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Saving roadside biodiversity

National Highways used the United Nations’ Biodiversity Day on 22 May to announce that it was on track to hit its biodiversity targets. Its goals are to halve biodiversity decline between 2020 and 2025, by creating at least as many biodiversity units as were lost, and to deliver 10% biodiversity net gain on major enhancement projects delivered between 2025 and 2030.

Creating over 4,500 biodiversity units between 2020 and now – more than the estimated 4,166 to be lost – has been no easy task. An assessment of National Highway’s progress by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in 2022 found that the authority was not on track to hit its targets, forecasting to make a net biodiversity loss by 2025. A new plan was drawn up.

The UK’s record on biodiversity is pretty grim. A 2023 State of Nature Report found that the number of species in the UK had declined by 19% since 1970 and that one in six species are at risk of extinction.

Green corridors along roads and rail lines can help maintain biodiversity by connecting habitats within landscapes that have been fragmented and disrupted. National Highways manages 4,300 miles of road, much of that with verges and soft landscaping attached.

One of the challenges for any road authority looking to maintain or increase biodiversity is keeping track of what is happening. National Highways has been working on an artificial intelligence (AI) mapping tool to help with that gargantuan task.

Boosting biodiversity

Among the biodiversity boosting schemes that National Highways cites is the creation of new wetlands, grasslands and woodlands in a former open cast mine next to a motorway upgrade on the M6; a 15-year plan to improve grasslands on the Greena Moor Nature Reserve in Cornwall; and a green bridge alongside A30 improvements in Cornwall.

Some local authorities are doing their bit too. Many councils have reduced their mowing schedules for grass verges in a bid to encourage more wildlife and save budgets, not always to the satisfaction of local residents. Oxford Council, for instance, had to increase its mowing schedule again after complaints from residents.

Aside from competing priorities, one of the challenges councils face in preserving and improving biodiversity is a lack of people with the right skills. In May, the National Audit Office warned that local authorities may not have the resources to adequately police the new biodiversity net gain planning regulations, which require a 10% uplift in biodiversity for new projects. This was introduced for large housing projects in February 2024, for smaller projects in April 2024 and will kick in for nationally significant developments such as major road schemes in November 2025.

The NAO report said that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), which is responsible for biodiversity net gain, should ensure that local authorities have sufficient and timely funding certainty to allow longer-term planning. It also pointed out that Defra has yet to come up with a plan for how biodiversity credits – paid by developers who can’t deliver biodiversity uplift on their schemes – will be spent.



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