The final report of the Ecosystem Markets Task Force which was launched last week identified biodiversity offsetting as the first of its key recommendations. Biodiversity offsetting; securing net gain for nature through planning and development.
Offsetting is not a recent idea, as long ago as the 1970s the US set up a wetland banking scheme where public or private developers would restore, establish or enhance an aquatic resource to compensate for any damage they caused. Other countries have used similar schemes to deal with damage to biodiversity and habitats as part of development.
Defra became interested in the ability of biodiversity offsetting to counteract biodiversity losses in the mid 2000s, commissioning an analysis of international experience and how this could be implemented in an English context. The publication of the Natural Environment White Paper in 2011 built on this, identifying development as a threat to biodiversity and the broader environment, and offsetting as a potential solution. The commitment to test offsetting as a voluntary approach in a number of areas resulted in six pilot projects, commencing work in April 2012 for a two year trial period.
In the meantime we have had the EMTF, a change of Secretary of State and an acceleration of the development process. In a series of speeches at the end of 2012 Owen Patterson reinforced the message that offsetting was being seen as a way forward, particularly for major infrastructure projects. He is quoted as having said that where a great crested newt is lost you may not get another great crested newt but a grey partridge or a grey seal. But that is a misunderstanding of the process, offsetting is based on habitats not species. Some protected species are covered by the Habitats Regulations, but many of our most threatened species fall outside legislation and will have to rely on new habitats being able to provide them with new homes.
Offsetting will be part of the planning process. Any good application should follow best practice: analyse what is there, avoid where possible, mitigate if unavoidable, compensate if there are residual negative affects. Under existing procedures the compensation is within the development site. Offsetting would enable the compensation to be outside the development site.
This automatically raises an issue of social equity; if you are losing woodland at the edge of the town which is a community resource, are you going to feel that new woodland 30 miles away at the other end of the county provides the same benefits? And then there is the mechanism by which equivalence is calculated, if the site to be lost is species rich hay meadow how many hectares of new grassland will provide the same biodiversity value? What about those habitats which are so complex or take so long to develop that they cannot be encompassed within a planning timetable? We consider ancient woodland to be irreplaceable, such habitats should not be part of the process at all.
Many of these issues have been laboured over for a number of years. Natural England produced a metrics paper which looked at the complex issue of how to calculate equivalence. Currently all the pilots are taking place within limited geographies – county or sub-county level – which eases the social equity issue but does not solve it.
The EMTF proposals are that the pilot areas should change from a voluntary system to a mandatory one, and that is time a mandatory offsetting process should be introduced to the planning process. As I said in my blog on the launch of the EMTF report the task force recognised some of the issues with these recommendations:
“This is not about companies offsetting impacts on biodiversity across all their operations. It is not a raft of new burdens on developers nor is it a “license to trash” nature. It is about better regulation, developing a well-defined market which delivers “net gain” for nature which the current planning system has generally failed to do.”
They also go on to say:
“The Task Force is aware this is not simple. A credible and robust system of offsetting must have:
• sufficient market scale to maximise demand, growth of competitive supply and the scope for pooling habitat restoration/creation projects;
• existing safeguards (including legislation to protect species and habitats) maintained to prevent and mitigate impacts on nature;
• a transparent institutional and market framework based on clear guidance and metrics, a registry of supply, accredited standards and brokers, together with the necessary capacity in planning authorities account made of the upfront costs and benefits to businesses, which could differ by sector.”
Besides the fact that as a fairly dark green environmentalist the talk of “market scale” and “growth of competitive supply” is an uneasy combination with biodiversity, I also have concerns at how the issues of guidance, accreditation and planning authority capacity will be seen by a Government who view regulation as a dirty word and have taken steps to have all planning guidance reduced to fewer than 50 pages.
The Government and the task force clearly see biodiversity offsetting as an integral part of the answer to concerns about biodiversity losses, but can it really help deliver our biodiversity conservation aspirations?
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer