Another raft of regulations prescribing what developers should do about the environment come into effect later this year. But, as Aston Mead Land & Planning Director Adam Hesse explains, instead of railing against the proposals, the property industry should embrace the opportunity to put something back…
If you were to believe the popular myth, you could be forgiven for thinking that property developers and environmental concerns were fundamentally at odds with each other.
After all, new-build properties are constructed on what would otherwise be considered ‘the environment’ and are consequently trashing it, aren’t they?
Similarly, aren’t greedy developers simply out for what they can get, only in the business to make a fast buck, and therefore happy to ride roughshod over any environmental concerns standing in their way?
Well, as someone who has been in the property sector for over 35 years, I can tell you for a fact that this is simply not true.
Developers are human beings like the rest of us. They have the same awareness of the sensitivities which affect us all. Their families are affected by precisely those environmental issues that concern everyone. They know that world we leave behind will be the one their children inherit too. So environmental concerns play as vital a part in their lives as anyone else’s.
There’s a commercial imperative at work here too: they know that local opinion can massively influence the success or failure of project. Developers are trying to sell to people who also care about the environment. So, if there is public goodwill, the new properties are more likely to be welcomed, and therefore future sales will be easier to come by.
But the truth is, most developers know that it’s good to give something back from time to time. Particularly if it can be done in ways which will make life better for everyone – themselves and their families included.
Interestingly, the 2021 Environment Act provides precisely the means by which to do that.
It stresses the importance of avoiding harm wherever possible, and sets clear targets for air quality, water and waste management, the reversal of species decline, and – crucially – ‘biodiversity’.
In essence, the word ‘biodiversity’ refers to every living species on earth: animals, plants, even hard-to-find fungi and impossible-to-see-with-the-naked-eye bacteria.
Whilst the bill was enacted two years ago, one element – something called ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ (or BNG for short) – will come into effect between November this year and April 2024.
This new bill requires that any proposed development – no matter how big or small – will have to demonstrate a 10% increase in the biodiversity of the site after it’s finished, compared to what it was like before work started.
An independent consultant will need to be engaged, using the rather grandly-titled ‘Defra Biodiversity Metric’ to calculate the relative biodiversity value of any habitat. The developer then has to make sure that there is a 10% increase in the biodiversity of the site once they have put down their tools and completed work.
A tall order? Not necessarily, no.
For example, if a developer has a 10 acre site, setting aside an acre as a wildflower meadow, orchard or pond, never to be built on, might be perfectly manageable within the scheme. Profits will be affected, but the development may still be perfectly viable. (It’s worth remembering that the set-aside area may also make the properties more desirable, and so they might go onto sell for higher prices).
Admittedly, the requirement gets trickier when it comes to smaller sites; the 10% set-aside may affect land value too much. Nevertheless, you can imagine how a former petrol station site, consisting of derelict abandoned buildings, a concrete forecourt and with planning permission for a half a dozen homes with gardens, could improve its current biodiversity value relatively easily.
But there is also scope within the legislation for improving land away from the development site. Alternatively, units from a land manager can be bought instead.
Developers know that this is now what councils want too. Already, over 40% of local authorities have BNG policies in their current or emerging local plans (up from 28% last year). Some of those councils have introduced policies that go above and beyond the 10% requirement. At least 14 have doubled that commitment, introducing a requirement of 20% instead.
So, it makes sense for them to increase the likelihood of a quicker and smoother process through the planning stage if a net diversity plan is already in the application.
In essence, even those of us who make a living in the development world don’t want concrete over the countryside.
But we do need to deliver homes for the next generation.
And abiding by the requirements of the 2021 Environment Act – avoiding harm, creating new habitats and enhancing existing ones – is one way to ensure that we will be able to do so.