Last week, when climate change was high on the Government’s agenda through COP26, the long-awaited Environment Bill was given Royal Assent and has now become the Environment Act 2021. This Act requires, by late 2022, the Secretary of State for DEFRA to set long-term legally binding targets on air quality, biodiversity, water, recourse efficiency and waste reduction within the UK which will be overseen by a largely independent body. The Act is a landmark piece of legislation for nature conservation, and whilst it was over 1000 days in the making, it aims to halt the declines in nature by 2030, with the Government required to publish a 25-Year Environmental Improvement Plan setting interim targets for each 5-year period.

The Act provides the basis for the legal creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). This will be a new independent public body which will monitor and report on environmental law and advise the Government on environmental matters. On its website, the OEP states that it will “protect and improve the environment by holding government and public authorities to account against their commitments and environmental law”. It is anticipated that the OEP will be legally formed in the next few days with an interim non-statutory form in place since July 2021. The OEP will seek functional independence by early 2022.

The Act has been promoted as a tool to implement changes across all environmental sectors including air quality, biodiversity, water, and waste reduction and resource efficiency. At Pro Vision, our team of planning consultants and ecologists have been monitoring progress of the draft Bill since its introduction in 2018. Richard Osborn, an Associate Director Town Planner, and Louisa Jones our Ecology Director, look at the headlines of the Environment Act 2021 in relation to development:

Local Nature Recovery Strategies

  • Local Planning Authorities (LPA) will be required to assimilate new Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS) for the environment and nature’s recovery into their local planning system – we can expect this to feature in the preparation of emerging Local Plans and we are already seeing a ‘Green’ call for sites in some Local Planning Authority areas. LNRS will map the most valuable sites and habitats for wildlife and identify where nature can be restored through, for example, the creation of wildflower habitat, green spaces, or new woodlands and wetlands. This creates opportunities for land owning clients to put forward land which might not otherwise be developable for nature conservation and/or open space.

Biodiversity Net Gain

  • All new development will be obliged to demonstrate a 10% biodiversity net gain (BNG). On sites where BNG is secured, it would have to be managed for at least 30 years. This will most likely need to be secured by a legal agreement and hence early discussions with legal professionals are recommended. A two-year transition period was set out in the consultation documents so it is anticipated the 10% BNG requirement will be a legally mandatory requirement by 2023, however some LPAs already require net gain.  BNG is already posing a challenge on existing sites and allocations where mitigation is sought now, but we can now expect BNG to be a key consideration in assessing planning applications, and it will play a significant role in the allocation of new sites through Local Plans. Developers will need to ensure they can demonstrate a net gain on site or have a mitigation strategy such as purchasing credits to off-set the impact through a District or County-wide scheme where available.
  • A publicly available “biodiversity gain site register” must be set up for each development site and maintained for at least 30 years after the scheme has completed. The register must be kept under review by the Secretary of State who will also have the power to increase the period for which habitat enhancement must be maintained.

Ancient Woodland

  • Whilst the suggested 50m buffer to Ancient Woodland proposed by the Lords failed to gain traction, the Government has made a commitment to review the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure that it is being correctly implemented in relation to ancient woodlands. The Act will strengthen the current woodland protection enforcement measures.

In anticipation of the Environment Bill becoming law, Pro Vision’s ecology team has already been applying the principles of BNG to development proposals over the last 12 months and is well placed to advise on all aspects of this new requirement.

If you would like to know more about these issues or you want to discuss how these changes might affect a specific project, please contact Louisa Jones (Director of Ecology) on 01962 677 044 or 07502 300 503 or email
[email protected]