Will pricing our wildlife ease planning pain?
The government has drawn up a proposal to let developers buy their way out of on-site biodiversity measures. Denise Chevin reports.
A new development tax? Or a great idea for saving British wildlife and make the planning process more straightforward too? Few in the construction industry know as yet what to make of a radical new proposal from the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs.
Defra has been seeking views on “biodiversity offsetting”, a mechanism that would allow developers and housebuilders to compensate for loss of flora and fauna on their sites by paying to create or restore an area of habitat somewhere else. The consultation period ended in January, but it’s likely that the concept will form part of Defra’s Natural Environment White Paper in the spring.
The proposal has even split ecologists: some are worried it could provide a charter for gung-ho developers to pillage the environment and then buy their way out of it, but proponents say it will get away from token ecology gestures and generate much-needed cash for restoring larger tracts of land, and point out that biodiversity offsetting has already been in operation for 20 years in the US.
Any future scheme would not override the current laws that protect the endangered species that can appear on sites and cause untold delays and costs. But the system would potentially benefit developers, says ecologist Professor David Hill, founder of The Environment Bank, which is hoping to become a trading facilitator for biodiversity offsetting. Hill argues that developers would have more flexibility in how they chose to mitigate against biodiversity losses, retain more of their site to develop, and face fewer delays in the planning process.
Critics worry that a project in Winchester, say, might be able to offset by paying to restore forests in Scotland. However, Hill says local authorities would be able to demand that conservation credits be bought in local schemes only.
Currently, developers are required under planning laws to carry out Environmental Impact Assessments, which involves surveying biodiversity loss and putting forward solutions for mitigation — mostly, but not always, on the same or an adjacent site. But Hill says many planning authorities sign off solutions under section 106 that are totally inadequate, with no policing of the outcome or the area’s long-term sustainability.
“What might have started as a pond ends up being a scrub and mud patch a couple of years down the line,” agrees ecologist Neil Harwood, an associate at Arup, adding that BREEAM and the Code for Sustainable Homes are also weak on biodiversity. “You get extra credits for introducing more species, whether they are appropriate ones or not.”
Clients, contractors and consultants are gradually waking up to the issue. “Biodiversity generally has become something of a buzzword in the last 12 months,” says Rob Lambe, head of Willmott Dixon’s Rethinking division and chair of the environmental subcommittee of the UK Contractors Group. Committee members have been asked to report on biodiversity issues, including the offsetting proposal, and present their findings to their colleagues in March.
Adam Mactavish, co-director of the sustainability team at Cyril Sweett, believes developers will welcome the proposal if it reduces planning hassles. “If it was felt there was robust method accepted by planners and local communities I think developers would welcome it, especially if it meant not having to redesign schemes, and no loss of land,” says Mactavish.
Development company ProLogis, which builds business parks and warehouse estates, already views the scheme as an opportunity to put forward land on which biodiversity credits could be spent.
But the main concern is that Defra’s proposals will become so watered down that developers end up taking the on-site measures required by law, then find they have to stump up for offsetting as well. “We have a number of concerns; not least that it becomes another regulatory call on the industry, an additional tax,” says John Slaughter, policy director at the Home Builders Federation.
Endangered species and areas of special scientific interest would still be protected by EU legislation. And in its consultation document, Defra is still encouraging on-site mitigation for loss of biodiversity as far as possible — even though many ecologists such as the Environment Bank’s Hill say much of it is a total waste of time.
It will also be extremely difficult to assess biodiversity loss and what nature is worth. Defra proposes to allocate “tariff” bands to different habitats on the basis of their conservation value and distinctiveness. Then there’s the further issue of how much conservation credits will cost. Defra’s website suggests £900 a hectare for wetland restoration. But Hill says £50,000 a ha is more likely and the Defra figure is based on volunteers doing the work and materials being donated.
But there are other figures to factor in too. In the past 60 years, England has lost 97% of its traditional hay meadows, 150,000 miles of hedgerows and 80% of wetland fens, while hundreds of species have become extinct and hundreds more are at precariously low levels, says Natural England. Of the 9,550 hectares of greenfield and urban brownfield sites developed in 2008, Defra estimates that half sustained some biodiversity loss.
For more information on Defra’s plans, see our online story at www.construction-manager.co.uk
Back to basics: PPC2000 a decade on
The PPC2000 form of partnering contract has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, so it’s timely to ask whether it has achieved its underlying aims — to reduce project out-turn costs, improve quality and avoid disputes.
Case studies suggest that project partnering contracts have worked. For example, the national Job Centre Plus office programme was delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Land Securities Trillium for £737m against a forecast £981m.
The key to these cost savings lies in the opportunity to analyse price assumptions during the contractor’s early conditional appointment and to agree better deals ahead of authorising work on site. But are these savings made at the expense of quality?
It’s worth noting that the £22m City of London Academy in Southwark was awarded the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award in 2006. It shows that with clear contractual controls during preconstruction, it is possible to reconcile cost savings with quality.
Other construction essentials are designs that reduce waste, carbon emissions and energy consumption, and projects that offer training and jobs. The two-stage process under PPC2000 allows the parties to interrogate subcontractors and suppliers on the cost and value of their sustainability proposals and apprenticeship schemes.
If things go wrong under PPC, a “core group” is obliged to meet and look at any problem before moving to another level of dispute resolution. To date, no PPC2000 project has been to litigation or arbitration and only 5.5% have been to adjudication, according to RICS figures in 2009.
So PPC must be doing something right, and its systems are even more important in these tough times.
By Dr David Mosey, a partner at law firm Trowers & Hamlins and author of the PPC2000 standard form