One of the Trust’s key principles in any development process, whether for major infrastructure or minor extension, is that the mitigation hierarchy should be followed. This is a view greeted by politicians, consultants and developers with universal agreement. Yet given the ongoing environmental damage caused through the planning system, this does rather beg the question “With what are we all agreeing?”.
The mitigation hierarchy is normally summarised as avoid, mitigate, compensate. This appears to be where agreement lies; but there are layers of understanding which go to create this summary, which it seems are being ignored by both developers and planning authority.
The mitigation hierarchy
Step one – Information
If you don’t know what is there, how can you avoid it? Information about the site’s biological resource is surely the starting point for any development, along with an understanding about the impacts of the construction process to be used in both the short- and long-term. Unfortunately, too often this stage of the planning process is seen as costly and unnecessary and far too few planning authorities have the resources or expertise to either check what is submitted or ensure even the most preliminary survey is done.
Step two – Avoid
The fundamental of avoid would be to not build on the site at all!
Is this really the right place for this type of development? – just because the developer owns the land does not mean the site is a good match. All planning applications should include an assessment of alternative sites, but too often this stage in the planning process is skipped or paid lip-service. Having properly completed the information gathering stage, the developer can then undertake an analysis of which impacts from the development might be avoided and how.
Step three – Reduce (confusingly also often called Mitigate)
If an impact cannot be avoided, are there steps that can be taken to undertake onsite activities to restore or reverse the damage?
This tends to be the most popular stage of the planning process including a lot of nest box provision, small ponds or new trees. Again, the problem is that there is little resources or expertise within the planning authority to assess whether the mitigation proposed is appropriate or sustainable.
Step four – Compensate (or Offset)
This should be the last resort, only after all else has been looked at… but the concern is that the introduction of biodiversity offsetting would mean developers would jump straight to this stage. Under an offsetting scheme, a proposal would be put to the decision-making body around the residual impacts which required offsetting and the offsetting action/s the developer suggests would be appropriate.
We don’t think that an offer of off-site compensation should be part of the planning authority’s decision-making process. In fact, reaching this stage should trigger a fundamental re-appraisal of the application. We believe that if a development would cause irreparable damage to species or habitats of biodiversity concern that the developer can’t avoid or mitigate, then the application should surely be refused.
How is this tackled in the current ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ consultation?
Following the mitigation hierarchy obviously means different things to different people, the Defra consultation on implementing an offsetting scheme in England includes a couple of questions which deal with these issues, shown below with our view at this stage:
- ‘Do you think offsetting assessment should be used when preparing a planning application for a project?’
No, because when a planning authority is balancing the benefits of a development against the dis-benefits – in this case ecological damage - offsetting should not be part of the decision-making process. We believe that all planning proposals should undertake a clear and recognisable assessment of the full impacts of the development on the environment, comparing that with alternative scenarios for the development (such as a different location), and take steps to use the mitigation hierarchy to avoid and reduce impacts wherever possible.
Only for those projects where there is a residual environmental impact which cannot be mitigated in any way, but the planning authority nonetheless considers this loss justified through the benefits of the proposal, should the developer then be requested to submit compensation proposals such as an offsetting assessment.
- ‘Do you agree that it should be the responsibility of planning authorities to ensure the mitigation hierarchy is observed and decide what offset is required to compensate for any residual loss? If not, why, and how do you think offsetting should be approached in the planning system?’
No. Currently less than a third of planning authorities have the resources in-house or skills and knowledge to accurately assess the ecological impact of a development, let alone offsetting proposals.
There is a need for this process to be open, clear, and subject to challenge where necessary by both directly affected parties and third party interests. Whilst assessment does not need to be undertaken by the planning authority, an independent body may serve this purpose, but there will remain a need for democratic accountability.
How you can have your say…
We see this consultation as an opportunity to ensure any offsetting scheme does not become the ‘licence to trash’ that we and so many others fear it could. This is an important but complex debate, so we have set up a variety of ways for people to join in – including giving Defra your personal take on what is ‘valuable’ about the natural environment, and the chance to just say No to the idea of ‘offsetting’ in principle.
I will return to more of the key issues in further blogs and explain some of the risks and opportunities we see in the proposed scheme:
- The impact of including ancient woodland in an offsetting scheme
- Localism and what matters to a community when losing, and gaining, a habitat
- Management and compensation packages in an offsetting scheme
We all have until November 7th to get our responses in! Please add to the debate with your comments below, but do make sure you tell Defra what you think too! In the meantime you can find further information about the consultation, and our concerns, here.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser