The UK Govt has signalled its intention to introduce the idea of ‘biodiversity offsetting‘ in the planning system. In simple terms this will allow developers of land that has some ecology value to remove the area that has value by replacing it with another area of similar or better ecology value elsewhere. Protected species legislation, SSI’s etc., are unlikely to be affected by this. It is designed to deal with areas where there is ecological value, where the ecology is not unusually valuable or a habitat for protected species.
There are some sensible sounding elements to the consultation:
-the areas in question must be independently assessed, and will probably be done using a system of accredited assessors, Suitably Qualified Ecologists?
-the new areas can be provided by a third party, e.g. RSPB, the National Trust, enabling existing areas of ecological value to be extended and improved
-the new areas could be considered nationally, e.g. a loss in London could be compensated for by an addition in Portsmouth, although there are a number of details to this that may limit the distance from the development site to the replacement site. In todays Times, the Environment Secretary suggests that ‘an hour away by car’ could be a suitable distance. Thus neatly displaying his lack of credentials to hold this position.
-hedgerows are excluded and must be replaced onsite
-SUDS may be considered as a ‘local’ offset, if a SUDS system that involves habitat creation is used, then this may compensate for other habitat loss on the same site
Equally, there are many aspects to this that sets my teeth on edge:
-the language of the document is almost unbelievably crass, the idea that ecology can be treated like pieces on a chessboard and moved about, almost at will, is treated as though this were normal practice. Quoting examples of best practice from Australia isn’t helpful. Looking to Australia, under its current Government, for examples of environmental protection is a bit like asking a mugger for advice on security.
-local people surrounding a development parcel may not appreciate the nicety that a part of their local well-loved area was not unusual or home to valuable species. Replacing this elsewhere, ‘within an hours drive by car’ hardly represents a reasonable ‘replacement’ in human terms, even of the replacement is much better in environmental terms. The consultation considers the ‘environment’ as a set of numbers to be maintained and ‘grown’. While this may be realised in national terms using this offsetting process, the result for individual places where development happens is that they will be poorer, with lower levels of environmental quality, and with less consideration given to ecology than is currently likely to happen.
-there is no discussion about the economic loss of arable land
-there is a bizarre, and even more crass, suggestion that developers might consider ‘ecology banking’ where they buy in advance, or enter into agreements in advance with ecology providers, to create areas of ecological enhancement before they need them. The principle of applying a monetary value to ecology can be helpful, up to a point, this is going beyond that point. The banking system is years away from re-establishing its credibility with the average person, and using this type of language is simply poor judgement by Defra that will do a lot of damage to otherwise potentially helpful proposals.