Could we be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it?

Over the past couple of years, COVID-19 has, not surprisingly, been at the forefront of global worry and priorities. However, as COVID settles, are the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change finally going to take centre stage? In the words of RSK Biocensus Managing Director Tim Hounsome in the February 2022 First Thursday Club webinar, could this be the ‘perfect storm’ that finally means that the government will act? The royal assent of the Environment Act in November 2021 does suggest that these planet-threatening issues are at last being taken seriously.

Conservation covenants

A key component of the new Act will be the conservation covenants that will secure land that is to be managed to deliver biodiversity net gain (BNG). In general terms, a covenant is simply a legally binding agreement. So, a conservation covenant is a legal agreement – between the landowner and the ‘responsible body’ (most likely the local authority) – designed to ensure that land identified for biodiversity restoration and enhancement achieves its objectives. For keeping their part of the bargain, the landowner will receive an agreed sum (generally calculated per hectare per year) while the local authority will know that this area of land will be contributing to the long-term increase in biodiversity across their jurisdiction as part of the local net gain register of sites.

Although not a new concept, conservation covenants are given formal status by part 7 of the Environment Act 2021, which sets out in some legal detail what they should aim to achieve and what their legal standing will be. Significantly, these covenants will be handed on in title if the land is sold, so that the commitments will be the responsibility of the new landowner. This will ensure that these very important habitat interventions cannot be curtailed.

There is no question that conservation covenants will become part of our lexicon as BNG becomes firmly established through the planning process. Currently, it is anticipated that these covenants will have a duration of at least 30 years, but we are often asked what happens next. In our opinion, it should be possible to sell additional maintenance or extension biodiversity credits to ensure that the landowner continues to have a financial incentive for further enhancing the land for biodiversity. This could probably be done through a slight modification to the covenant.

RSK Wilding helps its clients, from large-scale developers to passionate landowners, to offset carbon emissions and achieve biodiversity net gain by sensitively restoring habitats and/or rewilding sites across the UK. As BNG and conservation covenants become progressively more commonplace, the role of companies such as RSK Wilding will become ever more important in facilitating the reversal of biodiversity loss. Ultimately, our aim is to facilitate much-needed development through the use of biodiversity offsetting, while at the same time providing landowners with a long-term sustainable income and securing the restored habitat for at least 30 years.

What is missing from the Environment Act 2021?

Between us at RSK Biocensus and RSK Wilding, we have formed an initial list of what we believe could be missing from the Environment Act 2021. We would love to hear your opinions on this.

  • Plastic clauses: is the issue of plastic use and waste really being tackled? Does recycling work if microplastics are still increasing?
  • The Wildlife and Countryside Act: revised legislation is required to work in conjunction with the Environment Act 2021, as the protected species list remains inaccurate.
  • Biodiversity Net Gain: this will not become legally binding until secondary legislation is passed (hopefully in 2023). What will the details include? Is there sufficient resource in local planning authorities to administer it? Are there risks involved with taking large amounts of land out of agricultural production?
  • The funding for the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) needs to be such that it can operate independently of government, as part of its remit will be to hold the government to account on environmental performance.

 

By Amelia Houghton, Assistant Consultant, RSK Wilding