12 min read | August 10, 2023

The Evolution of Biodiversity Policy in the UK: An overview of 70 years of legal developments

In this blog, we take a journey through the rich history of biodiversity policy in the UK and see how it has shaped our understanding and stewardship of the natural world.

Biodiversity, the variety and variability of life on Earth, is a critical component of our planet's health and well-being. In the UK there have been many different laws introduced to protect and conserve biodiversity. For over 70 years, policies have evolved and changed - leading to what we now know as BNG. In this blog, we take a journey through the rich history of biodiversity policy in the UK and see how it has shaped our understanding and stewardship of the natural world.

The Early Roots: National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

While the Victorians during the 19th Century passed some laws on environmental matters, in many ways, modern biodiversity and environmental policy finds its roots in the desire to create a welfare state after World War II. The very first UK law to set requirements for protecting what we would today recognise as 'biodiversity' was the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 - introduced by the Atlee Government.

This landmark legislation laid the foundation for the future of conservation in the UK by creating 'Areas of Outstanding Beauty.' A commitment to nature's aesthetic and intrinsic value was taking shape.

Further protections: Margaret Thatcher and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

For many years after the 1949 Act there were few developments. However, a watershed moment came with the Thatcher Government. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, was the first law to explicitly legislate for the concepts that we would later identify as ‘biodiversity’. For example, this Act established protection for wild animals and plants, marking a shift from focusing solely on landscape beauty to a broader ecological perspective.

Strengthening Protection: John Major, Tony Blair and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000

The Major era saw the passage of the Environment Act 1995. This Act subsequently paved the way for other key laws, such as the Hedgerow Regulations 1997 which aimed to protect 'important' hedgerows.

The arrival of Tony Blair in No.10 saw a number of new environmental laws arrive on the statute books. In England and Wales, the 1981 Act was amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which further enhanced the rules for wildlife preservation (Part III of the Act added extensive sections on nature protection, including ‘biological diversity’ highlighting a shift towards a holistic ecological perspective in legislation). The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 established that planning applications should protect the environment and wildlife.

The Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 played an essential role in ensuring that public bodies promote biodiversity in their functions ('the biodiversity duty'). Under section 40 of this Act, the legal obligation was more than just a formality. As stated in Morge v Hampshire CC, the duty was to actively conserve biodiversity, not merely pay lip service to it.

These laws, along with similar legislation like the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004, ensured that opportunities for biodiversity enhancement were integrated into public policy, affecting various domains such as land and buildings management, infrastructure development, and decision-making on procurement.

Together, these laws emphasised the importance of considering various ecological components, including hedgerows and planning, which are crucial for biodiversity

Businesses, Property Developers, and Biodiversity: David Cameron and the Town and Country Planning Regulations

In the years that followed, environmental laws started to have greater consequences for the private sector. While companies had to be aware of their responsibilities under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (particularly in protecting specific wild animals and plants) legislation increasingly required property developers and architects to address biodiversity issues, or they risked having planning applications refused by local councils. An Environmental Impact Assessment might be required, as per the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011.

International Commitments and Biodiversity Net Gain: Boris Johnson, Brexit and the Environment Act 2021

Over the last few decades, UK's biodiversity laws were also shaped by international conventions like the Bern Convention and EU Directives such as the Habitats Directive and Wild Birds Directives. These set out conservation requirements for a wide range of species. Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it was agreed that these would be copied over onto the statute books.

Indeed, there was a desire to go further, with the Johnson Government passing the Environment Act 2021. There is a huge amount that this Act does - but the biggest is, of course, Biodiversity Net Gain, which we have discussed many times on these blogs.

Final Thoughts: An Ongoing Commitment

The UK's biodiversity laws have come a long way since 1949, evolving in complexity and scope. A journey through these laws paints a picture of a nation learning to appreciate, protect, and foster its rich biodiversity. It also signals the intricate balance between human development and nature conservation, a dance that continues to shape our landscapes, policies, and lives.

For those involved in public bodies, businesses, and property development, the tapestry of UK biodiversity law is not only a set of rules to follow but a call to partake in the stewardship of the natural world. It's a reminder that the beauty and vitality of our environment is not a given but a shared responsibility that demands attention, innovation, and care. We have come a long way in 70 years - and it is incumbent on us to make sure we execute this policy effectively and achieve the big results that these laws are designed to generate.

Oliver Lewis

Founder of Joe’s Blooms

Oliver Lewis is the founder of Joe’s Blooms, providing end-to-end digital solutions to help you create best-in-class Biodiversity Gain Plans. Expert in this field, he shares his knowledge on the Environment Bill which will be effective in November 2023.

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