The Biodiversity section differs from the other sections in the Scorecards as it covers the actions councils can take to, you guessed it, improve biodiversity rather than reduce emissions. Many of these actions have the co-benefit of reducing emissions, as wildlife friendly habitat sequesters carbon emissions and helps our communities adapt to the climate crisis. We are facing twin crises and while the majority of our questions focus on reducing emissions, which will also help biodiversity, we thought it was important to demonstrate the wide ranging actions a local authority can take to improve the biodiversity in their area – from the management of their green spaces to stopping the use of pesticides.
We know that the direct role of a local authority on biodiversity is limited as the majority of land is not owned or managed by councils. The land availability also comes into play with our questions, with rural councils having a greater potential impact on biodiversity than urban ones. For example, if an urban council is rewilding 5 acres of a 20 acre park but a rural council is running nature friendly training for farmers in the area, both are important but arguably the greater potential impact is with the training offered to landowners covering a larger area. As our Scorecards apply to every local authority we have tried to minimise this distinction by asking questions that all local authorities should be able to achieve or partake in.
Why were these questions chosen?
We have 9 questions in our Biodiversity section, although this number varies between nations and types of council. This blog covers a selection of questions rather than discussing all of them.
Trees a problem: Trees are not the be all and end all for solving the climate or biodiversity crisis – although they do provide many benefits to nature and humans. We have included a question on trees but this covers if the local authority has set a target to increase tree cover, rather than the total number of trees that have been planted. While we have tried to avoid marking written plans or targets in the Scorecards we decided this was the only viable course of action when assessing tree planting thanks to feedback from a number of consultees. Firstly, trees need to be planted in the right place not removing over forms of habitat, such as grassland. Secondly, the number of trees planted does not indicate whether they will survive, as demonstrated in Gloucestershire where 95% of trees planted died in the 2022 summer heatwave. Maintenance of the trees and watering schedules are so important to make sure newly planted trees survive. Finally, we decided it would be wrong to reward a council that has planted 10,000 trees over another that planted 1,000, as this could be down to land availability or budgetary restrictions. Therefore we decided a tree cover target, contained in the Biodiversity or Tree Strategy shows enough commitment as long as a Tree management strategy/plan details how new trees are to be irrigated and cared for.
Lighting’s impact on nature: We know that light pollution is one of the leading factors in the decline of insect populations (more information from Buglife here) and the switch to LED street lights has saved carbon emissions but are worse for insects. However, we also recognise that lighting plays an important part in making people, particularly women, feel safe at night. Therefore we have tried to achieve a balance in this question by asking if local authorities turn off or dim their street lights, without putting a requirement for a blanket approach across the whole of the local authorities area or how much the street lights have been dimmed. Many local authorities, especially rural ones, have already implemented ‘part night lighting’ (typically switching street lights off between 12-5am) and some urban councils have already taken to dimming their street light network. Councils have taken this action to cut costs – saving money on reduced electricity – and to reduce energy usage and therefore emissions, but this action should be reframed as one that is necessary to improve biodiversity and stop declining insect populations.
What didn’t we include?
Access to nature: We believe access to nature is one of the most important rights that all of us should have and within a 15/20 minute walk of where you live. If we were to have asked a question it would have been “Do the majority of residents within a local authorities area have access to nature?”, with access defined as within a 20 minute walk. Its lack of inclusion in the Scorecards is not due to a lack of importance but because a complete dataset does not exist. There is brilliant analysis on this topic, including a Friends of the Earth report in 2020, but there is no guarantee this analysis will be replicated again or with the same methodology in the future. As we want the Scorecards to be updated regularly, this means that we wouldn’t have updated datasets to score with. We also struggled to answer questions like does access to a small park fulfil access to nature or are we really asking about access to greenspace? A dense city may have strong access but if thousands of people live within walking distance of 1 park is this good access to nature?
We would have liked to ask an overarching question about green infrastructure. Green infrastructure includes access to nature from your doorstep as well as other natural spaces that can reduce flood risk, improve local air quality or provide other benefits to people and society. The implementation of Green Infrastructure is also a really important part of a council’s role in greening an area – with the co-benefit of improved biodiversity. However, it is incredibly difficult to mark this outside of if the council has a green infrastructure strategy or policies within the Local Plan. It would not be possible to assess implementation, or how much green infrastructure has been implemented as this would require knowing how much exists already – a dataset we do not have.
We didn’t include if local authorities are mapping the areas for biodiversity improvement as this will become a key pillar of the Local Nature Recovery Strategies and all English local authorities should be submitting this anyway.
Freedom Of Information (FOI) Requests
You can see from the trial FOI requests that we are asking one question via a FOI request in the Biodiversity section. This deals with if the council has a specialist planning ecologist to oversee planning applications for biodiversity net-gain. This is a crucial staff position that will make sure biodiversity net-gain is being implemented through the planning system and without it local authorities will struggle to implement the Biodiversity Net-Gain policy that has been handed to them by the UK government.
We are using one national data source in the planning section. This is the DEFRA database on the management of local wildlife sites, which details the percentage of local wildlife sites that are in positive conservation management. Local wildlife sites are only one type of designated nature area but this is a good indicator into how seriously local authorities are taking their role in managing the spaces for nature in their area.
As with all of our sections, we have tried to keep the questions focussed on the most impactful and measurable actions of councils for biodiversity. A special thank you to those we consulted with as part of this section. We’re looking forward to marking councils on this section to find out in full detail what councils are doing to improve biodiversity in their area.