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A Brexit for biodiversity – not chlorinated chickens?

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LGC’s commentary on the day’s news.

LGC has heard far more from council officers about housebuilding and economic development than about environmental protection in recent years.

However, on a neighbourhood level, cliché suggests one tends to hear far more from one’s local councillors and activists about environmental protection than about housebuilding and economic development.

This is not to say the environment is unimportant to officers but frustration has grown in recent times about how, to use one obvious example, green belt restrictions hinder new housing and economic growth. Much green belt land is hardly a cornucopia of biodiversity and the entire system is set up to protect it at a time of unprecedented housing demand.

LGC last year asked officers whether they supported building on some of the green belt in their area. Those whose council areas contain green belt land split 56:44 in favour of some building.

However, the launch of a consultation yesterday by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs emphasises how the issue is far more complicated than there being some binary choice of being for or against development.

Defra’s net gain proposal could result in developers being required to show that their plans will enhance biodiversity. As in you build something and it results in more wildlife habitat, not less.

Under the government’s proposal, developers would be required to assess the area they intend to build upon and then demonstrate how their plans would improve biodiversity. Green corridors, tree planting and nature spaces are among the endorsed measures. And there’s an incentive to build upon car parks or brown field sites which have relatively low biodiversity, although the latter could be exempt from the proposed new rules.

Some may consider it a little far-fetched to hope that all developments will improve biodiversity. Indeed, Defra did offer one caveat: “Green improvements on site would be encouraged, but in the rare circumstances where they are not possible the consultation proposes to charge developers a levy to pay for habitat creation or improvement elsewhere.”

Where developers fail to mitigate biodiversity loss, they will be required to pay a cash tariff, which according to the consultation, will cover the cost of “creating and managing compensation habitat”, as well as incentivising the protection of existing habitats.

One thing which will not be covered by the net gain principle is national infrastructure, presumably ensuring HS2 doesn’t face yet another hurdle.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said the proposed measure was part of an “ambition to be the first generation to leave our natural environment in a better state than we found it”.

He also used the plan as a retort to those who think Brexit will herald the era of chlorinated chicken as environmental and social standards are reduced in search of comparative advantage in international trade. Brexit could make Britain a “world leader in environmental excellence”, and it is vital that we “use this opportunity to set world-leading standards on everything from environmental land management to a sustainable construction industry”.

Some may doubt that Brexit will offer such an opportunity but the environment secretary has nevertheless made a constructive intervention to safeguard biodiversity in the rush to build 300,000 new homes each year. Nevertheless, it can only work alongside behaviour change at an individual level, as well as boldness from both the national and local states.

The government needs to do more, way beyond its industrial strategy, to tilt the economy in favour of development in areas with an excess of brownfield land. These are most regularly found in the north of England. It beggars belief Northern Powerhouse rail improvements have not been funded, to use one obvious example of how the government can rebalance the economy.

At a local level, it is the council planner who should be at the centre of the system. For most of this decade ministers have maligned planners, who have generally been seen as little more than a barrier to growth. This has undermined their ability to safeguard the environment and bring about sustainable and liveable new communities.

But there could also be scope for councils to encourage biodiversity were they given more financial freedom. Could green roofs be somehow incentivised through business rates? And if the concreting of gardens has had such a big impact on increasing flooding as well as destroying biodiversity, then it is surely exactly the sort of thing which should be penalised through local taxation.

Michael Gove is right in that economic development is not necessarily the enemy of biodiversity. But a more farsighted central mindset could do so much more to facilitate both growth and biodiversity.

Nick Golding, editor

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