Professor David Hill has an impressive environmental pedigree which includes a role as one of the founding members of Natural England. He is currently chairman of the Environment Bank, which rewards farmers and landowners for implementing measures which offset the environmental impact of building development. He spoke to Wendy Short.

After graduating from Oxford University with a doctorate in ecology, Professor Hill worked for several NGOs (non-governmental organisations), before becoming an independent consultant advising corporate clients and developers on how to minimise the negative environmental effects of their projects. Other ‘hats’ include chair of conservation charity Plantlife International, chair of the Northern Upland Chain Nature Partnership and commissioner with the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

In 2015, he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to nature conservation and the economy. Three years later he co-founded the NatureSpace Partnership, to enhance habitat creation for protected species within the planning system.

Meanwhile, the Environment Bank was established in 2006 and Professor Hill is credited with introducing ‘biodiversity offsetting” and hence ‘biodiversity net gain’ to the UK.

“Our task is to measure the environmental impact of a development such as a large housing scheme,” he explained. “Rather than attempting to mitigate its entire impact on the site itself, we find alternative land; usually farmland. There is little point in trying to encourage skylark populations on a housing estate; it makes better sense to find a more sympathetic habitat and manage it for the promotion of target species.

“Credits are sold to developers and put into a 30-year scheme designed to benefit biodiversity on the alternative area, which most commonly comprises woodland, wetland or meadows. Membership can apply to rented holdings with the permission of the landlord, and must be passed on to any new tenant or landowner. Conservation groups can also get involved.”

The scheme is usually attractive to the developer, he added, as the company is not required to set aside a percentage of highly valuable development land with planning permission to benefit wildlife. All set-up costs are covered for the participating farmer or landowner, to meet the environmental measures necessary for compliance and there is a 30-year annual management fee.

The first agreement was signed in 2014 and the principles of biodiversity net gain have met with such widespread approval that the concept will be incorporated in 2021 into the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan and National Planning Policy Framework.

Making the concept a mandatory element of planning law will be a “game changer,” providing a new income stream for farmers, landowners and conservation bodies, according to Professor Hill.

“We have engaged with 90-plus planning authorities, but there are 380 such organisations in England. The new law will compel the authorities to look more closely at the impact of granting planning permission within their governance and to take action,” he commented.

At present, the planning authorities are keen to ensure that the development site and the offset farmland fall within their own jurisdiction. However he believes that within reason, geographic location is far less important than the overall advantages offered by the scheme.

“While developers will allocate a certain amount of the net gain for their schemes, such areas are often too small or suffer too much disturbance by users to be effective. Nor is significant true biodiversity delivered within the site boundary.”

Scheme membership applications are welcomed for habitat banks, particularly on marginal and arable farmland, with the organisation currently handling parcels of 0.5-20ha.

“The next stage is to acquire 40-plus hectare sites. These would service multiple developers and would greatly reduce the administration costs. Some 10,000ha of land is being developed each year in England and there will also be opportunities to apply the scheme to areas undergoing redevelopment.

“There has been a 60% decline in biodiversity in recent years and there is a need to engage the private sector. Conservation has largely relied on NGOs and that will continue, but we must think on a wider scale. We will only restore biodiversity in the countryside if we involve the private sector and private landowners and farmers. Agriculture is facing huge changes over the next decade and this venture should help to generate a return on farmer investment.”

At home, Professor Hill and his wife Kathleen, a local farmer’s daughter, have 100 acres of land near Ripon. Mainly grazed by an organic sheep producer, it is devoted to nature conservation and made up of restored hay meadows and woodland. A second small family farm in Swaledale is rented to a young farmer and contains one of a number of ‘Coronation Meadows’ around the country.

“The Coronation Meadows are part of an HRH Prince of Wales initiative to promote wildflower meadows across the UK,” said Professor Hill, who is an enthusiastic wildlife photographer and birdwatcher. It was launched to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation and there are currently almost 100 Coronation Meadows, covering more than 1,000 acres in total.”

Register land with Environment Bank at