From individual landowners to corporate developers, everyone is being encouraged to play their part in enhancing our environment by planting trees for The Queen’s Green Canopy, an initiative to mark Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022.
Growing awareness of the role of our built environment and green space in tackling carbon emissions is also shaping attitudes to the way commercial property is developed and managed. Investors and developers who understand the need for green space around their buildings are finding they have a commercial advantage.
‘The green credentials of commercial property go beyond the energy efficiency of buildings,’ according to Emma Reed, Partner in the commercial property team with Wollens. ‘Trees and green space are also crucial and are set to have higher priority in planning decisions, as well as in the ways businesses and communities feel about the places where they live, work and shop.’
Environment Act 2021
Government policy on the environment has been developing over recent years. New targets under the Environment Act 2021 build on the 25-year plan to improve the natural environment published in 2018. The two areas most likely to affect commercial property are the need to improve biodiversity and a commitment to plant more trees.
Biodiversity net gain
The Environment Act 2021 introduces a new requirement for biodiversity net gain on many new developments. The details are still being worked out, but the principle is clear. A completed development will be expected to achieve a net gain in biodiversity, compared with the site before the development took place. This will be part of planning policy from 2023, so local authorities will be looking at the expected gain in biodiversity when making decisions on planning applications.
The impact of this requirement will be different for greenfield sites than for previously built on (brownfield) sites. Developers should start looking at their portfolios now and consider getting expert advice on how best to address the issue of biodiversity net gain on specific sites.
Tree planting is a key part of the Government’s strategy. The current proposed target is to increase tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5 per cent to 17.5 per cent of the area of England by 2050 and it has been reported that this will mean planting trees on land equivalent to the size of Kent. There are some high-profile campaigns already underway, including The Queen’s Green Canopy, which is being promoted by The Woodland Trust to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee. This is supporting individuals and communities to plant trees on a small scale, as well as landowners who can create larger areas of new woodland. The National Trust has also announced a project to create ‘green corridors’ in urban areas.
These tree planting targets include small areas of tree cover outside woodlands, particularly in urban areas, and this highlights the contribution commercial property can make. A well thought out development, or perhaps just a reworking of existing space, will demonstrate care for the environment and biodiversity. The benefits will go beyond simply meeting planning requirements and could enhance your reputation as a developer or investor.
One of the ways the Environment Act 2021 aims to secure long-term benefits is through conservation covenants which will, for the first time, allow commitments on conservation to be enforced in the long term. A conservation covenant is a commitment by a landowner to a public body or conservation organisation to do something (or not to do something) on their land, for a conservation purpose for the public good. As well as protecting or improving the environment, a conservation purpose can also cover natural resources, a whole setting or cultural, artistic, historic, or archaeological interest. Conservation covenants will be registered against the land, so they will bind future owners and are likely to be used to secure commitments in relation to biodiversity and other planning requirements. They have the potential to be very flexible, with landowners free to negotiate the precise terms of the covenant, including how long it will last. The relevant rules will come into force on 30 September 2022. If you are interested in pursuing this, your solicitor will be able to advise you on how to go about it.
Look after what you have already
As a final note of caution, do not forget any trees already on your commercial property sites. They should be checked regularly to make sure they do not present any health and safety risks. Bear in mind that existing trees may be covered by tree preservation orders, which mean that even pruning will require consent from the local authority.
In recent years, the courts have taken a dim view of landowners who deliberately damage protected trees. One owner was recently prosecuted for poisoning a large pine tree which was reducing the value of his property. As well as legal costs of £25,000, he was fined £55,000, £50,000 of which reflected the uplift in value he hoped to achieve by killing the tree.
How we can help
Whether you need advice on energy efficiency, biodiversity net gain, or the practicalities of creating and maintaining green space, our solicitors are here to help you make the most of your commercial property investments.