Biodiversity offsets ‘are conservation activities designed to deliver biodiversity benefits in compensation for losses in a measurable way’ 
So says the Department of Communities and Local Government, the Government body in charge of overseeing development control within England. We call offsetting ‘compensation for wildlife loss caused by development’.
At its simplest, offsetting through the planning process sets a value on the habitat or species affected by a development and for which the developer has to make recompense. Normally the compensation is delivered in the form of newly created habitat but what sort of habitat, and where, are all up for discussion.
The Government is very keen to see if a biodiversity offsetting scheme would work in England and to that aim Defra has produced a consultation paper for comments on the idea and some of the processes.
Do we think that this scheme is a good idea? Well, as I have said before the current planning system is not working. Despite all the protection given to ancient woodland. Currently there are 380 ancient woods threatened by development, and other habitats and species fare even worse. Nature struggles to be given the priority it deserves when pitched against the needs of the economy.
Could offsetting deal with these problems? The Trust supports the concept of a scheme (while continuing to challenge the destruction of each woodland habitat) because it should help in part to improve recognition of the importance of, and place real value on, what green spaces offer.
Within the existing planning regime offsetting plays an informal role in the process, mostly associated with larger applications and operated in a very ad-hoc fashion with no structure or common standards. As a result of this consultation, England could see the development of a national scheme with clear guidance on how to implement an offsetting programme which would introduce controls and standards for decision-makers to use. Guidance would also take the onus away from individual planning authorities and support a consistent approach.
We need to be realistic about what an offsetting scheme can do – the biodiversity losses of the last 50 years are not going to be reversed – but an offsetting scheme could deal with the damage currently being caused by poor development control.
Done properly, a scheme could be a welcome and explicit way of ensuring any developer pays for 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’.
Any scheme must have the best interests of the environment at its core. It should also set in place some firm principles about who, what, where, when and why offsetting should be used. But this Government is pushing a “development first” message and has shown unease with regulation and guidance so getting any scheme right from an environmental point of view will be exceptionally hard work; and this is where you come in!
The Trust see this consultation as an opportunity to ensure any scheme does not become the ‘licence to trash’ that we and so many others fear it could. This is an important but complex debate, so we have set up a variety of ways for people to join in – including giving Defra your personal take on what is ‘valuable’ to you about the natural environment, and the chance to have your say about the idea of ‘offsetting’ in principle.
I will return to some of the key issues and explain some of the risks and opportunities we see in the proposed scheme in further blogs in a short series between now and the end of the consultation:
- The ‘mitigation heirarchy’ and offsetting
- The impact of including ancient woodland in an offsetting scheme
- Localism and what matters to a community when losing, and gaining, a habitat
- Management and compensation packages in an offsetting scheme
Please keep an eye on the blog for the latest and do get involved in the conversation – your views will help us shape our own submission. We all have until November 7th to get in a response.
In the meantime you can find further information about the consultation and our concerns here.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser