Accountancy won’t save nature | Miles King

The notion of ‘Net Gain’ – which is simply Biodiversity Offsetting by a different name – won’t work, and not least because the language of accountancy has no place in the conservation of nature, writes ecologist Miles King.


It’s difficult to believe that while we watch – ok, there are probably only a few of us now hanging on to the bitter end, as most will have given up and gone off to do something more sensible – a series of Parliamentary cans being kicked down the road towards a no-deal Brexit, that there might still be some other things happening; new ideas being developed, new policies being proposed etc. to improve our collective lot.

One such idea is called ‘Net Gain.’ It doesn’t sound very promising, does it? But I doubt the best minds of Defra were called into action to work on an exciting title for this project since they have all been seconded onto the team planning how to use the army to distribute food to the masses, without using the gridlocked motorway network, if we do crash out of Europea without a deal.

Net Gain is an idea that’s been around for a while but has re-emerged with a new name. The old name was Biodiversity Offsetting which became tarnished, by association with Owen Paterson, the ardent ‘Brexist’ and former Environment Secretary, who enthused over how ancient woodland could be easily replaced with new trees.

The premise laid out in Defra’s consultation on how Net Gain would work is that when new houses are built, wildlife is lost from the land – usually farmland – where the houses are built. Normally, there would be a collective shrug and oh dear how sad, never mind before the Council leader ceremonially cut the ribbon on the latest shiny new housing project (which of course won’t solve the housing crisis anyway – as I explained before) and the caravan would move on.

Net Gain seeks to not only address the loss, but to actively create more wildlife than was lost – hence “net gain” – it’s a type of environmental accounting.

A calculation is made. The losses – which could range from Badgers and Great Crested Newts being evicted, hedges full of songbirds or butterflies being destroyed, ancient soil under wildflower meadow or heathland being dug up and shifted elsewhere – are totted up. And the totting is converted into a number – technically called a metric (let’s call these metric A). Then the replacements – ranging from a bird box on the side of a building, a new amenity pond in a housing estate, some urban green space where trees are planted and seeds of flowers sown, right through to the creation of large new plantations or wetlands – are also converted into a number; another metric (yes, you’ve guessed it – Metric B) and the final calculation is done. Is Metric A more or less than Metric B (gains)? If B is greater than A then a Net Gain has been achieved and, as Charles Dickens said, result – happiness.”

Those of you who have read some of my writing will know that I am not enthusiastic about this accountancy approach to wildlife or Nature – it’s the natural capital approach; the idea that the extraordinary, wondrous and infinite value of Nature to people (quite apart from to itself) can be boiled down to a few numbers, for the purpose of converting that value into financial value. Because, despite the new terminology, this is what lies underneath Net Gain.

On the surface the idea of ending up with more wildlife after a housing development than was there before it was developed, seems intrinsically appealing. Who could argue that this would be a bad idea? We know that people are happier when they live in surroundings with more Nature, more greenery, more open spaces. Having Nature around makes people happier and more contented, we know that’s true.

Some canny developers are already working with conservation charities to incorporate wildlife into their developments – I wrote recently about an interesting development near Aylesbury where the developers are working with the RSPB on just such an approach. And what could possibly be wrong with trying to quantify the gains for Nature resulting from such developments?

Those in the conservation world are always using statistics to argue for changes in policy or law e.g. “these farmland birds are declining because of these types of intensive agriculture, so if we change that policy, so farmers will be supported to change their practices, then farmland birds numbers will go up again.” This is an argument you will often hear, entirely dependent on data collected by people (mostly volunteers) going out, rain or shine, and counting the number of farmland birds they see, week in, week out, year in, year out.

The problem arises when scientific statistics are converted by economists into the language of accountancy.

Instead of farmland birds – yellowhammers, corn buntings, skylarks – we have a metric, a number. Think of it like this – “Yes, we’re very proud of the wildlife on our farm. We have yellowhammers. There are hares. I saw a hedgehog last week. The primroses in the wood are beautiful in the Spring, they remind of that day when….” you get the picture. All of that – that wildlife, that history, those memories and stories – boiled down into: Yes, that farmland has a value of 2.63 on the Defra biodiversity metric.

According to the proposals from Defra, Net Gain will be defined by a 10% gain in the metric; so Dickens’ “happiness” will be a value of 2.893. This figure of 2.893 might mean any number of different things: It might mean a new park with a pond is incorporated into the new housing development; it might mean swift tiles in the roof of every house; it might even mean a new 10ha wildflower meadow is created on some other farmland 10 miles away. All of these things might contribute to 2.893. But can they replace what has been lost – can a metric include all of those aspects of a place with a history? Of course not. But then these things are usually lost when farmland is converted to housing – or rather, with those losses, a new chapter in that history unfolds.

The really odd thing about Net Gain to me is that it only applies to housing developments. Over 80% of the UK is farmland or forestry (and that’s where most wildlife is found), but there’s no suggestion that Net Gain should apply to these activities – why not? The simple answer is that it’s too difficult. Developers need to go through the process of gaining planning permission before they can build houses. Ploughing up a heathland or converting woodland into conifer plantation is much easier.

While Net Gain might make sense on one level, as a way to extract a financial contribution from a developer to pay towards improving the overall lot of wildlife in the area where the development takes place, one has to wonder whether the money will come from? After all, who pays?

Defra’s idea is that the developer will know, before shovel hits ground, how much they will have to pay towards Net Gain – in real cash terms. Developing on a particularly wildlife-rich site will mean more is paid out for Net Gain (and in theory could act as a disincentive to develop such land.) The developer won’t see this come out of their profit margin, so it either comes off the purchase price paid to the landowner, or it goes on the cost of the houses. I’d bet on the latter. You might end up paying more to buy a new house in a wildlife-friendly housing development, unaware of the destruction of nature that led to its creation.

Net Gain though? That’s for the birds.

  • About the author: Miles King is an Ecologist and founder of People Need Nature. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10