One of our key principles for any biodiversity offsetting scheme is that ancient woodland should not be part of it. There are two questions within the Government’s offsetting Green Paper which offer support to that view, shown below with our view at this stage:
- Do you agree with the proposed exceptions to the routine use of biodiversity offsetting? If not, why not? If you suggest additional restriction, why are they needed?
In the consultation Defra has identified a number of existing constraints on development including ancient woodland and SSSIs. We agree that any new offsetting scheme should not override pre-existing protection provided through planning legislation and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) specifically mentions that ancient woodland and trees should be given special consideration within planning decisions.
- Which habitats do you think should be considered irreplaceable?
The consultation identifies ancient woodland and limestone pavement as irreplaceable habitats which should not be part of offsetting. We agree with this, and would also add that any habitat which takes 100 years or more to reach a fully functioning ecosystem should be recognised as being irreplaceable and therefore not be considered as capable of being offset.
So given all this support for the unique values of ancient woodland, you would expect me to be happy with the proposals for ancient woodland within the Green Paper, and I am, but I also refer you to the “get out” clause within the NPPF:
“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.”
This caveat, or loophole, has led to situations such as the loss of woodland at Oaken Wood and the ongoing threat to over 380 ancient woods within England. Planning is a democratic process and within the current constraints of the planning system there will continue to be occasions when the democratic imperative decides that ancient woodland is to be lost in favour of the development proposal. When this happens, is there a role for an offsetting scheme?
In the scheme foreseen in the Green Paper biodiversity offsetting does not put a specific price on nature, but uses a complicated metric to calculate how much habitat must be created or restored in order to compensate for the area of habitat lost. An initial version of the metric was developed by Defra and is currently being trialled the six offsetting pilots which the Government is supporting. This offsetting metric uses a number of criteria to assess the value of the habitat to be lost;
- risk associated with restoration;
- time to restoration; and
- location of potential receptor site.
This calculation results in a number representing “biodiversity units” that need to be delivered as compensation. At its simplest this can be seen as a ratio of lost habitat to created habitat; 1:5, 1:10 etc.
However, the current metric applies maximum values to these calculations, for example, time allotted for restoration only allows for a maximum of 32 years and translates this into a requirement to multiply the number of biodiversity units by 3; and yet the same document lists the time for restoration of ancient woods as between 500 and 2000 years and then goes on to cast doubt as to whether it is possible to achieve restoration/recreation. This is very confusing for all concerned.
Obviously re-creating ancient woodland is impossible. As I’ve said, any habitat which takes 100 years or more to reach a fully functioning ecosystem should not be considered as capable of being offset. The Woodland Trust believes that for any irreplaceable habitat the offsetting metric should not be used, instead a bespoke response should be developed which results in a ratio of more than the maximum currently suggested under the offsetting metric. So, for every one hectare of ancient woodland lost or damaged through development we would want to see at least 30 hectares of new woodland created, managed and protected. Is this practical? Maybe not, but will this make developers think twice before they consider trashing ancient woodland? Hopefully!
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:
- Localism and what matters to a community when losing, and gaining, a habitat
- Management and compensation packages in an offsetting scheme
In the meantime you can find further information about the consultation, and our concerns, here. We all have until November 7th to get our responses in! Please add to the debate below - but do make sure you tell Defra what you think too!
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser