Why is biodiversity always treated as the bad guy? When there’s a conflict between nature and industry it is the supporters of nature who are portrayed as the Luddites, the nimbys, the anti-people brigade… with the developers being portrayed as the forward-looking part of the equation.
And yet the Government’s own Natural Capital Committee disagrees with this view, in their first State of Natural Capital report they clearly stated:
“There is no inherent incompatibility between preserving and enhancing natural capital and economic growth, as long as growth is properly measured.”
So why does this conflict, and strongly held belief, still persist? Part of it is the process by which development decisions are made.
In making any decision about planning, the planning authority has responsibility to weigh up the need for the development and the benefits it will bring to the community against any damage it may cause whether environmental or social. The problem is that all too often the decision is made on perceived economic grounds with the environmental implications being ignored or relegated to the side lines.
This is perhaps not surprising. Planning assessments are made by people trained to be town planners; only a third of planning authorities have any ecological expertise anymore. And when we are constantly being told that environmental considerations are a major barrier to getting the country back on its feet, then it is a brave assessment that would put the environment first.
Woods are lucky, ancient woodland is specifically mentioned in the National Planning Policy Framework as a habitat to be avoided – unless the need for, and benefit of, the development is significantly greater than the harm it will do to the woodland. And yet, currently in England we have 380 ancient woods threatened by development. If that is happening to a habitat specifically mentioned as one to avoid, what is happening to all our meadows or wetlands or heathland?
So if we accept that the current system is not working what would we suggest to improve it?
The biggest barrier is the cultural one; environment is seen as something with no measurable value, nice to add on at the end but the first thing to be slashed when there is a shortage of money.
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment was the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity. Following international guidelines, it looked at the ecosystem services that are provided by habitats and species and attempted to put a value to them. The Natural Capital Committee is taking this further by identifying where our use of these resources is becoming unsustainable. But there seems to be little connection between what is happening at a national level and local implementation of decision making.
Is there a method by which we could place a value on the environment which would be understood by developers and planners? Biodiversity offsetting is claimed as a mechanism to do this, recently touted as a cure all by the Ecosystems Markets Task Force, amongst others, we are expecting a Government announcement soon about the possible roll-out of an offsetting scheme.
Offsetting is an emotive subject but even its most ardent supporters admit that it cannot solve biodiversity loss on its own. If we are going to make a real difference to the UK’s ecosystems then far more work needs to be done to join up the academics with the industrialists, the decision-makers with the Local Nature Partnerships, and the people with their local environment. We need a new cultural revolution.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer