Adding biodiversity to sites is already a goal for most utilities, but soon they will be working to a tough new target of 10% biodiversity net gains under the Environment Bill. Katie Dawson, Costain’s lead on Geographical Information Systems for the environment, explains what’s involved.

Can you tell us more about the Environment Bill, and its methodology for calculating Biodiversity Net Gains?

Katie Dawson is Costain’s lead on GIS for the environment

It looks as if the Environment Bill will be passed through Parliament in September 2021. When it comes into force, any scheme to develop land that requires planning permission will need to submit, and the planning authority will need to approve, a biodiversity net gain plan that delivers at least a 10% biodiversity net gain.

The calculations for biodiversity net gain were first piloted in 2012 by Defra, using metrics based on habitat characteristics, spatial location, on-ground conditions, and area. These metrics are used as a proxy measurement that converts into biodiversity units; units are calculated for areas and linear habitat types for terrestrial and inter-tidal habitats.

There have been two revisions to the Biodiversity Metric, with version 2.0 published in 2019, and version 3.0 scheduled for release in spring 2021 by Natural England.

Are utility companies up to speed on what will be required?

The concept of biodiversity reporting has been around for a while; however, it has not been standard practice until recently, this includes in the utilities sector. Most organisations are likely to have one or two individuals that are familiar with reporting biodiversity, however, we believe there will be a need for training and advisory services for many moving forward.

How will Costain be assisting clients to work with the Biodiversity Metric?

We have experience working with the Biodiversity Metric on projects across our portfolio of expertise.  We can support on a technical level with data processing, the calculations and submissions to the official reporting tool. In addition to this, we can also support in an advisory capacity for delivering the best biodiversity results based on costs.

Is the data generally available, or are surveys and drone surveys often the first step?

Every project is different when it comes to data availability. There may be datasets available for the baseline, for example, a previous Phase I survey, which is a broad survey that usually informs the environmental impact assessment as to what habitats and species are located within a certain area of a site.

However, historic surveys are not necessarily compatible with new data required for completing the calculations. The broad scope of the Phase I means the areas needed for calculations may not have a suitable level of accuracy and may require further ground-truthing alongside the condition assessment by an environmental surveyor on site or using UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles].

In addition to this, the Biodiversity Metric uses the UK Habitat Classification system, which means any Phase I habitat surveyed will require a translation. The classification of habitats in the landscape design discipline also requires a translation to the UK Habitat Classification.

What if there is a temptation to achieve a 10% biodiversity gain in the most straightforward and cost-effective way – rather than adding the most value to that location? How can that tension be managed?

A 10% gain in biodiversity is never a simple feat, particularly if there are restrictions in the amount of area on site that can be enhanced or reinstated. To reach that net gain on site, habitats will need enhancement, which ultimately adds value. We also recommend a “like for like” habitat to be used for enhancement/reinstatement to ensure local habitats thrive.

However, our Digital Biodiversity Management tool allows us to explore those options to provide scenarios that take parameters such as local suitability into account as well as biodiversity scores.

Also, there are habitats that provide a high metric score and look appealing for a high gain in biodiversity. However, habitats such as this come with high risk factors, such as difficulty of restoration and time to maturity, that reduce the unit value of that habitat.

For example, a lowland meadow of good condition may have a multiplier of 0.5 based on how difficult that habitat is to create. We therefore recommend exploring all options for enhancement and reinstatement, and the Digital Biodiversity Management tool allows us to do this.

What are the advantages of taking a digital approach to habitat management?

There are many. The use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) allows for efficient measurements of area, particularly with multiple design iterations as mentioned above. We can easily move away from numbers on an Excel file to a visual representation of habitats on site, providing an easier understanding to those outside of an environmental role.

In addition, a digital approach allows for integration between BIM [Building Information Modelling] and GIS [Geographical Information System] platforms, meaning design iterations can be incorporated and adjusted based on the calculation results.

Finally, efficient modelling of habitats allows for scenario testing, based not only on design iterations, but also on scenarios for proposed habitat conditions. We can understand the costs and benefits of reinstatement/enhancement areas rapidly with proposed parameters of habitat types and conditions, ensuring that clients still have a cost-effective method of conserving biodiversity.

How do you see the Digital Biodiversity Management tool evolving in the future?

We are already developing further capabilities for quantifying values related to land, whether that is on a site or across estates. We can incorporate values for natural capital and carbon sequestrations. We also see our capabilities progressing to include aspects of ‘social value’, so that we can truly highlight the impact that our environment has on our wellbeing.

The Environment Bill says that the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) must be maintained for 30 years – will this present a considerable cost burden for utility companies?

We have two perspectives around the cost burden. Firstly, high maintenance costs for reinstated habitats can be seen as an incentive to implement the mitigation hierarchy. For example, if loss of habitat is avoided from the start of a project, the number of units needing to be gained will be less, which leads to a reduction in maintenance costs.

Secondly, there is the cost of not conserving our biodiversity and the ultimate effect on our climate. It is our responsibility and moral duty to preserve the wildlife and environment that bring us so many benefits, and this includes absorbing the monetary costs that will come with altering our environment. To minimise the cost burden, it is important to consider biodiversity early in the design phase and invest early in data capture and GIS.

Having all the data at your fingertips on the biodiversity units of the project site enables you to more easily cost and plan BNG into the programme. It is in this phase that the cost of changes is the lowest and even if there are iterations of the design, being able to interrogate the data and explore the impact of changes quickly, makes for rapid decisions on cost effective and environmentally beneficial choices.

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