Owen Paterson (Secretary of State for the Environment at Defra) has moved the discussion about biodiversity offsetting both back up the agenda and backwards too, with his comments reported on Saturday that ancient woodland could be part of an offsetting scheme where for every tree lost from an ancient wood there would be 100 new trees planted.
All through last year’s discussions about offsetting there had been agreement between Government advisors, academics and conservation organisations that some habitats are just not suitable for inclusion within an offsetting scheme; ancient woodland was specifically mentioned as such within the Defra consultation and Mr Paterson agreed with this view at the Stakeholder Summit that he hosted in May last year. Hence, our willingness to engage in further discussion to develop a system for biodiversity offsetting that had already safely excluded ancient woodland from its remit.
So it may come as a surprise to some that over the Christmas period he seems to have undertaken a complete U-turn on the proposed policy, but this would not be the first time that a Government minister has changed their mind!
We are currently waiting for the Government’s official response to the offsetting consultation that ran in Autumn 2013 which could pave the way for the launch of a national biodiversity offsetting scheme by the end of 2015. The Government’s own offsetting pilot projects are yet to finish and there is little sign of clear evidence emerging from them so far.
The on-going confusion about the impact biodiversity offsetting could have on ancient woodland is one of the key reasons we have been so involved and so vocal within this debate. Our activity so far includes running an online campaign, publishing a series of blogs, submitting our own written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee and appearing as a witness in front of the committee as well as submitting a detailed response to the Defra consultation.
The current system is clearly not working; ancient woodland is specifically mentioned as a habitat to avoid within national planning policy and yet despite this there are currently around 380 ancient woods in England threatened by development.
Could offsetting deal with these problems? For some habitats, if done properly it has potential to be a viable and transparent way of ensuring that developers pay for residual environmental damage endorsed by the planning system – in a way which doesn’t happen now. Done badly, it could simply provide developers with a ‘licence to trash the environment’ – especially where developers seek to dress up offsetting as a potential ‘benefit’ of a development.
In the absence of either national guidance on compensation or an official offsetting scheme, planning decisions currently proceed on a case-by-case basis, with compensation proposals for loss of ancient woodland that vary greatly and frequently misunderstand the value of biodiversity and the complexity of ecosystems. In the last year we have seen cases where compensation for loss of ancient woodland has suggested ratios as low as 2:1 for replacement, even on Government sponsored schemes; this is far short of the levels of compensation that would be expected for the loss of a species rich secondary woodland calculated under the pilot offsetting guidance. This clearly suggests that some way of properly reflecting the importance and value of ancient woodland would be a good idea, either by giving them complete protection under planning regulations or deriving compensation ratios for ancient woodland that became so large and punitive as to effectively rule out development on all ancient woods.
But not all the Government’s policy intentions result in good scheme design, and who would provide the skills, training and resources needed to achieve effective implementation and impartial advice and enforcement? Currently less than a third of planning authorities have the in-house skills and knowledge to accurately assess the ecological impact of a development, let alone offsetting proposals. While this process does not need to be undertaken by the planning authority there is a need for it to be open and clear and subject to challenge, by both directly-affected parties and third party interests where necessary.
We have always said that all ancient woodland in the UK should be protected and that ancient woodland should not be part of a biodiversity offsetting scheme. However, while the loophole within the planning regime remains that allows irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland to continue to be destroyed as part of local planning decisions, a bespoke compensation scheme may increasingly become a necessary evil to restore some balance.
We will not support a scheme that facilitates the easy removal of ancient woodland, even if offered 100 times the number of trees in return. What we want is a scientifically based scheme that assesses and takes account of the complex ecological processes that underpin our environment, one that does not trade-in irreplaceable elements of our environment for short term gain. There is too much at stake here to allow Government backtracking on offsetting and ancient woodland to become the stuff of a spurious and unnecessary sacrifice on the altar of ‘growth at any cost’.
Ancient woodland covers only 2% of the UK, so we do not believe the public will buy the idea that ancient woodland must somehow be sacrificed to tackle much needed house building. It’s time for the Government to show it understands the failings of its own stated policies on planning and ancient woodland and time it got back in step with the public who value and want to keep all our ancient woods, now and for the future.
Austin Brady, Head of Conservation