Is building back better, greener and faster achievable or sustainable?

Project Speed

Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the first steps in the government’s strategy, Project Speed, to accelerate Britain’s rebuild and provide rocket-fuel to our economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic[1]. He previously stated[2] that “newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country”. The speed of recovery is clearly the focus of the government’s attention. But at what cost? Is an accelerated recovery compatible with the delivery of a better, greener and sustainable future for us all?

The Planning System

The UK is comparatively slower at building and completing new homes compared to other European countries, which has largely been caused by[3]:

  • Land acquisition issues, including contaminated land
  • Planning system targets
  • Constraints on local authority resources
  • Pre-application discussions
  • Lengthy consultations with stakeholders

Note – no mention of great crested newt counting here!

I am under no illusion that the planning system must therefore change, it is not working, and I am against red tape ‘regulation’ for its own sake. However, good regulation is essential. It protects people, society, and the environment from harm. It creates a sense of fairness for business, allowing well-run companies to survive and thrive on a level playing field, and it drives growth and innovation.

Environmental net gain

However, it is the direction and focus of this rapid change that is of concern. We must encourage communities and stakeholders to adopt an ‘environmental net gain’ mindset. This can be an effective way to successfully achieve rapid change. Therefore, we should not negate the commitments made by the government for a £40m Green Recovery Challenge Fund, designed to help halt biodiversity loss and climate change through local conservation projects. Likewise, further funding Environment Secretary George Eustice[4] announced on 20th July, including a £5m pilot on establishing a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment and a further £4m for a two-year pilot for green prescribing in four urban and rural areas hit hard by coronavirus. However, it is worth remembering that these sums sit alongside the array of measures planned for the forthcoming Environment Bill.

The Environment Bill

The long-awaited Environment Bill, which is due be part of UK legislation by the end of December, is expected to incorporate ‘mandatory’ biodiversity net gain with the support of nature recovery networks. These networks can help unite differences between the land developers and local communities who are concerned about biodiversity loss and climate change and will support a more resilient landscape.

If adopted (which I very much hope it is, in its entirety), any habitats removed by a new development must be replaced by some of equivalent natural value, with an additional 10 per cent enhancement. These improvements can be delivered onsite, offsite nearby, or through a credit system, thereby feeding the embryonic market for nature enhancement.

Implementing biodiversity, and it’s sizeable sibling, environmental net gain, as a design approach will contribute to achieving more successful developments while enhancing local understanding of natural systems, specific to an area and the benefits that ecosystems create for society.

In autumn of this year, the government will release a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. As part of the consultation they seek to front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process. So we can protect the precious and set out habitats and species which will always be off-limits. Everyone will know where they stand. I look forward to hearing more on this in due course and have mild optimism that we can begin to turn the tide on biodiversity loss.

However, as it currently stands, biodiversity net gain only applies to new buildings and does not address the critical challenge of how we green our existing urban landscapes. This is something that I hope the Environment Bill will review within the autumn consultation document.

A decade of action

We have 10 years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. We are well and truly into the decade of action and have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build back better, greener and faster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact with dire consequences felt across the world, many of which are not yet clear and might persist for a long time. As economic activity and movement have largely come to a halt, experts are forecasting that carbon emissions could fall by up to 5% in 2020—the largest since WWII. While such a reduction is significant and gives us cause for optimism, it is a temporary outcome born out of a destructive phenomenon that has in equal measure inflicted pain and suffering.

As global communities try to combat this pandemic and recover from its devastation, we must prioritise the future of the global climate to achieve meaningful and long-lasting results and promote economic prosperity and personal well-being.

A better and greener Britain

To safeguard the future of the world, immediate and bold action is needed to restore biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as part of any rebuild. The mounting evidence of damage from both biodiversity loss and climate change is daunting, and with each day that passes, the challenge ahead becomes more difficult.  It is imperative that we adopt, implement, and scale sustainable solutions as rapidly as possible in order to achieve a better and greener Britain.

Richard Dodd, Principal Ecologist