Having established the framework in the Environment Act 2021, in its first review of the 25-year Environment Plan, the government said that LNRSs would be rolled out in April 2023 – but, while regulations governing their preparation, publication and review have now come into force, we are still waiting for key details to be published before preparation can get under way. What exactly will LNRSs contain and why is it important for landowners to get involved?
What are the specifics?
The Secretary of State will identify the “strategy areas” that each LNRS will relate to and appoint those “responsible authorities” that will be responsible for preparing and updating them. These details are, though, yet to be publicised.
Each LNRS must include the following information for the relevant strategy area:
a biodiversity priorities statement – setting out the opportunities and priorities for recovering or enhancing habitats and species, and potential measures for achieving these; and
a local habitat map(s) – showing national conservation sites and local nature reserves (the secretary of state is meant to help by preparing a national habitat map identifying these areas) and, importantly, those areas which are or could become of particular importance for biodiversity, or where recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution to other environmental benefits. To identify these latter areas, responsible authorities will need to pinpoint locations where potential measures can be carried out, and the secretary of state may (but nothing has been published yet) identify other areas they consider of particular importance.
The process for preparing LNRSs
Guidance emphasises the importance of responsible authorities engaging with local authorities, organisations and stakeholders in preparing LNRSs.
To this end, they must:
use reasonable endeavours to involve “supporting authorities” (which includes local authorities within a strategy area, the mayor of London, etc) and all persons and organisations that it considers appropriate, in preparing LNRSs;
request comments on drafts of the LNRS from supporting authorities – who can formally object at certain stages, preventing the LNRS from progressing unless their concerns are dealt with or the secretary of state consents to it;
send copies of drafts of the LNRS to neighbouring responsible authorities; and
carry out a public consultation before any LNRS is published.
LNRSs must be reviewed, updated and republished from time to time.
Responsible authorities are not required to seek landowners’ approval for the incorporation of their land within an LNRS, but neither are landowners obligated to carry out any measures identified in LNRSs on their land.
As such, guidance recommends that responsible authorities listen to landowners’ and managers’ views regarding land they are considering mapping as areas that could become of particular importance. If it is clear that they oppose a potential measure on their land and are unlikely to carry it out, then authorities should explore alternatives before any public consultation.
What does this mean for landowners?
LNRSs could provide a significant opportunity for owners of land that is unsuitable for development who want to benefit from the upcoming biodiversity net gain regime (ie the requirement for the majority of new developments in England to deliver 10% BNG compared to the pre-development biodiversity value of the development site). Land which is identified within an LNRS will receive a 15% uplift in the weight attributed to it as part of the biodiversity metric calculation. This means that there is potential for a deal to be made between such landowners and those developers who cannot achieve onsite BNG, who may pay a higher price to use land identified in an LNRS to meet their BNG requirement offsite. There will also be opportunities for funding and investment from the government for LNRS-mapped sites.
Having said that, it is not yet clear whether the identification of land within an LNRS will affect the securing of planning permission for redevelopment. If it does, as LNRSs are focused on creating and enhancing biodiversity nationwide and not simply in already protected areas, land which is ripe for development could be captured within an LNRS, which could in turn reduce the development potential of that land.
Legally, there is nothing preventing development of LNRS-mapped land and the government has said that “being mapped as an ‘opportunity’ does not incur any new specific requirement or protection in land in and of itself”. However, local planning authorities must have regard to LNRSs when complying with their duty to periodically consider the steps that can be taken to conserve and enhance biodiversity.
As such, as LPAs update their local plans in light of the 2021 Act, they may add in extra protections for LNRS-mapped sites with, for example, restrictions on development or more onerous BNG requirements. Even if LPAs do not do this, residents are likely to voice any concerns they have about the redevelopment of such sites and planning committees might be influenced by this.
As such, even though LNRSs haven’t been talked about as much as some other regimes introduced by the 2021 Act – for instance BNG or conservation covenants – it is imperative for landowners to actively engage with responsible authorities as early as possible regarding the preparation of LNRSs.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Estates Gazette on 9 May 2023
Authored by Caroline Stares.