The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has today published a consultation on whether to mandate that new developments must achieve a biodiversity net gain.
The document says that net gain "is an approach to development that aims to leave the natural environment in a measurably better state than beforehand".
A Defra statement said that, under the net gain approach, developers would be "required to demonstrate how they are improving biodiversity – such as through the creation of green corridors, planting more trees, or forming local nature spaces".
It added that "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".
The consultation says that, currently, a variety of net gain approaches are employed by England’s 353 local authorities, "which developers must navigate and adapt to".
For example, it says, some councils "have adopted existing metrics to achieve biodiversity net gain, whereas others rely on local plans identifying habitat features or sites for conservation".
The document says the government’s view is that "there is an opportunity for mandatory biodiversity net gain to mainstream the best of [existing] approaches".
The consultation proposes that the requirement would cover "all new developments that results in loss or degradation of habitat, including buildings such as housing, offices, shops, business space and local infrastructure".
However it also moots possible exemptions to the requirement, including "permitted development and house extensions".
The consultations also suggests that "small sites", "all brownfield sites", and "some brownfield sites (e.g. those listed on brownfield, or other, land registers)" could be exempted from the new rules.
Elsewhere, the document moots introducing a requirement for all councils to "adopt a robust district level licensing approach for great crested newts" by 2020. This would see zones "mapped that reflect the level of impact anticipated and developers pay a proportionate tariff for newt habitat creation".
"Implementing district level licensing alongside biodiversity net gain approaches would allow off-site habitat compensation approaches to be brought together for maximum benefit for great crested newts and wider biodiversity interests, whilst allowing developers to benefit from streamlined regulation", the document says.
Writing in the forward to the document, environment secretary Michael Gove said: "We are seeking views on whether mandating biodiversity net gain would streamline planning processes and give greater clarity and certainty for developers.
"Varied environmental planning conditions across different regions have created confusion and resentment. We are proposing that a single, consistent national approach would reduce uncertainty for the environment, for the community and for the developer."
In January, the government's 25-year environmental plan promised to consult on "strengthening" requirements for planning authorities to ensure that "environmental net gains" are achieved from new development.
Chapter 14 of July's revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that plans "should take a proactive approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change, taking into account the long-term implications for flood risk, coastal change, water supply, biodiversity and landscapes, and the risk of overheating from rising temperatures". A footnote adds that this approach is in line with the objectives and provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008.
In October, the government said it intends to modify the NPPF next year to take into account a landmark European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in the spring that caused uncertainty over the rules regarding habitat regulation assessments (HRAs), which examine the impact of projects and plans on key wildlife sites.
A further ECJ ruling last month on HRAs, following a legal challenge in the Republic of Ireland, said that appropriate assessments of development plans affecting European conservation areas must identify and examine the implications for habitats and species to be found outside the boundaries of the relevant site, as well as inside.
The biodiversity net gain consultation runs until 10 February 2019.