Accredited Assessors audit findings

The Biodiversity Offsets Scheme was established under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 and is the framework for offsetting unavoidable impacts on biodiversity from development with biodiversity gains through landholder stewardship agreements.

Under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (BC Act), assessors must be accredited to apply the Biodiversity Assessment Method (BAM). The Biodiversity Assessment Method is applied to all development or clearing applications that are entered into the scheme and sites where a landholder proposes to enter a Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement (BSA). The accredited assessor documents the results of the biodiversity assessment in a Biodiversity Assessment Report (BAR). A proponent must provide a Biodiversity Assessment Report to the decision maker as part of their development, clearing activity or biodiversity certification or to the Biodiversity Conservation Trust (BCT) for a stewardship site application. The decision maker will use the information in the Biodiversity Assessment Report to decide on whether to approve the development or Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement application.

The accreditation scheme is designed to ensure that the Biodiversity Assessment Method is applied by people with appropriate ecological skills, knowledge and experience, and a demonstrated understanding of the method.

The department is responsible for accrediting assessors under the scheme. The detailed arrangements for the accreditation scheme are set out in the Accreditation Scheme for the Application of the Biodiversity Assessment Method Order 2017 (Accreditation Scheme Order 2017) under the BC Act.

The department initiated a compliance audit of accredited assessors as part of our commitment to continuous improvement and providing assurance.

The department conducted a Compliance Audit of Accredited Assessors during 2020-21 in accordance with section 20 of the Accreditation Scheme Order 2017, which may include:

  1. compliance by an accredited person with the conditions of their accreditation
  2. biodiversity assessment reports prepared by an accredited person
  3. the application of the Biodiversity Assessment Method by an accredited person.

Audits are one of the tools used to ensure assessment quality. This audit is one of a range of measures under the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme that provide an overall framework to manage quality and assurance of assessments undertaken by accredited assessors.

Biodiversity development assessment reports (BDARs) undertaken by accredited assessors in relation to council development applications (DAs) under Part 4 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act) were selected as the focus of the audit. These types of assessments are the most frequently undertaken in the scheme giving the department a rich source of information to consider in the audit.

Given the scheme had been in operation for less than 3 years when the audit commenced, the department sought to assess compliance, identify opportunities for education and ongoing scheme improvement and areas to target for future audits. Therefore, the objectives of the audit were to:

  • evaluate accredited assessor compliance with select accreditation conditions, including applying aspects of the Biodiversity Assessment Method
  • support accredited assessors to comply and deter non-compliance, to improve biodiversity assessment and report quality
  • gather strategic intelligence to assist the department to better understand the practical operation of this area of the scheme.

The audit scope included:

  • accreditation conditions
    • application of the Biodiversity Assessment Method and operational manuals
    • code of conduct
    • record keeping
  • relevant sections of the Biodiversity Conservation Act
    • accredited assessor qualifications and experience and BDAR team details (s 6.8)
    • BDAR certification and currency requirements (s 6.15).

At the commencement of the audit in February 2020, there were 370 accredited assessors on the public register, with 297 within a private consultancy (ecological or other) and 73 within government agencies (state government, local government or other government departments).

A representative sample of biodiversity development assessment reports were selected for the audit. To be eligible for selection, biodiversity development assessment reports had to be submitted to the council but not yet determined and certified by an accredited assessor. A total of 13 biodiversity development assessment reports, from the same number of accredited assessors, were formally audited.

The biodiversity development assessment reports used in the audit were typically assessing small (less than 5 hectares) development sites. They were undertaken by accredited assessors new to the scheme, usually in small teams of 2 or more assessors. The department considers these arrangements to be common.

The audit identified a range of non-compliance issues in each of the audited BDARs as developed by the accredited assessors.

Key areas of improvement identified from the audit included:

  • BDAR currency and ensuring BAM credit (BAM-C) calculator is finalised (i.e. save as read only) before submission
  • quality assurance, particularly consistency between BDAR/BAM-C data and technical review of BDAR content (minimum BAM requirements)
  • inclusion of information on the entry point into the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme
  • consistent application of the Biodiversity Assessment Method and use of systems such as the Biodiversity Offsets and Agreements Management System and BAM-C
  • adequate proposal details, including detailed site plans showing area of on-ground impact (construction and operational) consistent with DA documentation
  • adequate justification for outcomes of steps undertaken to assess threatened species in accordance with the Biodiversity Assessment Method and detailed targeted survey information for threatened species assessments
  • demonstrating adequate consideration of avoidance (including mapped avoided areas), indirect impacts, and impacts to threatened species recorded on site and their habitats.

The audit identified 32 recommendations centred around 6 key recommendation themes:

  1. audited biodiversity development assessment reports and accredited assessor non-compliances
  2. Biodiversity Assessment Method
  3. systems and processes
  4. accredited assessors support
  5. complaints and feedback management
  6. local government support.

The preliminary audit findings and feedback from key stakeholders was considered while the audit was still in progress. Of the 32 recommendations, 12 have been implemented, 14 partially implemented, 6 have commenced, and none have not commenced.

The department is implementing the outcomes of the audit and is also considering additional measures to improve the scheme via the development of a new Compliance and Assurance Plan. The plan is likely to include:

  1. a specific audit program for the scheme to uncover systemic quality or integrity issues within the work undertaken by the accredited assessors
  2. robust and fair processes for assessor compliance, including formalising a fair and transparent process for removing accreditation based on evidence and formal review
  3. seeking to establish a dedicated audit team to conduct further auditing under the plan and take follow up action.

This will complement existing work already underway to improve quality, including enhanced training, guidelines and templates.