Highway infrastructure developer tackles BNG with new technologies: UKREiiF 2024

12 Jun 2024 | 7 min read

Highway infrastructure developer tackles BNG with new technologies: UKREiiF 2024
  • Milestone Infrastructure incorporates biodiversity net gain (BNG) principles in their projects, ensuring meaningful environmental improvements.
  • Technology plays an increasingly vital role in achieving BNG objectives, offering scalable, cost-effective solutions for environmental assessments.
  • Milestone Infrastructure emphasizes the importance of long-term maintenance and comprehensive strategies to ensure the sustainability of biodiversity projects.

With permitted development exempt from the most recent BNG rules, you might think the companies working on those projects would stick to traditional compliance-oriented approaches for minimizing environmental impact.

Not so for Milestone Infrastructure, the UK’s largest provider of highway services in the local authority market, which oversees 50,000 km of the local road network. At a recent UKREiiF 2024 panel discussion with AiDash, Edward Godsiffe, Milestone’s Director of Sustainability, shared how adopting innovative technologies and collaborating closely with local authorities is helping pave the way for more meaningful improvements.

Edward said that on some pioneering projects, they have ambitious biodiversity net gain targets. In one recent case, they aimed for 20% net gain on a highway development. He said that approach “equally allows us to innovate and learn, and then take that learning across the field so that we can support all of the local authorities getting to a point where they understand and are able to deliver positive outcomes for biodiversity.”

Overcoming challenges integrating BNG into permitted development

Back in 2019, Edward said, Milestone’s clients declared climate emergencies and set incredibly ambitious carbon reduction targets (to which BNG is linked). With that came increased public awareness of environmental impacts. “It’s slightly disingenuous to have private sector developments delivering 10% biodiversity net gain when over here, we are delivering something under permitted development bearing no regard to biodiversity,” Edward acknowledged.

Blazing new trails is no small feat when the BNG targets aren’t yet mandated by legislation. One of the hurdles Milestone must overcome is the idea of BNG as an additional cost, rather than a beneficial investment. “You don’t need to deliver biodiversity net gain under permitted development. So, we need to sort of change that perception that says because it’s a cost, we don’t have to do it.” To overcome this, Milestone focuses on demonstrating the long-term benefits and value of biodiversity improvements, aiming to shift the old way of thinking. For example, by changing habitats, the capital cost may increase but maintenance costs reduce annually with a net benefit.

Even with everyone on the same page, delivering meaningful results is a formidable challenge. Take the physical constraints of highway infrastructure as an example. “As soon as you start doing any work, you’ve got limited space to go and do something different to improve adjacent habitats,” Edward explained. The proximity of local communities and other landowners often limits options for environmental enhancement, making it difficult to achieve significant biodiversity gains.

Additionally, the market for habitat banking and offsetting is still maturing. Edward highlighted that local authorities are starting to think about strategies across their entire portfolios, potentially leading to managing biodiversity offsets within their own estates more effectively. This includes infrastructure development and could cut across to other parts of the local government.

Utilizing technology for scalable and efficient environmental solutions

Clearly, there are a lot of moving parts in play. And as local authorities start thinking in terms of complete asset portfolios, rather than individual projects, the complexity of achieving BNG objectives increases. Fortunately, technology can help augment the work of individuals engaging, designing, delivering, and maintaining infrastructure. “Technology allows us to do a lot more at scale, quicker, and cheaper,” said Edward.

For instance, in the cathedral city of Peterborough, Milestone used technology to assess and plan biodiversity improvements city-wide, saving time and resources while simultaneously enhancing safety by minimizing fieldwork on active roadways. Edward observed that there are still limitations, though.

“If you think about the way we manage maintenance of the soft estate, for example, there are really good asset databases. We know where all the grass is and how we’ve got to cut it, all that sort of stuff. But when you’re talking about biodiversity net gain, [we don’t have the data to] assess that for a condition or apply a value . . . There’s a lot of data out there, [but] you need some smart technology to take away that human element of crunching numbers.”

Ensuring long-term sustainability in biodiversity initiatives

Beyond planning and construction, expect technology to serve as a facilitator for monitoring the sustainability of biodiversity gains long-term. Edward emphasized the necessity of developing comprehensive maintenance plans and collaborating with clients on enduring environmental goals.

“How can we, for example, monitor the success of a tree-planting program over a 30-year period? You see the news stories that you plant 6 million trees, and there’s a drought, and 3 million of them have died, and you actually could have used technology to monitor the success rate of that and reduced potential maintenance in the longer term.”

There’s also a role for technology to play in evaluating other environmental aspects post-delivery. Godsiffe continued, “If we put in place a biodiversity improvement that is related to tree planting, what does that do for local air quality? And you can link different monitors, different datasets into a system to really start to layer these things up.”

Local authorities must make decisions based on limited budgets. Using technology, they’re able to bring in more data, fuel better insights, and maximize value.

At UKREiiF 2024, it became clear how important technology will be to meeting BNG requirements in its first year. It will be fascinating to see how the industry is using technology when UKREiiF 2025 rolls around.

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