Natural England will shortly launch the biodiversity net gain (BNG) unit Register ahead of the mandatory BNG requirements coming into force in November 2023. The BNG Register will be the single central record of land which is committed to delivering BNG units so it can be drawn down for future off-site development. The Register will also record any developments to which those units have been allocated.
How to Register BNG Units
To register land as a biodiversity gain site, applicants are likely to need:
- a boundary plan of the land to be registered;
- consent from the owner of the land;
- proof of ownership of the land;
- a completed biodiversity 4.0 Metric analysis in excel format for the land;
- a habitat management and monitoring plan; and
- a legal agreement securing the habitat enhancement for 30 years (likely to be in the form of section 106 agreements or conservation covenants discussed below).
Natural England will host the Register online, paid for by application fees (expected to be c. £100 to £1,000 per application). An appeal process will be created for applicants to challenge registration decisions. To further bolster confidence in the Register, financial penalties may be imposed for false or misleading information entered onto the Register.
How will it all work?
The BNG Register is not designed to be a marketplace for landowners to sell on BNG units – it will be a ledger to which BNG units are attributed to land and then allocated to developments. The Register is still a work in progress, but it will aim to:
- be publicly accessible;
- be transparent;
- prevent the double-counting of BNG units; and
- allow local planning authorities to confirm off-site BNG units are allocated on the Register when approving a biodiversity gain plan.
There are currently two types of legal agreements which are expected to be sufficient to secure biodiversity net gain and allow registration of habitat units on the Register:
- section 106 agreements with local planning authorities; and
- conservation covenants with ‘responsible bodies’.
How a section 106 agreement secures BNG units will depend on a variety of factors such as whether the:
- developer will deliver BNG or will purchase BNG units or statutory BNG credits;
- planning permission sought concerns an outline or full planning application;
- BNG is intended to be delivered in phases;
- BNG will be delivered onsite, within other land within the planning applicant’s control, or off-site; and
- land used to secure BNG will also be used to secure other additional ecosystem services (see our other article on additional land uses with BNG).
Some local authorities have opted to secure BNG by agreements under section 39 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which has a far more limited range of application and so may be doubtful in terms of acceptance to the Register. We will not know whether the Register will accept these agreements until the Register launches, but we expect these agreements will not be sufficient for registration.
The Biodiversity Metric
Because the Register will require a completed biodiversity metric in excel format, we expect that only the 4.0 Metric files will be accepted for registration. Some landowners and developers will undoubtedly have used earlier Metric versions for BNG baseline assessments before the 4.0 Metric was launched. In practice, this means that when putting off-site BNG or development schemes together landowners should:
- Not Mix Metrics – The Metric’s technical guidance is clear that if a baseline assessment is carried out under one version, that version should also be used to assess post-development BNG.
- Convert to 4.0 Metric – Natural England has published a summary of changes between metric versions on the Metric archive page. While there are some significant changes between metric versions, an ecologist may be able to convert a baseline assessment carried out under a previous metric version to the 4.0 Metric from the technical update notes. This will ultimately depend on the habitats involved and the metric version the baseline was assessed under.
- Use Historical Data – In cases where a BNG assessment cannot be updated from the technical advice notes, it is possible that other historical data such as satellite imagery could be relied on to re-assess a baseline under the 4.0 metric.
The Register will ultimately be bolstered by additional guidance from the Government which is expected this summer. Watch this space as further regulations and guidance are introduced.