Sustainability in land development

Read time: 4-5 minutes

Over the last six months DEFRA has released more information on how the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will work as one of the three new environmental land management (ELM) schemes.  Whilst there is a lot of detail still to be settled around the ELM schemes what does seem clear is that delivering 'sustainable' environmental improvements is high up the Government's agenda.  In this article we consider how that can link with the development of land.

Environment Act 2021

The Environment Act 2021 provides further detail on the interaction between the planning system and wider biodiversity protection.  Developers and planners now typically have detailed pre-application discussions focussed on sustainability for both houses and commercial buildings.  Sustainable development here includes saving occupiers' energy costs, attracting people to live or work in a given area and mitigating the risk of building obsolescence, such as not being able to obtain a good energy performance certificate.  This chimes with most end buyers of developments wanting to buy into something that meets sustainability criteria.

Issues to consider

Some points to consider on sustainable development include:

  • Available mitigation land - biodiversity net gain is already a planning requirement in some areas of the UK and is covered in the Environment Act 2021.  Developers will increasingly need to provide formal plans for biodiversity net gain.  With biodiversity in mind, a native tree planting scheme or a new area of pollen and nectar-rich wildflowers might be looked for.  That does not necessarily have to be on the land picked to develop.  There is a concept for off-site habitat creation, which could be separate from any main development land.  So, it is worth landowners thinking holistically and considering whether there are opportunities to maximise biodiversity across their land?  
  • Conservation covenants - the recent guidance indicates that offsite biodiversity gain must be maintained for at least 30 years (after the completion of the works to create or enhance the habitat - although this time period may be subject to change).  To aid enforcement of these obligations the Environment Act 2021 provides for the introduction of "conservation covenants" as a new legal structure, which can be enforced.  Although not yet introduced, once they are, they will be registrable as local land charges.  This means they will bind the land-owners successors to the terms of the agreed biodiversity enhancements.
  • Irreplaceable habitats - often planning conditions can be imposed in relation to existing habitats.  There is a biodiversity focus on irreplaceable habitats.  These are areas which have such a high value in biodiversity terms, and which are so difficult to create, that their loss would mean that meeting biodiversity net gain objectives could be impossible, for any development of those areas.  It is useful for landowners to identify if they have any such areas of land.  There are also benefits to monitoring biodiversity outcomes in detail now, as this can help to inform habitat management in the future.
  • Sustainable energy - there is increasing use of ground source heat pumps for sustainable buildings.  This can include a ground loop - as a pipe buried underground.  Is there land (or even a lake/pond) nearby to a development site that could allow installation of a ground source heat pump loop?  That could be a low impact way to increase sustainable energy overall.  It can be important to then think about the land ownership and rights of way that might be involved.
  • Use of natural drainage - developing sustainable drainage - based on long knowledge of the most efficient water use on the land - is increasingly valued.  This could extend to the best way to capture rainwater, create an attenuation pond or deal with flood risk in some cases.  Thinking about efficient water use on land can help with sustainability in the future, especially when it feeds through to reducing the water use intensity of properties that are then developed.
  • Heat islands - heat islands are often used to refer to pockets of heat formed on land by weather and geography.  If such conditions exist or result from factors on land, the landowner is most likely to have noticed this and be able to flag this to developers.  This can then help designers to layout sustainable landscape and orientate future buildings to capitalise on passive heating or cooling.  It can then be important to think about any rights of light that might be involved or affected, particularly by a large scheme of development.
  • Soils standards - the SFI included detailed reference to soil standards and highlights soils as one of the most important natural assets there is.  Knowledge of the soil on an area of land can cross over into many areas and can boost the sustainability of development.  An important part of many sustainable developments can be to reduce site disturbance and soil erosion during construction phase.  It can be important where farming activity is continuing nearby that the legal arrangements for any development take this into account and minimise any adverse impact on the soil.
  • Locally reclaimed materials - this can increase the sustainability credentials for a development.  Do landowners have resources on their land that could be reclaimed to maximise the sustainable use of resources in a development.  This could be waste materials, salvaged or recycled materials that can be earmarked, subject to legal checks, to be used as reclaimed materials.  Waste not, want not is an old expression; maybe sustainability as a concept is not as new as all that after all!