Biodiversity Offsetting – the mitigation hierarchy, what should it mean in practice?

One of the Trust’s key principles in any development process, whether for major infrastructure or minor extension, is that the mitigation hierarchy should be followed. This is a view greeted by politicians, consultants and developers with universal agreement. Yet given the ongoing environmental damage caused through the planning system, this does rather beg the question “With what are we all agreeing?”.

The mitigation hierarchy is normally summarised as avoid, mitigate, compensate. This appears to be where agreement lies; but there are layers of understanding which go to create this summary, which it seems are being ignored by both developers and planning authority.

The mitigation hierarchy

Step one – Information

If you don’t know what is there, how can you avoid it? Information about the site’s biological resource is surely the starting point for any development, along with an understanding about the impacts of the construction process to be used in both the short- and long-term. Unfortunately, too often this stage of the planning process is seen as costly and unnecessary and far too few planning authorities have the resources or expertise to either check what is submitted or ensure even the most preliminary survey is done.

Step two – Avoid

The fundamental of avoid would be to not build on the site at all!

Is this really the right place for this type of development? – just because the developer owns the land does not mean the site is a good match. All planning applications should include an assessment of alternative sites, but too often this stage in the planning process is skipped or paid lip-service. Having properly completed the information gathering stage, the developer can then undertake an analysis of which impacts from the development might be avoided and how.

Step three – Reduce (confusingly also often called Mitigate)

If an impact cannot be avoided, are there steps that can be taken to undertake onsite activities to restore or reverse the damage?

This tends to be the most popular stage of the planning process including a lot of nest box provision, small ponds or new trees. Again, the problem is that there is little resources or expertise within the planning authority to assess whether the mitigation proposed is appropriate or sustainable.

Step four – Compensate (or Offset)

This should be the last resort, only after all else has been looked at… but the concern is that the introduction of biodiversity offsetting would mean developers would jump straight to this stage. Under an offsetting scheme, a proposal would be put to the decision-making body around the residual impacts which required offsetting and the offsetting action/s the developer suggests would be appropriate.

We don’t think that an offer of off-site compensation should be part of the planning authority’s decision-making process. In fact, reaching this stage should trigger a fundamental re-appraisal of the application. We believe that if a development would cause irreparable damage to species or habitats of biodiversity concern that the developer can’t avoid or mitigate, then the application should surely be refused.

Image: WTPLHow is this tackled in the current ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ consultation?

Following the mitigation hierarchy obviously means different things to different people, the Defra consultation on implementing an offsetting scheme in England includes a couple of questions which deal with these issues, shown below with our view at this stage:

  • ‘Do you think offsetting assessment should be used when preparing a planning application for a project?’

No, because when a planning authority is balancing the benefits of a development against the dis-benefits – in this case ecological damage – offsetting should not be part of the decision-making process. We believe that all planning proposals should undertake a clear and recognisable assessment of the full impacts of the development on the environment, comparing that with alternative scenarios for the development (such as a different location), and take steps to use the mitigation hierarchy to avoid and reduce impacts wherever possible.

Only for those projects where there is a residual environmental impact which cannot be mitigated in any way, but the planning authority nonetheless considers this loss justified through the benefits of the proposal, should the developer then be requested to submit compensation proposals such as an offsetting assessment.

  • ‘Do you agree that it should be the responsibility of planning authorities to ensure the mitigation hierarchy is observed and decide what offset is required to compensate for any residual loss? If not, why, and how do you think offsetting should be approached in the planning system?’

No. Currently less than a third of planning authorities have the resources in-house or skills and knowledge to accurately assess the ecological impact of a development, let alone offsetting proposals.

There is a need for this process to be open, clear, and subject to challenge where necessary by both directly affected parties and third party interests. Whilst assessment does not need to be undertaken by the planning authority, an independent body may serve this purpose, but there will remain a need for democratic accountability.

How you can have your say…

We see this consultation as an opportunity to ensure any offsetting 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’ about the natural environment, and the chance to just say No to the idea of ‘offsetting’ in principle.

I will return to more of the key issues in further blogs and explain some of the risks and opportunities we see in the proposed scheme:

  • 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


We all have until November 7th to get our responses in!  Please add to the debate with your comments below, but do make sure you tell Defra what you think too! In the meantime you can find further information about the consultation, and our concerns, here.

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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10 Responses to Biodiversity Offsetting – the mitigation hierarchy, what should it mean in practice?

  1. Pingback: Full Chilterns tunnel is not only environmentally sound but would shave at least £500m off HS2 budget | Woodland Matters

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  4. Tony says:

    I hold the same view as Peter Kyte. The mitigation process for assessing ecological loss, should be the responsibility of a professional body, such as the British Ecological Society. The participation of professional organisations should be encouraged, instead of the influence coming from “the friends of developers”. Each county will have BES representatives who could add their tuppence on each local development plan. Biodiversity offsetting is rather upsetting to those of us whom value the Natural World as much as the money in our pocket.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell

  5. Thank you xxxxxxxxx

    This is a reassuringly stout response from an organisation which many of us cherish whether it steps up to the mark or not. But of course it is nice to see the arrow being lifted to the bow, though not yet actually fired. Next step – draw back the bowstring.

    Those children’s books about Narnia tell us what is needed when trees and everything that goes with them are threatened – and it is not, in the end, Diplomacy or even the Law.

    All the same, can I suggest that whilst it is right that Local Planning Authorities do not have the clout (or the will in many cases) to confront Developers, the Courts of Law ought to mentioned in the response to the second question. The Localism Act 2011 in particular, forced on nations by UNEP, could be a key defence weapon if properly deployed – but as with all weapons, there is a danger that it will be picked up by the wrong side and I see signs of this happening already where I live.

  6. Rwthless says:

    This is just carte blanche to grub up woodland and ecology even without the standard building and design routine of flattening all potential building locations before even submitting a planning application. Ancient forest is irreplaceable in fewer than 3 centuries, so mitigation should be established for 3 centuries before allowing removal of the original ecology.

    If an ancient archaeological site is discovered, the developer pays for the rescue archaeology or has to abandon a major discovery. Why cannot this be done for ancient woodland?

    If decent affordable homes were being built, there is limited advantage to a new development, but I have observed in the past that developers do the shift from limiting the %age of this in the first instance, to a subsequent amendment application (secretive by virtue of no longer being subject to consultations locally) to reduce then after that to abandon affordable home provision entirely and construct only luxury homes. Obviously local people don’t want ‘bad’ families living on their doorstep, and luxury home owners don’t have so many children (if any) requiring schools and nurseries and playgrounds, so pressure on local facilities is reduced.

    So this is just an excuse for developers to make a lot of money from wrecking ancient woodland to provide luxury housing when there is plenty of brownfield land for them to mitigate and make beautiful for the residents in the luxury homes. If they like clearing sites so much, why don’t they clear those properly?

  7. To remove all environmental protection laws so that the green belt can be built on. the following is copied from TB free England (I’m also a campaigner against the unscientific gov’t policy to remove the native badgers):
    This is a flawed policy; an established ecosystem will be in symbiosis from the microbes in the soil to the mammals on the ground and bird in the trees… You cannot re-create this elsewhere via off-setting, it’s impossible.
    If you bulldoze a forest which has been establishing itself for the last few centuries, how do you recreate it? Merely planting a few new trees in another area isn’t going to cut it… Just so you don’t think I am a Disney-loving, tree-hugging, fluffy animal-sympathising, “anti”, I want to draw your attention to the importance of fungi… It’s one of the most essential, and arguably one of the largest (when in a colony), organisms on the planet… You cannot simply hope that it redevelops in another area; ecology doesn’t work like that.
    I hope everyone follows the link to the Defra (we’re going to file that in the trash) consultations… If you have a chance, please fill it in.

  8. Peter Kyte says:

    Any ecological survey should be performed by an independent body, paid for by the would be developer. No planning permission should be even considered without an ecological survey.

    • Julie Taylor says:

      I agree. Perhaps some of the very knowledgeable countryside rangers/wardens recently made redundant by local authorities could set up this service!

  9. We must utilise all brown sites currently not being maximised and used efficiently. too many are still waiting, like the ghost of things past, to once again serve their communities. Surely they can be brought into use again?

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