Natural England chair backs ‘biodiversity net gain’ plan to boost wild areas

Demand for nature is exceeding supply but new wildlife areas can be created by regulations to ensure housing estates bring about “biodiversity net gain”, according to the chair of England’s nature watchdog.

Patrick Barkham 

Tony Juniper said the post-pandemic surge in people visiting wild places for their mental and physical wellbeing – and to walk lockdown puppies – was concentrating footfall in relatively few nature reserves, which were increasingly used like public parks.

But Juniper, who has been reappointed as chair of Natural England for a second three-year term, said his agency must “increase the supply of nature”.

“Part of the challenge post-lockdown – the footfall in relatively few sites – makes you wonder how we’re going to cope with that increased demand for nature when nature is depleted and fragmented,” he said. “Visitor pressures on protected sites [such as national nature reserves] is a supply and demand question.”

Juniper, a former executive director of Friends of the Earth, has been credited with restoring morale – and adding a 47% budget increase this year – to beleaguered Natural England, which had been decimated by a decade of cuts.

But after three years “building the picture and getting the toolkit and resources to deliver it” he said it was time for him and Natural England to deliver on “the gargantuan task of nature recovery” to help the government meet its ambitious wildlife targets.

The government’s target to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 was “a big stretch”, he said. “We have targets coming on species abundance and nature recovery, and if we are going to get to those 2030 targets we need to start really hitting the ground now.”

The new “public money for public goods” farm subsidy system, although not fully finalised, should help, according to Juniper, who said he was also hopeful that wildlife could be restored via biodiversity net gain, which from 2023 obliges every housing and infrastructural development to create 10% more nature than was there before.

One-fifth of Tory party donations come from major developers but Juniper said biodiversity net gain was not “just a licence to trash” wildlife. “It isn’t, because we’re not abandoning anything we already have in terms of the existing protections and tests [for wildlife] that need to go through the planning system,” he said.

He admitted there were “tensions” between developers providing nature-friendly spaces close to new homes or boosting wildlife in distant sites. “On the one hand we want more bigger, better, more connected nature-rich places, on the other we want to improve the environments around where people are living,” he said.

Speaking during a tour of 25 acres of arable farmland acquired for restoration to wildlife-rich chalk grassland by the charity Cambridge Past, Present and Future, Juniper said it was important to plan a network of new nature-rich places close to new homes.

The restoration will increase Wandlebury country park by 20% but Cambridge’s population has grown by 20% this century, with an ongoing jobs, development and population boom.

“There’s limited semi-natural habitat around here so creating more of it to be able to serve that population makes sense,” said Juniper. “But doing it in the best possible way to get the biggest strategic impact is the key thing. We don’t want little pocket parks scattered all over the place randomly. We’d like to see the coherent construction of a nature recovery network which is not only taking account of biodiversity net gain but also the existing protected areas and blend that with the new agricultural schemes. It’s a jigsaw to piece together.”

While Juniper has helped win an enhanced role and funding for Natural England, and said he was hopeful of “further increases this year because the work is expanding”, Natural England staff went on strike in January over a decade of pay freezes and below-inflation rises.

Juniper said Natural England’s executive was doing all it could to push for more money for staff. “We’re very aware of the issues being raised by staff around pay. Since I’ve been there we’ve consistently done the maximum we could each year in terms of staff rewards and pay but the big picture is constraint – we have the rules set by the Treasury.”

In his next three years, Juniper said he hoped to create more big national nature reserves and said the issue of out-of-control dogs in wild spaces was raised wherever he went. He said it was still possible to make more space for wildlife and for people.

“Everyone at Natural England is convinced it’s not nature recovery or public access – it’s both. With some limits during the bird breeding season, raising awareness and management, I think we can do that.”