A Sustainable Business Model for Enabling Sustainable Development in the Built Environment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


Planning successful urban environments face significant strategic challenges including reconciling diverse and contested needs and demands associated with public health, water management, housing, economic growth, biodiversity and climate change. However, these challenges are often diagnosed, planned, delivered and evaluated within separate sectoral silos leading to policy inefficiency, and frequent duplication. Green infrastructure (GI) has been championed as a spatial planning tool with the potential to integrate these major planning challenges within more holistic social-ecological systems thinking.

The development and publication of the Natural Capital Planning Tool (NCPT) has provided a welcomed tool enabling planning authorities and other end-users to meaningfully assess the impact of new plans and developments on natural capital and ecosystem services. During our extensive end-user engagement as part of the NERC-funded innovation project (NE/N017587/1) we also explored a range of opportunities that are likely to significantly increase more widespread uptake of the NCPT and therefore impact and benefits. Recent developments such as the update of Natural England's Biodiversity Offsetting scheme, the ongoing development of Natural England's Eco-metric approach and the release of the NERC-funded Building with Nature standard offer great opportunity spaces for tool harmonisation and the exploitation of synergies as these tools and approaches all have the opportunity to complement each other to enable sustainable development in the built environment. Given the positive feedback from several partners we expect that there is sufficient market potential for a commercialised NCPT version. However, we need 'hard' evidence which is independently verified for a compelling business case. We are seeking NERC Follow-on Pathfinder funding to support our NERC Follow-on funding application.

After discussions with an established market research consultancy, we were advised that a series of interviews with existing and potential end-users would be the best way to capture and quantify the market potential for a commercialised NCPT version.

We will secure quotes from at least three different market research consultancies for undertaking the following work:

1. Development of a market research questionnaire,
2. Running at least 40 interviews with Local Planning Authorities in England, Wales and Scotland which we believe offer the biggest market potential,
3. Running at least 20 interviews with potential end-users from industry such as major private sector developers, infrastructure providers such as National Rail and Highways England; and mayor land managers such as the National Trust,
4. Analysis of the results to assess the overall market potential for a commercialised NCPT across England, Wales and Scotland, and
5. Provision of a short summary report of the findings within 6 weeks of project start which we will attach to our potential Follow-on application.
6. Helping with the development of the questionnaire for the interviews, and
7. By providing contacts of existing and potential end-users from our project partnership and newsletter subscribers.

We will use the findings of the market research to determine the viability of a commercialised NCPT version. A commercial NCPT needs to generate at least enough income to allow ongoing administration and maintenance. The market research will also give us a better idea if end-user demand for the NCPT is sufficiently high in Wales and Scotland, outside the area where it was tested.
In addition to the independent market research, we will also develop and run a short survey with existing NCPT users to explore which additional product features and improvements should be prioritised. The nature of the commercially sensitive information means we will carry out this work ourselves, consulting a smaller group of trusted case study partners.

Planned Impact

Many of the ideas we want to implement during the Follow-on phase were actually proposed by (potential) end-users of the NCPT as part of our extensive engagement with end-users during the NERC project (NE/N017587/1). The development of the NCPT was very much demand-driven from the beginning of its development in 2013 and we see that as a crucial success-factor for the NCPT which we want to continue in a potential Follow-on phase. We want to carry on adopting the NCPT to best suit the end-user demand as driven by government policy associated with net gain and effective spatial planning and placemaking that delivers the quality places the country needs for a prosperous economy.

One important opportunity for improvement end-users were very passionate about was to align the NCPT with issues high on the political agenda such as public health and increasingly 'environmental net-gain'. Consultations with end-users give us great confidence that this will add great value to the NCPT and would increase uptake. The recent publication of the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan and the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) also increases political momentum for the NCPT because it requires tools to help ensure that developments achieve net gain credentials in a proportionate manner.

We have identified other key impacts that link the NCPT to Building With Nature standards and harmonising the tool with Natural England's updated Biodiversity Offsetting metric and newly developed Eco-metric. The research team is directly involved in the development of the Eco-metric lead by the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at the University of Oxford. We also had initial discussions with the team behind Building With Nature and agreed that these two tools would complement better if they were more synchronised and their synergies exploited further.

Fully implementing the new NCPT in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) will further add value because it will act as a showcase example for how the NCPT can lead to better informed planning decisions and designs in a major growth area of the UK.

Great value will also be added by expanding the geographical scope of the NCPT to the UK as a whole. Expanding the scope to Scotland and Wales as part of a Follow-on phase would add 8.5 million (estimated population 2016) new beneficiaries. They would benefit from NCPT-informed land-use decisions which in turn leads to more sustainable outcomes. It will also add value for future generations because land-use decisions now will shape our cities and towns for decades to come.

The commercialisation of the NCPT is a crucial requirement for keeping the NCPT model up to date with ongoing maintenance and development as well as user support. Without income generation from the NCPT, the tool could not be updated and would soon be out of date and not meaningfully applicable anymore. Because indicators and policy priorities change rather frequently over time the NCPT requires continued updates; this is best supported via a commercial product.


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Description A Sustainable Business Model for Enabling Sustainable Development in the Built Environment
Amount £9,293 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S011501/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2018 
End 10/2018
Description NERC GI KE Fellowships (Awarded to CoI on this project - Professor Alister Scott)
Amount £225,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R00398X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 09/2019
Description Questionnaire engagement for business case for NCPT2 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Data from questionnaire used to support 2nd innovation case bid which was unsuccessful.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018