A new report brings a significant degree of common sense to help ease the ongoing friction between planning and biodiversity.
‘Nurturing Nature: Policy to protect and improve biodiversity’ published recently by one of the UK’s leading think tanks, Policy Exchange, examines England’s natural environment policies and their success in protecting and enhancing important habitats and biodiversity, both at home and abroad.
There’s a lot to be welcomed in this. Much of it is based on the view that the designation of important habitats has led to ‘ghettoisation’ – the system protects habitats on the basis of designation, leading to undesignated sites lacking protection (and potentially being lost) and designated habitats becoming ecologically isolated, and thus also threatened.
Ancient woodland is an example of this; indeed the report lists ancient woodland sites as having a low level of protection. It suggests the problem can be overcome by valuing nature more effectively. The report also recognises something we’ve talked about a lot recently – that the NPPF fails to take the opportunity to truly enhance biodiversity by maintaining the caveats set out in the planning policy statements. We’d agree; within the context that ancient woodland is irreplaceable, as such the best approach is that planning policies must strengthen its protection.
The report highlights that Government should create an easy-to-search register of compensation schemes that are effectively monitored. This is crucial to ensure that the ad-hoc approach currently being undertaken by local planning authorities (LPAs) (the report states that 41% of LPAs have used offsetting or compensation mechanisms) is properly monitored, both for successes and for lessons learned.
We would also support the proposal that LPAs should commission Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) whilst developers continue to pay for the reports. Thinking about our Woods under Threat work, this approach assessing the true value of ancient woodland, and other important habitats, would provide a far more balanced, and unbiased, outcome for all parties involved.
So yes, much to be welcomed. But we still have one major concern, which is the suggestion that:
Money used protecting local biodiversity could in some instances lead to greater biodiversity gain if spent somewhere else, nationally or internationally (page 26).
The Trust strongly refutes this. In our view, overseas offsetting of biodiversity loss in England is not only shirking our responsibilities, and doing our environment and population a great disservice, but is fundamentally flawed.
I don’t mean, in saying this, to dismiss in any way the vital importance of global environments. The report itself sets out the many and broad benefits ecosystem services bring (see table below):
But many of these ecosystem services are locationally specific – managing water quality and recharging aquifers needs to happen in the catchments we use; protecting pollinating insects must happen here, where the crops are grown; improving air quality through absorbing pollutants must happen where people live; and so on. I’m back to the “think globally, act locally” message – where local people lose elements of their local environment, surely it’s not only right and just that this is properly mitigated for as locally as can be, but it’s axiomatic.
The Woodland Trust believes that all mitigation for biodiversity loss should be adopted as local as possible, and that considering mitigation on even a national scale risks being inequitable. This is why we are promoting to communities the opportunity Neighbourhood Planning offers, as well as working closely with LPAs to ensure that any local losses of biodiversity are mitigated locally.
Victoria Bankes Price, Conservation Adviser (Planning)