BN Genius or Biodiversity Net Pain: Is the BNG System Fair on Council Ecologists? Tom Docker 10 July 2024

BN Genius or Biodiversity Net Pain: Is the BNG System Fair on Council Ecologists?

Welcome to our ‘BN Genius or Biodiversity Net Pain’ series, in which our managing director, Tom Docker, reflects on key areas of discussion arising from the rollout of statutory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) in February 2024. In this second post, Tom discusses the impact of BNG on local authority ecologists.

Many local planning authorities have in-house ecological expertise; however, with some notable exceptions, this generally amounts to one or two individuals. Some authorities have no in-house ecological expertise at all and subcontract to third parties, while others wrap ecology and biodiversity up into various other “environmental” disciplines (trees, landscape, climate change, even archaeology in some cases!).

The upshot is that nearly all authorities have a huge amount of ecological work to deliver with restricted capacity. This was the case prior to BNG becoming mandatory and is certainly the case since. The Environment Act 2021 requirement to develop Local Nature Recovery Strategies and the subsequent mandating of BNG in February 2024 have added a significant amount of additional front-end administration into the mix, not to mention long-term governance and auditing, which is a topic for another day.

The crunch on resourcing has been predicted for a long time; however, some of the actions taken to address the issue are misguided, underwhelming and much too late to have the impact that is needed. The most striking example was the announcement in August 2023 that almost £10 million of government funding would be made available to local authorities to hire new ecologists to deal with the administrative burden of BNG[1]. While at face value, this looks like a positive and supportive step, the unavoidable elephant in the room is… there aren’t enough ecologists.

The ecology industry has known for many years that there is a major skills gap. Recent years have seen a perfect storm of ineffective recruitment into the industry (there aren’t enough academic institutions offering ecology-focused courses), lack of vocational opportunities (“we won’t hire you because you need experience, but you can’t get experience because we won’t hire you”), a crippling lack of diversity in the sector and the loss of early-career ecologists to other professions (being an ecological consultant isn’t easy, the hours are long and the work can be tough).

HS2 amplified things further, creating a vortex that drew in a huge number of ecologists on short-term contracts and inflated salaries. This fed a culture of short-termism and unrealistic expectations, further contributing to the recruitment and retention churn that impacts local authorities as much as any other employer in the sector. Too much is expected from a limited resource pool at local authority level, which means that council ecologists either risk becoming overwhelmed and burning out or being unable to commit the necessary level of time and focus to everything requiring their attention. Nobody benefits from this situation—not developers, not ecological consultancies and other employers of ecologists, and certainly not local authority ecology teams themselves.

There is a significant amount of work to be done by all stakeholders in the industry. Government funding to recruit new ecologists is a fractionally small piece of a much bigger puzzle that needs:

  • Government making a meaningful commitment to recovery of the natural environment.
  • Better engagement between industry and academia to design courses that build the skills that the industry needs.
  • Providing routes of entry into the industry for individuals from all backgrounds, which needs ecology and environmental careers to be portrayed as exciting and aspirational.
  • Ecological consultancies designing vocational routes of entry into the industry and be willing to provide paid experience to new starters.
  • Prominent ecologists having a strong, confident voice and acting as role models for existing and future ecologists.

Great work is already being done by many stakeholders, e.g., the Chartered Institute of Ecological and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and Lantra have an ongoing project that aims to narrow the gap[2].

At Middlemarch, we’re ramping up our community engagement and designing a new trainee scheme, but a collective effort by all stakeholders in the industry is needed to shift the dial. I will return to this topic in future blog posts.

Missed part one? Catch up here: Statutory Metric, friend or foe?.