27 May 2022
Preventing biodiversity loss in the construction industry

At Focus, we have written a great deal about construction’s significant contribution to the UK’s carbon footprint, and the various steps that have been taken to mitigate the built environment’s role in climate change. Perhaps less spoken about – although of equal importance – is the negative impact of construction on our biodiversity (i.e., the variety of animals, plants and other organisms that live in a given area) and the extent to which the development of land contributes to the destruction of ecosystems and habitats.

What is the current state of the UK’s biodiversity?

Reputable sources suggest that the UK’s biodiversity is declining, with the Royal Society suggesting in a 2019 study that it has fallen by 13% since the 1970s – in spite of the 69% increase in biodiversity funding since 2000. Meanwhile, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has estimated that 40 million birds have disappeared from UK skies during the same period. All in all, the outlook is not good; a damning report from the Natural History Museum suggested in 2020 that the UK has ‘led the world’ in biodiversity destruction and that, “while the UK has made some gains, natural landscapes have been so heavily degraded over decades and centuries that we are simply not doing enough to turn back the tide.”

So, what ‘gains’, however negligible these have been judged to be, have we made in recent years? Firstly, the UK is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into force in 1993 and has three main objectives: 1) preserving biodiversity, 2) using natural resources sustainably and 3) ensuring the benefits of using those resources are shared fairly and equitably. Later, in 2010, the UK committed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, all of which were due to be met by 2020. Sadly, a UN report revealed in 2020 that the UK (and indeed the world) had missed the vast majority of these targets.

The impacts of construction

According to a 2010 report by Wilmott Dixon, construction has historically been responsible for a large percentage of the world’s habitat loss. In the report, entitled The Impacts of Construction and the Built Environment, the firm estimated that building was directly or indirectly responsible for 80% of agricultural land loss, 50% of coral reef destruction and 25% of rainforest destruction. Fast forward over a decade to a 2021 survey from RICS, and the majority of respondents were still suggesting that the impact on biodiversity is factored in to less than 50% of the projects they work on.

Fortunately, new legislation was recently passed that is likely to contribute towards reversing this worrying trend. The 2021 Environment Act, which became law in November last year, introduced a new condition that, from 2023 (for projects under the Town and Country Planning Act) and 2025  (for nationally significant infrastructure projects, or NSIPs), will automatically apply to every planning permission granted in England: a Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) of 10%, which must be maintained for at least 30 years.

What is biodiversity net gain?

Essentially, BNG is the principle that any construction project should leave habitats and biodiversity in a better state than before. The new condition set out in the Environment Act requires that a biodiversity gain plan be submitted – and approved by the relevant local planning body – prior to the commencement of works. But what does this entail?

Well, it all starts with a four-step plan called the ‘mitigation hierarchy’, according to which environmental damage should be a last resort after all possible avoidance and minimisation measures have been taken. Firstly, developers must do all they can to avoid environmental harm in the first place – for example, by making a conscious decision not to develop on land that is particularly rich in biodiversity. Secondly, they must act to minimise the impact of any unavoidable damage. Where damage is unavoidable, developers must then act to restore habitats that have suffered harm as a result of the building works. Finally, after all possibilities relating to the first three steps have been exhausted, developers must ensure they offset any environmental damage that could not be reversed. This final step, called ‘biodiversity offsetting’, will usually involve creating new nature reserves or conservation areas at a scale commensurate with the damage inflicted.

Experts have made it clear that planning for biodiversity net gain can be of significant benefit to developers, in spite of the extra time and effort that must be spent during the planning stage. Firstly, building biodiversity preservation into the project at the earliest stage minimises the chances that the project will later be rejected due to conservation or environmental concerns. Secondly, prioritising BNG is likely to lead to higher-quality developments and a better quality of life for residents and local flora and fauna alike. Last but not least, developers that take a ‘BNG-first’ approach are likely to enjoy a reputational boost – which is likely to come in handy when it comes to securing further investment and tendering for work.