5.1 Gary Kennison, Principal Ecologist, presented this item. The report was taken as read and the following points were highlighted.
· It was advised that considering biodiversity would see a lot of change over the coming years due to legal regulations and associated guidance emerging in relation to the recently passed Environment Act 2021.
· The Act, amongst other things, strengthened the biodiversity duty on councils, which would involve a review of all policies and operations. It also implemented a requirement to produce a Nature Recovery Strategy for the county, which GCC had been identified as the likely Responsible Authority for its production, monitoring and review.
· GCC had preliminary accepted the role as Responsible Authority, it was proposed that the Strategy be produced through the already existing Gloucestershire Local Nature Partnership but were awaiting further guidance before continuing.
· Officers envisaged the shortest timeframe to produce the Strategy would be about 18 months. Gloucestershire was in a positive starting position due to the strong evidence base and Local Nature Partnership relations.
· Government was aware of the significant resourcing concerns for councils in implementing the Act. The finance and resource implications and current position were outlined in Part 3 of the report.
· The report included sections covering next steps, summary points and recommendations for the Committee to note.
5.2 It was confirmed that district councils had already given agreement for GCC to be the responsible authority, they and parish councils would be involved in contributing ideas and content for the strategy via the Local Nature Partnership. The Partnership was keen to be a key player and that this would help ensure a Gloucestershire wide and inclusive approach. Guidance on implementing the new legislation was awaited before proceeding to understand what should happen in situations where there might be potential disagreement and how to deal with this before final adoption of the Strategy.
5.3 In response to a question, it was confirmed that the strategy will refer to land but regulations or guidance may suggest the exclusion of marine areas. The County Council and Local Nature Partnership however would make sure that rivers, water courses and the upper Severn Estuary were included for consideration in the Strategy as they were such important parts of Gloucestershire’s natural environment.
5.4 There was a flavour in the initial guidance of urban biodiversity being important. The Local Nature Partnership had already done some work on green infrastructure and had considered how urbanisations can provide corridors for species to move through and this would certainly form part of future discussions.
5.5 In reference to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a member stressed it was important to make sure the rare species that had been identified within these areas were clearly highlighted in the strategy, and to ensure any future work continued to try and protect these. There should also be consideration of how we could better enforce against organisations who were not protecting these areas. It was advised that monitoring and enforcement for SSSIs was a responsibility for Natural England and the police. The Council could play its part in terms of collating information and reporting incidents. There would be a designated officer from Natural England working with the Partnership on developing the Nature Recovery Strategy and so SSSIs would be covered.
5.6 A member shared their despair that there was another, at least, 18 months to wait before a new strategy was in place. They had seen many strategies and plans over the years, none of which had stopped the overwhelming decline and extinction of species. Many SSSIs remained at risk from pollution and/or development and they felt deeply concerned that this direction from Government felt like business as usual. They also raised concern around funding and resource needed for local authorities to implement the Environment Act requirements in this area.
5.7 It was confirmed that the planning requirement for developers to produce a net gain in biodiversity was currently not mandatory. It was prompted by councils through their existing plans e.g., Minerals and Waste Plan for GCC, which meant each council had a slightly different approach at the moment. From November, all planning applications caught by the new legislation would have to demonstrate a minimum of 10% net gain. It may be possible to explore enforcing higher percentages, via the Strategy, probably in specially important or strategic areas if a case to justify this could be made.
5.8 Officers advised that ‘New Burdens (or Grant) Funding’ was money that was being given by the Government to implement new legislation and responsibilities. The Council has received some, and would be receiving further funding, to produce the Nature Recovery Strategy with partners and to implement the biodiversity net gain requirement in planning.