Opinion: BNG rules punish biodiversity pioneers

My school reports seemed to focus on my underperformance. So being “criticised” for overperformance in my recent natural capital audits brought a smirk of irony.

Those end-of-term assessments were a litany of “could do betters” and “we must remain positive he has left plenty of room for improvement”.

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About the author

Ian Pigott
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a Linking Environment and Farming demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.
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Proving teachers wrong is the impetus behind many a career. 

Richard Branson’s school report famously suggested he would either go to prison or be a millionaire and John Lennon, according to his form teacher, was “certainly on the road to failure”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that our recent carbon and biodiversity audits would put us in the headmaster’s good books. Healthy biodiversity scores and upper-quartile carbon readings.

Not so. Such is the uncharted world of natural capital in 2023 that good is no longer necessarily good. 

Bad is better – because being good means less headway for improvement and ergo less financial gain.

To summarise, our concerted leap into the unknown seven years ago to become one of those pre-fashionable “no-till nutters”, with catch and cover cropping, reduced sprays and fertiliser has raised our baseline for carbon auditing purposes.

It is now “significantly higher” than it would have been if we were auditing from a standing start under a traditional plough-based rotation. Consequentially “our payments will be less than forecast”. 

Similarly, in 25 years of whole-farm stewardship schemes, we haven’t quite created Knepp-cum-Luton, but we have reverted most of the underperforming areas of the farm into stewardship options.

This has left few parcels for the biodiversity to net gain.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act, from November 2023, any development over 1,000sq m or 10 dwellings will require 10% habitat replacement under biodiversity net gain (BNG). 

Demand for such BNG land will inevitably grow exponentially.

However, regardless of when their conservation efforts began, landowners and farmers can only wind the “net gain clock” back to January 2020.

It seems somewhat disingenuous to ostracise the likes of Knepp, which began building biodiversity when Rishi Sunak was still at prep school rather than when Boris Johnson was throwing parties in Downing Street.

I understand that for BNG and carbon improvements to be rewarded the baseline needs to be measurable.

But if we can use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict climate change events 50 years into the future, surely it must be possible for AI to model carbon and biodiversity gains over a previous decade or two.

I am not sure that BNG is for me. A 30-year commitment in return for an upfront lump of cash needs to be quite a carrot unless, of course, one has a huge tract of land to slice off some margins.

Nonetheless, is there not an argument that mirrors the “let’s develop brownfield sites before we build on the greenbelt” one? Why not allow an allocation on existing habitats first?

Politically it resonates with the grow, buy and eat British campaign celebrated at Downing street recently. 

Given my time again, the lessons I have learned in recent weeks would have prompted me to baseline methodically at the outset, but would not have changed our decisions.

And perhaps that is why I find conversations about BNG focused on the large sums of money somewhat gauche. After all, if we don’t “value” the diversity how can we “value” it?

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