Recent policy introduced in February on biodiversity net gain (BNG) has set out a new approach to development, building on the legally binding Environment Act introduced in 2022, to create better quality natural habitats wherever development takes place.

Attending the Surrey Nature Partnership Biodiversity and Planning Conference 2024, discussion from industry stakeholders highlighted the barriers to overcome in adopting widespread best practice and most importantly, the opportunities this refreshed approach to nature conservation presents.

Firstly, it’s easy to forget that human beings are an intrinsic part of nature and developments that enhance the environment for wildlife, our living environment, and provide better homes for all.

In particular, multifunctional green infrastructure presents an exciting opportunity to create healthier and happier neighbourhoods, as research has highlighted a strong link between living near green spaces and our overall health and wellbeing. For example, a recent study from the Hasselt University in Belgium found that children with more green space near their homes have significantly stronger bones, lower blood pressure and better mental and emotional wellbeing.

Meanwhile, green spaces are also linked to better physical and mental health in adults, with woodland walks estimated to save £185m a year in mental health costs in the UK.

Not only do green spaces create habitats for wildlife while increasing the visual appeal of a development, they also can be used as recreational areas for residents. Moreover, if designed thoughtfully, infrastructure such as a wildflower meadow can largely maintain itself, requiring minimal upkeep.

To maximise the benefits of nature-inspired design, developers must adopt a holistic approach. Retaining existing natural assets, creating wildlife corridors, incorporating green roofs and walls, and integrating habitats into homes with swift bricks and hedgehog corridors are just a few examples of how developers can make a significant difference.

The urgency for this nature-inclusive approach to design cannot be overstated. The UK currently sits in the bottom 10% of countries for biodiversity, with a staggering 16% of species threatened with extinction.

Alongside recent BNG policy, in late 2022 the UK Government outlined ambitious targets aimed at restoring and enhancing wildlife habitats, increasing tree cover and ensuring that everyone in England lives within a 15 minute walk of a green or blue space. There is also a growing commercial awareness of the importance of nature capital, and we are now seeing policy coming together with collective interest in sustainability to prioritise our natural environment.

Challenges raised at the Biodiversity and Planning Conference included the narrow scope of BNG policy, which does not include swift bricks or hedgehog highways, and the lack of ecologists available to consult on projects and fact check planning applications.

To navigate these challenges effectively, industry stakeholders must prioritise collaboration and knowledge-sharing. To ease the pressure on Local Planning Authorities, establishing codes and standardised approaches can help ensure that biodiversity considerations are seamlessly integrated into planning applications nationwide.

Moreover, investing in green skills and supporting career pathways for aspiring ecologists to specialise in habitat creation will be crucial for sustaining progress in the long term.

While there has been some scepticism towards the purchase of ‘BNG credits’, which means that developers can invest in habitat creation off-site and away from their developments, this system is turning disused land into habitats that will be protected for at least 30 years, creating new thriving green spaces across the UK.

The Environment Bank, for example, is creating over 6,000 acres of new habitats to rapidly combat biodiversity loss through privately funded nature recovery.

Overall, beyond regulatory frameworks, there is also a collective responsibility to foster ecological resilience through community engagement. By empowering the public to take action and creating interconnected networks of green spaces in their own gardens and community spaces, we can work together to create more sustainable neighbourhoods in the long run.

Biodiversity will not thrive in isolated pockets of habitats created on new developments, but in interconnected ecosystems that span across regions.

As the industry navigates this new policy and landscape, one thing remains clear: the path to a greener future lies in our ability to harmonise much needed urban development and new homes with the natural world. By embracing innovative design solutions, fostering collaboration, and inspiring collective action, we can pave the way for more biodiverse and resilient communities for future generations.

To find out more about biodiversity net gain, listen to our podcast episode here: