ARobinson took the report as read and presented an overview of the paper. The paper seeks to update members on work in the planning department to ready itself for the Environment Act biodiversity net gains and also set out a number of opportunities for discussion. The paper was originally intended to be a formal supplementary planning document before the biodiversity net gain became mandatory. Given that the window of opportunity is closing, it was proposed that they do not pursue with a formal SPD and instead dedicate resources to getting operational items ready. It was noted that the work was still suitable for scrutiny as the department will be looking at items over and above the mandatory requirements.
Cllr Timmis first referred to item 1.2, bullet point 4, on page 59 regarding the net gain being delivered onsite, offsite or via statutory biodiversity credits. Cllr Timmis commented that it appears to be offsetting and asked what credits are in this case, stating that the net gain should be more closely related. Cllr Timmis queried who decides the biodiversity level.
ARobinson explained that when the biodiversity net gain becomes mandatory, all development will have to deliver 10% net gain above the existing base. An assessment will be conducted on the biodiversity of the site, which will then become a credit, and a developer will need to provide a number of credits of biodiversity to offset their development. As part of the planning application, the developer will need to find the additional biodiversity credits, and whilst this would ideally be via the site itself, the system does also allow for offsetting to take place. If the developer is unable to do this then the local authority can provide a local system of sites, which DBC doesn't currently have, or they can be provided by a third party. If this is not possible then payment will be provided to government to deliver the biodiversity elsewhere.
Cllr Timmis challenged the delivery of biodiversity elsewhere as it will not have any impact on the local area, adding that there is currently no description of what biodiversity currently means.
ARobinson advised that the legislation is seeking to deliver a net improvement in biodiversity and that the system is in place to help quantify this.
Cllr Timmis commented on SANGs, noting that these are to offer recreational leisure facilities and that unless they can fence some of this off then the impact of human beings will mean less opportunity for biodiversity. ARobinson advised that the SANG provision is in addition to biodiversity net gains and can't be double-counted. Dacorum can have significant amounts of recreation space as well as the requirement for biodiversity net gains and they should therefore have more open spaces compared to other local authorities. CCovington added that the biodiversity net gain will need to show additionality, though they are waiting for more advice from the government on how to combine elements.
CCovington referred to Cllr Timmis' earlier comment on offsite, onsite and statutory biodiversity credits, noting that there is a proximity principle that applies and that onsite will be considered first and will have a higher value.
Cllr Timmis commented on 2.7 and asked for clarification on habitat banks. CCovington explained that this is when a landowner decides to create habitat units in advance and have them ready to sell to developers.
The Chair asked if there is a standard measure for a credit. CCovington advised that Natural England have devised the biodiversity metric calculator and this will be used nationally. It is a complicated calculation and considers different habitat types. Different types of habitat have different values, with areas such as woodland having more value than modified grassland. Habitat units must be of the type on the development site or higher and can't be traded down. There is a cost associated with units and HCC advise on what this cost should be.
The Chair noted that the developer would be determining how much credit is required and asked if they would need to research this with Natural England. ARobinson explained that developers will need to undertake an assessment of their site to determine its biodiversity value and they will use the Natural England calculator to establish this. Developers can then see what additional work they need to do onsite, and if this can't be done onsite then they will look at other solutions. Whilst the developer will collect the evidence, Natural England will then provide the direction on what action developers need to take.
Cllr Timmis commented on the impact of land being built on. ARobinson advised that the biodiversity net gains are a small piece of a much bigger planning assessment and a developer would have to develop that the loss of a particular species would be mitigated with additional legal processes to demonstrate that protected species will continue to be protected.
Cllr Stevens referred to 2.7.3 and the national statutory credit, asking if the +10% is from day one or is expected to grow over time. ARobinson confirmed that the 10% will need to be secured at the point of planning permission and should be assessed when the application is being considered so it would then be locked in. On whether the 10% would be achieved from day one, ARobinson suggested that the 10% would be quantified at the end of implementation and should be achieved over the course of 30 years.
Cllr Stevens asked who would audit the developer's plan for a 10% gain. ARobinson confirmed they have an agreement with HCC who provide ecological support and they will look to extend this to ensure it covers biodiversity net gains. Cllr Stevens queried if HCC have the capacity to support this. ARobinson acknowledged that resourcing is a wider issue given the new legislative requirements coming in and that they are now in the process of building up the capacity with the county to ensure the correct resources are in place. ARobinson confirmed that DBC will be providing a financial contribution to ensure the resources are ready.
Cllr Beauchamp asked if biodiversity net gains will apply to all developments. ARobinson advised that it will cover most developments, though there is a threshold, which will be provided to the Committee. CCovington stated that there would be some exemptions, though these are yet to be confirmed by government and may include brownfield sites.
Cllr Banks asked if local residents or members would be able to challenge the developer's application for credits. ARobinson confirmed that the planning application process remains unchanged and that any information provided by the developer can be challenged.
Cllr Wilkie agreed with the recommendation to not proceed with an SPD.
Cllr Wilkie commented on delivery of the 10% taking place over a 30-year period and asked how this would be monitored. Cllr Wilkie also noted that some local authorities may be looking at 20% and asked if DBC are also considering this.
ARobinson advised that there is an opportunity for DBC to look at going above the 10% and that will be the next stage of the local plan. If members feel they should go above and beyond the 10%, this can be secured as part of the local plan, though there will be practicality issues in achieving 20%. With regards to monitoring delivery, ARobinson explained that the council confirms a commitment to deliver the 10% uplift and it will be checked when the 10% needs to be delivered, though it should be within a realistic period of time with strict timescales for delivery. CCovington added that, before commencement, the developer will have to have their biodiversity net gain management plan approved, which will set out how the site will be managed, maintained and monitored. The provider of the habitat units will be expected to provide periodic reports on implementation and the monitoring of this will be discussed with HCC.
Cllr Wilkie asked if it is the developer's responsibility to monitor biodiversity. CCovington confirmed that whoever the developer has entered into the Section 106 agreement to provide the habitat unit will need to provide the data.
Cllr Wilkie referred to the CSG and noted that they would not have the same responsibilities and asked if this would stop biodiversity efforts. CCovington stated that she would expect it to continue in parallel, though the initiatives may not qualify as a habitat unit due to the dual use of spaces.
A question was raised on SANG being double-counted. CCovington advised that it could be counted if additionality can be demonstrated and that a habitat can be secured for 30 years for that purpose.
The risk of companies going out of business during the 30-year period was noted. ARobinson advised that as the management plans will be secured through the Section 106 agreement, this will run with the land, and if a developer goes out of business then the obligation will be transferred to the subsequent owner of the property.
On the payment of credits, ARobinson advised that they would expect money to be paid upfront and that a deferred payment plan would not be accepted.
Cllr Riddick suggested that developers should identify and secure credits required to support planning applications and that it should not be submitted until this has been done. ARobinson noted that whilst some planning policies are negotiable, biodiversity net gain is mandatory and developers should meet the legal requirement before submitting an application. ARobinson stated that they need to look at how to prepare themselves for this and whether applications should not be validated if the net gain is not demonstrated. Developers are aware of the requirement and it is expected that the majority will ensure the net gains are demonstrated before submitting their applications.
Cllr Riddick queried if the requirement would help reduce predatory or particularly large applications. ARobinson advised that most speculative applications do include the net gain, noting that it is easier to complete on a larger strategic site due to the additional space. ARobinson noted that there is concern amongst developers as very few local authorities have land to offer up for this, meaning that if credits can't be offered onsite then developers will need to pay.
Cllr Taylor referred to comments on working with HCC and asked how they can ensure that they will deliver on these obligations given current resourcing issues. ARobinson stated that they could look at an in-house or external resource as well as the role that HCC can play given that they have an existing team in place. Other authorities are stating that they are looking at HCC to provide this resource and they will ensure there are robust plans in place to ensure that HCC can manage staff leaving or a drop in performance.
Cllr Timmis noted that HCC are required to comment on planning applications and suggested that they have not provided greenfield site measurements. ARobinson acknowledged the issues with previous applications and advised that the system being developed is a national system, and whilst local authorities will be required to assess sites, planning officers will rely on expert ecologists to assist with this and a good service is expected. If it is felt that the service being provided is not satisfactory then this should be raised and DBC need to ensure whoever is undertaking the assessment is thoroughly checking the developer's work.
The Committee noted the report.
ACTION: ARobinson to provide Committee with threshold for which developments biodiversity net gains applies to.
ACTION: ARobinson to check timelines for 10% uplift delivery.