.

This will be a fundamental change and will require developers to consider enhancement measures at an early stage, and how the 10% uplift in biodiversity value can be achieved and incorporated successfully within developments.

Requirements for public authorities

Public authorities will be required to set out policies and objectives necessary for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, and to take appropriate action in light of them.  The policies and objectives, and progress towards meeting them, must be published in a Biodiversity Report that provides information about any biodiversity gains resulting from or expected to result from the biodiversity gain plans it has approved.

Local Nature Recovery Strategies

The Secretary of State will establish a Local Nature Recovery Area for each part of England and determine who will be the competent authority for managing this area.  That authority must then publish a Local Nature Recovery Strategy setting out opportunities and priorities for that area, along with a map for the whole area identifying any biodiversity interests.

In order to assist with the above, the Secretary of State is required to publish a national habitat map identifying national conservation sites and other areas considered by the Secretary of State to have particular importance for biodiversity.

Conservation covenants

Part 7 of the Bill introduces measures to enter into a conservation covenant which is an agreement (and will act as a local land charge) between landowner and Local Authority with the intention to conserve or enhance the natural resources of an area of land.

The Bill is just one element of the government’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

However there are big challenges ahead for Local Planning Authorities in ensuring policies are updated and the necessary skills are available to consider the issues and monitor implementation to take the measures forward in an effective manner.

For developers the requirement will add to costs, be a further consideration in any site appraisal and potentially lead to additional land requirements in order to ensure Biodiversity Gain.

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